Using Written Exercises in Mentoring

Mentoring sessions typically consist of conversations conducted verbally, whether face to face, via video link or on the phone. This usually serves us well and, as mentors, we quite rightly put a lot of effort into improving our conversational skills in asking good questions, listening deeply to what is said and providing appropriate verbal feedback.

However, we can add another string to our bow if we develop our use of written exercises in mentoring. Written exercises can be carried out within the mentoring session itself or could be done in preparation for or as a follow-up to a mentoring conversation. What can written exercises add that can’t be achieved through verbal communication?

Researchers using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans have discovered that different areas of the brain are active when speaking and writing. That is to say, we think differently in each mode. If we utilise both verbal and written modes of communication, we access more of our brains. Accessing different ways of thinking through issues brings real benefit for our mentorees, helping them to clarify a more adequate perspective.

One of the big differences between written and verbal communication is that verbal communication is synchronous while written communication is asynchronous. Once a word is out of our mouths, we can’t take it back. But when writing, we can do just that, revising as we go to express ourselves in a more considered and nuanced fashion.

Here is a brief comparison of the features of written and verbal communication.

 Written communication  Verbal communication
 Asynchronous  Synchronous
 Quiet  Open
 Discreet  Exposed
 Slow  Fast
 Synthesised  Piece-by-piece
 More logical, ordered, reflective  More spontaneous, emotional,
 More effort  Less effort
 Exists externally, objectively  Exists internally in memory (if not
 May be revisited for accuracy  Subject to faulty recollection

Not all mentorees will be enthusiastic about written exercises to the same degree. Many different factors come into play here so you’ll need to exercise some discernment about when and how often to employ this approach. In my experience, one signal I’ve picked up is that, if someone enjoys reading books, they are likely to respond positively to a written exercise.

Some written exercises are not necessarily very different from what you would normally do verbally. They may cover the same subject matter but just adopt a different process. For example, a thought-provoking question that you might have asked in conversation, expecting a verbal answer, could be turned into a written exercise simply by saying, “Don’t try to answer that now. Why not give it some consideration and come back to our next session with a short paragraph?”

Other written exercises can deal with very complex matters that would be difficult to cover verbally. An example might be the collection of data over an extended period of time such – the sort of thing that most of us simply can’t rattle off from the top of our heads.

Now it’s over to you. What written exercises have you used for yourself or in mentoring others that you have found useful? Please put your ideas in the comments section and let’s see what we can learn from each other.

Rick Lewis


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