Listening in different ways: How conversations move in a mentoring session
By Tim Dyer
I am reflecting on a mentoring session I shared with a pastor today. Our conversation was rich and varied. We reflected, prayed, laughed and talked about emotional and spiritual health, relationships and leadership. As the mentor, I had an overall facilitative plan for the session. Some questions had been prepared, some issues marked to follow up and an objective the mentoree and I were working on together was ready for further exploration. On the ground however, our discussion headed off in two directions I had not planned or anticipated.
Mentoring is a dynamic relationship. A session doesn’t always neatly follow the plan or land us where I expected me might be. I have been reading the last few days on the different discourses that take place in mentoring, and the different listening modes that are appropriate for each. So this is a good time to stop and reflect on a session.
In this particular session, a simple opening ‘check in’ questions drops us quickly into a deep place. Here there is the need for a soul friend, a spiritual director, or a companion on the inner journey, seeking to listen deeply, tuning in to reflections that are below the surface, searching for indicators of the inner person. This is to bear witness the work of the Spirit as he guides, prompts, leads. It’s a role in which one is naturally cautious to speak because this is where a mentoree might hear God. One does not want to get in the way. A mentor needs to provide a caring and welcoming space, as Henri Nouwen reminds us, but not to fill it with an agenda or expectations. These moments occur often in mentoring, not just when spirituality is the focus. Something in an ordinary conversation about leadership sometimes triggers a liminal moment of reflection about calling, purpose or identity. As a mentor I need to be aware of when we cross into this inner life territory and be ready to adapt my mentoring mode to suit. John Heron calls this mode ‘catalytic’. It calls for deep listening and gentle questions to facilitate growing awareness.
Something in the conversation moves, we have naturally finished this discussion and we lighten up. Over recent weeks, we have been reading and reflecting together on aspects of this pastor’s life journey. He is ready to reflect on an emotional reaction he is aware of in himself and has come with a written down question. He seeks to answer it himself but queries me on my understanding what is going on. It is the right time to share a resource with him, I am surprised I have not shared it before as it seems so relevant to his situation. It crosses the airwaves and winds up on his ipad. We open it and work through it, a simple diagram, but the lights come on. “Ahh so is this why…..“ We have shifted gears, roles and modes. This is a different mentoring space; teaching, resourcing, empowering understanding around a personal psychological insight. And he gets it. He immediately integrates it with things we have covered in previous sessions. The conversation speeds up, we are less reflective, there is less silence, more animation. It’s different to the initial conversation. We are now in Heron’s ‘informative’ mode. The mentor’s task here has been to supply a framework which enables integrative learning. Some fruitful and focussed conversation has taken place.
This conversation too naturally comes to a close. It’s time to ask about an issue he raised in the last session and about which we had put some planned activity into place. We are now into leadership territory, our discussion is about communicating, clarifying roles, resolving tension and networking. It is organisational life, understanding differences, cultures, ways of working. There is reflection on where things are up to and further implementation is planned. We agree on three actions steps he will take and I write these down, checking with him that I have them correct. I will be asking about them next session. The mentoring mode has moved again. The mentoree’s brain is ticking over. He knows he has just committed to action and he knows that I have registered the commitment. I think we have some leadership traction and I am conscious of being a little more directive in this last section. As a mentor I sense this is OK. This mentoree approached me for coaching assistance in these areas and is looking to develop. Heron’s ‘prescriptive’ mode comes to mind but what has happened here also anticipates an ‘accountability’ mode in the next session.
A couple of sessions ago, a ‘cathartic’ moment occurred , where an important and painful element of his family history was disclosed and reflected upon. I know there is more work to do with this. I had thought it might be today, but it does not feel like the right time. I note it again for a future session. We will need a little more time and a slightly different ‘supportive’ space for this conversation.
Today’s session is coming to an end. However I am still pondering our earlier leadership discussion and I ask him about a management skill we have covered before. I wonder if he has applied it to the scenario we have just been working on. He hadn’t thought about his situation in this light. A quick reminder of the resource and we come up with another simple exercise to work through with a co-worker as a way of clarifying the working relationship. I am conscious of another shift – I initiated this last interaction with an intentional question to connect some dots. I had a fair idea of where this might lead in this moment but had not come to the session with this question in mind or prepared to ask.
Time is up and I need to reset myself to listening mode as we conclude. What has he found helpful or useful in the session? What is he going away with? What three questions would he like me to ask him next session? Now to listen carefully to his reflections.
Back at home I am ready for some evaluation of my own.
Mentoring is different to spiritual direction although from time to time the deeper ‘soul’ questions come up. Mentors need to be comfortable exploring inner spiritual territory, giving space and accompanying their mentoree’s on their journey with God. Listening deeply and questioning gently is needed? I question whether it did this carefully enough.
Mentoring is also intentionally an exploratory conversation in human psychology. It is deals with personality, motivation, emotional intelligence, stress and relationship dynamics. Mentors do not need to be psychologists or therapists but they do need a basic practical working insight into human beings. Part of mentoring is teaching insight into areas of personhood.
Mentoring is also about leadership, management and relationships within the organisational context that the mentoree works. Mentoring is about understanding what your mentoree is working through and supporting them with resources, skills and training. This is classic coaching territory. Leadership development. Setting and working toward goals.
There is one more mode of mentoring which I didn’t end up concentrating on in this session. I know will be a theme when I mentor someone different the day after tomorrow. This pastor is married with young children and leading a busy church. His challenge is to learn how to leave being a pastor, leader and manager at the door and become a husband, father and homemaker.
One of the challenges of mentoring is knowing how and when to shift the modes of mentoring. Each has a different way of listening, questioning, reflecting and interacting. We may move seamlessly between several of these in a session. It is well worth reflecting on whether as mentors we had the right ways and balance of listening, questioning, sharing and reflecting.
Tim Dyer 2017
Henri Nouwen Reaching Out
John Heron Six Categories of Intervention