“To mentor or not to mentor” – On building self-knowledge in coaching and mentoring
In many cultures coaching or to be a coach or mentor means that self-knowledge is the is the fount of wisdom. In Sanskrit there is a term rasa, which means ‘the delight of tasting one’s own consciousness’ (Anderson, 1996, p. 8). The precept on the gate of the oracle at Delphi was ‘Know thyself. Bagwan Shree Rajneesh said in a book Neither This nor That, which has been long out of print, that a much divorced film star might wonder why the women he marries all turn out to be bitches. Or, Bagwan wonders, why do we think we will be happy in a palace when we are not happy in our hovel. He suggests that it is useful to consider that wives and palaces do not exist except in our own imagination. Again, as the poet John Milton said in the ferment of the Protestant revolution, ‘All are called to self-instruction, not only the wise or learned’.
Hence, one of the functions of coaching and mentoring and being a good coach or mentor is to enhance awareness of the degree to which we make our own lives. Much of this work seems to be directed at accepting the part that we have played in creating our own world. With both highly advantaged senior executive syndrome – the temptation to ascribe such good fortune as we have to ourselves and the corresponding desire to blame everything that goes wrong on others. This article sets out approaches that we have found useful in addressing these perceptions. There are four sections:
- Opening up the learner’s values.
- Changing belief sets.
- Bringing stereotypes into the open.
- Understanding one’s life and career.
In coaching and mentoring sometimes mentees as well as coaches find it a difficult or lengthy process to elicit the mentee’s values in a consistently structured effective way. If the coach or mentor understands the mentee’s values this helps in making fulfilling choices, take appropriate decisions, formulate action plans, set goals, and lead a balanced life. It raises the client’s self-awareness of how their feelings and behaviour are affected by actions and events that support or challenge their values.
The mentee is asked to identify special, peak moments in their lives which were particularly rewarding or poignant. The technique is based on one of a series of value clarification exercises in Whitworth et al., (1998). It is most effective when the mentee selects a specific ‘moment’ – or there will be too much ‘experience’ to allow pinpointing of specific values.
When the mentee has a specific moment in mind ask:
- What was happening?
- Who was there?
- What was going on?
- What was important about that?
- What else?
Listen carefully to the words the mentee uses and how their voice changes. Periodically pause and test the words used to see which values the mentee responds to. For example, this was drawn from a mentee interview: An important time in my life was when I was changing career. I was on the brink of making a big change, and saw the horizon stretched out in front of me. I was more than a little nervous, but the sense of possibilities was immense. I was spending a lot of time with my family, talking about the future. Their support was vital to nurture my dream and allow it to grow. They were honest with me – I value that honesty thing. I was being told that what I was doing was right for me. I knew that, but I needed to be told to be 100 per cent certain. I was starting to re-train too, and I love learning and gaining knowledge. Also I like to ‘be alone’, and studying gave me that. And most of all it just felt right. I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
- The community of family
- Security and safety
- Space alone.
Once a list has been established, ask the mentee to expand on each one by using questions such as:
- What does truthfulness mean to you?
- Can you make it specific – is it truthfulness or integrity or truth?
This exercise can be repeated and reviewed to ensure that as the mentee’s self-awareness grows, their understanding of their values becomes deeper and more effective for them. The list of values can also be used to inform decision-making using a values-based decision matrix, where the mentee lists their values and scores them out of 10 on their level of satisfaction. They can be challenged to take decisions based on how their values are respected or ignored for each outcome. This can also be used to review life-balance issues for mentees using the scores as stimuli for action.
There are other ways of eliciting values based on this model which may appeal to different mentees and coaches, such as asking the mentee:
- to list the must have in their life;
- to take what is important to them, and what others say about them, to an extreme – and focusing on what the value might be;
- to describe a time in their lives when they felt angry, frustrated or upset, and reversing the descriptions of what shows up.
Defining what a value is need not be contentious – it is after all, most important that this exercise means something powerful to the mentee, and gives the coach a series of insights into what is important. To make this exercise most effective in this important aspect of coaching and mentoring and being a good coach or mentor is to ask the mentee to describe what values mean to them at the very start. It may help to work from a list of examples to prompt yourself and the mentee when words fail.