How to Be a Great Mentor – Listen to the Story

Experienced mentor Anna Hayward shares how the primary skill of any great mentor (and leader, manager, and colleague) is the ability to really tune in to other people’s stories.

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When was the last time you really felt heard at work?

Give yourself a moment to think about it. If you come up with an example, it’s likely to involve someone giving you a bit of time and space to talk about your idea or a challenge or dilemma you were facing. You were given the opportunity to express your feelings, to say with honesty how you viewed the situation. You were encouraged along the way. Without realising it, you were telling your story as you saw it. It might have been about workload, conflicting priorities, or a great idea for improving the way things are done. Whatever the subject matter, somebody listened to what mattered to you i.e., they listened with interest to your story.

If you struggled to come up with a time when you felt this has happened to you at work recently, you’re not alone. What always staggers me about the working world which is busy and awash with meetings and strategic plans is how little time is given to talk on a one-to-one basis about what’s happening. A good leader will take time to do this, but it is often ‘outsourced’ – the seeking of help via a third party like a consultant, coach, or mentor. Essentially someone is paid (or in the case of mentoring, volunteers) to listen. Everyone else appears too busy or uninterested.

My point may be a little controversial but if we all took a bit more time to listen in the workplace, and to take on board some of the skills around listening that a great mentor has in spades, working life could be a lot more enjoyable and productive.

One of the most common pieces of feedback a good mentor receives is that they have been a great ‘sounding board’. I always love this phrase because it so beautifully and accurately describes the experience of being heard. You have allowed the person being mentored to hear themselves and their story.

So here are my top 5 tips on how to listen to someone’s story.

1. Make the time and space. Online or in person. Uninterrupted. Agreed amount of time.

2. Get the conversation started with an open question or invitation e.g. How would you like to use the time today? Tell me what’s going on for you workwise at the moment.

3. Keep asking lots of open questions e.g. What? When? How? Why? Be curious and interested about how they see the situation. Show you are listening (eye contact, nodding, smiling, mmm..).

4. Check your understanding. ‘So, if I heard you right …’ This gives the other person to offer an important nuance to them or to expand their story.

5. If you feel the urge to jump in and ‘fix’ the situation by telling them what you did when you experienced something similar, just wait a little. You are likely to be on the cusp of the other person finding their own solution or idea.

By listening, what a good mentor allows to happen is for the other person to have their experience validated. They give them the opportunity to look at their story in a different light or to sort through the chaos. This is a gift which is subtle but can be very powerful indeed.

Anna Hayward has been a volunteer mentor in the community and charity sector and a coach and consultant for organisations for many years. She believes passionately in the power of mentoring and helps set up and facilitate mentoring programmes.

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