Building a relationship. In the hurry to make a difference, mentors can forget to take time to build a relationship and establish a firm connection. This means carefully cultivating trust. It means being patient. Many people will test mentors to see if they are for real.
Respecting boundaries. When mentors ask people personal questions before a solid relationship has been established, the most common response if silence. People will clam up. Mentors who do not respect their mentees’ needs for privacy are often quick to alienate them.
Being sensitive to differences. It is necessary to realize that mentors and those they work with come from different worlds, a reality even for mentors who may have grown up disadvantaged. On one level, this means being aware of the embarrassment a person might feel about being poor. As one young man said about his mentor, “I rarely let him come to my house, even now, because it’s not the house that I want, it’s not the house that I would have if l was in charge of it.”
Providing support and challenges. Successful mentors are consistently there for people, delivering a sustained message: “You are important.” When problems arise, effective mentors resist telling people what to do and instead work with them to address the problems. These mentors are eventually able to strike a constructive balance between supporting and challenging – both nurturing people and pushing them toward their goals.
Acknowledging reciprocity. While mentors often have to provide the initiative early in the relationship as trust is being established and the relationship built, mentoring is a two-way street. Growth, benefits and struggles are present on both sides, and mentors who are able to convey that they are there for mutual exchange – not just to solve problems – stand the greatest chance of making a solid connection.
Being realistic. Few mentors turn lives around, but mentors who help people move toward achieving goals can make a real contribution. Often this means having thick skin – tolerating unreturned phone calls, accepting the vicissitudes of youth, recognizing the social and cultural gaps that must be bridged. In the end, few virtues in mentoring rival ongoing commitment and genuine caring.
Marc Freedman is a long-time advocate and researcher of mentors. For more information see www.civicventures.org. Adapted from his book The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors; Urban Youth and the New Volunteerism (Cambridge University Press; 1999)
Sparking a Fourth Grader’s Imagination
by Oprah Winfrey
“One of the defining moments of my life came in the fourth grade, the year I was Mrs. Duncan’s student. What Mrs. Duncan did for me was to help me not to be afraid of being smart. She encouraged me to read, and she often stayed after school to work with me, helping me choose the books and letting me help her grade papers. For many years after that, I had one goal; that I would one day become a fourth-grade teacher who would win the teacher award – because I was going to be the best teacher anyone had ever seen.”