Throughout history, training in the areas of marital life, childbearing, mothering and homemaking have always been lessons best passed on through one-on-one relationships. Generation to generation, the most important of life’s skills have been passed on informally in the context of community. “True wisdom” has continued down a chain linking older to younger and more experienced to less experienced for millennia. The term given to this life-driven kind of guidance is mentoring.
What is a Mentor?
The English word “mentor” has ancient origins; it is derived from Homer’s Odyssey. In this Greek classic, Odysseus goes off to war and turns the guidance of his son, Telemachus, over to his friend, Mentor. With his father gone, the boy is “mentored” by Mentor in the paths of life. In the Bible, we see mentoring as the major means of educating women. Naomi takes on the guidance of her daughter-in-law, Ruth, Mordecai is a voice into the life of Esther and Elizabeth serves as a mentor to Mary. The basis of the relationship is that the mentor has authority in the mentee’s life. Due to this responsibility of speaking into the life of another, a mentor is usually a rare type of person. Mentors are individuals of unimpeachable credibility whose advice rings true. They are people whose past achievements back up their counsel and whose diverse experiences are what qualify them. The accomplishments of the mentor should correspond with the area that she is mentoring in. For example, if you are a mentor for mothers, it is more important that you have raised a houseful of healthy children than that you possess a college degree.
Why is Experience the key?
Experience is the key to mentoring because mentors base their life-shaping instructions on their real life experiences rather than the teaching of empirical knowledge. The mentor imparts what she’s learned through sharing stories, anecdotes and experiences, not through covering materials or working through a curriculum. Mentoring requires an intimate relationship characterized by vulnerability and spontaneity.
During mentoring, training occurs in a free-flowing informal exchange. Mentoring takes place through conversation and hearty dialogue rather than monologue. A mentor is not a college professor in front of a classroom surrounded by students taking notes. Mentoring is less formal than teaching and more about the individual being mentored than the information that is being exchanged. It is because of this unique characteristic of mentoring that the mentor must check any personal agenda at the door.
In short, mentoring is not about one person living their life through another person. Serving as a mentor is not about creating a mini-you. The mentee is a unique individual with unique talents and abilities who is following their own God-ordained course in life. An overriding theme inmentoring is the intention to help someone help themselves. Wise mentors recognize that their guidance is most appreciated when it’s specifically asked for. They offer up plenty of possible suggestions to their mentees without requiring a specific course of action. They refrain as much as possible from telling their mentee what to do. It is as if the mentor and mentee are driving down the road of life together. The mentee is the one in the driver’s seat and the mentor is riding shot gun. The mentor’s job is to ride along offering up advice and warning the driver about approaching bumps and turns but the mentor never takes the steering wheel and begins driving the car herself.
What about Trust?
A solid mentor-mentee relationship is rooted in trust. Trust has to be established from the beginning of the relationship and must deepen over time. In a successful mentoring relationship a strong alliance will be built. The mentee trusts that the mentor is on her side. The overall atmosphere of the relationship should be one of mutual sharing and caring. The mentor must be willing to give the valuable gift of their time to the mentee and it can never be a “don’t call me, I’ll call you,” arrangement. The mentor makes herself available as needed within reasonable limits. The best mentoring takes place in ordinary life settings where mentor and mentee have casual and regular exposure to one another. In these life settings, the mentor can come along side the mentee as she tackles the normal obstacles of life.
Where do “life’s Obstacles” fit in?
Learning how to overcome obstacles is one of the most important lessons mentors can pass on. Obstacles in life create a learning curve and cause the mentee to be more open to receiving new input. Obstacles make for teachable moments. The crisis makes any help the mentor is bringing even more meaningful and useful. Mentors tap into their own experience banks for examples of how they confronted similar obstacles. Tackling tough situations together is what bonds and cements a solid mentoring relationship.
When is “Real” mentoring taking place?
The atmosphere of the mentoring relationship is relaxed and real. An intimate mentor-mentee relationship necessitates genuine sharing of insights, observations and suggestions. Mentors offer an objective ear but they also offer real accountability. They are not meant to be syrupy-sweet cheerleaders offering only affirmation, or speaking only what their protégé wants to hear. Mentors give feedback on performance and offer opinions and confrontation when it is called for. A good mentor can share hard things with as much openness as easy things.