Mentoring in Precarious Relationships

Mentoring is about two similar people brought together for the facilitation of growth.

But that endeavor takes on a graver tone when the interpersonal relationship is outside the norm. Unholy alliances put a special pressure on the mentor. They likewise place unusual anxiety on the protégé.

How, for instance, do you mentor someone in a higher position?

Mentoring the boss can carry an unfortunate byproduct. The protégé can bear the brunt of resentment if seen as the “teacher’s pet.” Perceived favoritism can play havoc with an employee’s position in a peer group.

Mentoring in challenging situations like this requires an attitude of awe. Communicating that sense of wonderment is best done through an expression of humility.

If you start off by showing off your expertise, you’ll lose your audience. When a boss is doing the mentoring, protégés think they have to listen and act interested — but peers will simply blow you off and not waste their time.

Bosses in the protégé position know they rank above you, and have the right to be unengaged. Humility here turns fear into connection, but humility is not a synonym for apology.

Most protégés, when confronted with a mentor who doesn’t fit the traditional mold, show resistance. Just like mentors, protégés sometimes think mentors should be superior. Any deviation makes them nervous.

One way to deal with resistance is to put enormous attention on the protégé at the start of the relationship. Demonstrate dramatic listening.

Forget about reciprocity. Let the interest be one-sided. Every time you ask a question of the protégé, you gain a point. Every time you make a statement, you lose a point.

And every time you make a statement about your background or your interest, you lose five points.

In a mentoring situation, you’ll do better to accept the learner’s resistance and learn from it. Pursue it, solicit it and get it into the light of day by showing no fear of it.

Treat conflict as a force that can be applied to learning. Accept it as unresolved tension that needs to be positively channeled.

Learning happens when it occurs on a level field. If your protégé sees you as a fellow learner, there is greater potential for a partnership.

Seek something your protégé knows that you’d like to learn, and couple your mentoring with being a protégé to your protégé.

“Dances With Wolves” was one of Kevin Costner’s crowning film achievements. It’s the story of Lt. John Dunbar, an accidental Civil War hero who is given his choice of assignments after the war, choosing a rundown hut on the Western Plains in the middle of Indian Territory.

In the late 1860s, the prejudicial view of Native Americans was that they were thieves and savages; Native Americans saw whites as a greedy, inferior race.

If reciprocal learning were to occur here, it would require a special approach.

Dunbar, after his first encounter with Kicking Bird, wrote that the man was confused and anxious but acknowledged the American Indian “was a magnificent man.” Kicking Bird, a wise medicine man, told the tribe elders, “The white man was brave and did not seem to be eager for war.”

The stage was set for openness to difference.

Their language difference posed a challenge, and the dilemma weighed on their ability to find connection. Finally, Dunbar got down on all fours, put a rolled-up piece of clothing under his shirt creating a hump at his shoulders and began to paw the ground.

Kicking Bird realized Dunbar was mimicking a buffalo. “Tatanka, tatanka!” Dunbar pronounced the Lakota word back and exclaimed, “Yes, yes, buffalo, buffalo.”

Kicking Bird poorly pronounced the English word back. A connection was forged.

 Mentoring in precarious relationships offers unique rewards and challenges. The secret to success lies in taking what is a unique relationship and managing the exchange of wisdom so it maintains and honors equality.