Mentoring, much more than advice

By Dr Kay Guccione, Researcher Development Manager

Two people enjoy coffee and chat together.

As with all types of educational practice, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and chooses how and when to apply them in different partnerships, situations and contexts. However, there are certain frameworks into which we fit these practice choices, and the framework for good practice in mentoring, is that we avoid ‘telling’ ‘instructing’ and ‘giving advice’ whenever there’s a better way to support our mentee to think, plan, and trust their own judgement.

That said, advice can be a fantastic way of supporting learning. Giving advice is usually intended as a helpful behaviour, done with the best of intentions to support our mentees, colleagues, friends, families, and nay one else who presents us with a problem they’d like to discuss.

But is our advice always received as intended? It can sometimes have a negative effect. Many of us have witnessed the frustrations that unsolicited, mis-timed, or inappropriate advice can provoke.

When we think of a mentoring conversation, it’s common to think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior ‘mentee’ gets some advice, information or tips from the more senior ‘mentor’, and ‘is developed’. However, the idea that mentoring is equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves. Using advice as a way to solve every problem, can be based in assumptions about what the aim of mentoring is, and what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. Take this oversimplified mentoring process for example:

  1. mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,
  2. mentor uses their superior knowledge to solve the problem, by giving some advice,
  3. mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that knowledge…

But does it always work like that? Are all problems just caused by a simple knowledge gap, and fixed by knowing the right answer?

Are mentoring problems always solved with the right advice?

First, let’s ask, are mentoring conversations always about problems? Engaging with mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but can be even more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’. Positioning the value of mentoring as an aide to planning, prevents mentoring becoming a reactive rollercoaster of just in time problem solving. And also prevents wasted opportunities, where the mentee says at the end of the programme “I didn’t get in touch with my mentor because a problem never came up.”

Where problems are brought into mentoring conversations, consider also that it’s not always very empowering to have to have someone swoop in and solve your problem for you. In leaping in to solve the issue, we deny the mentee the chance to develop their own problem-solving skills. We undermine their own authority to make sense of complex issues, and to be in control of their way forward.

And say there is a particular problem the mentee wants to solve, but there isn’t a simple ‘right answer’ to the problem? A classic is mentees looking to find the right next career move. Also, what if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of experiences, privileges, and assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? Their advice in any of these situations is likely to fall short of the intended mark, and to frustrate the mentee. It also puts a lot of pressure on a mentor to always know what to do.

Importantly what if the ‘problem’ is not a knowledge gap at all, but a rationalisation of options, a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like how to improve a challenging workplace relationship. These are situations where a mentor can’t just ‘hand over’ the right information to the mentee, and so we have to think differently about how to help.

Developing a ‘repertoire beyond advice’ is a must have for a good mentor.

So as mentors we try to resist jumping straight into advice-giving mode, and instead we listen, in order to support our mentee to reflect and articulate the issues they face. We amplify their voice, help them think out loud, hear what they have to say, and make sense of their situation.

We use questions to prompt the mentee to think out loud, dig deeper, and self-evaluate. Developing a facilitative coaching approach means you can be helpful even if you’ve never experienced what your mentee needs to tackle, and it means you can help them learn how to problem solve for themselves, handing over control of the decision, and building their awareness, confidence and empowerment.

A few years ago I ran focus groups with some experienced academic mentors, asking them, “In your experience what are the pros and cons of giving advice to your mentees?”

Here’s what they said…

(+) Pros of giving advice:

  • It’s quicker just to tell someone the answer, or tell them what to do.
  • You may go through all their own suggestions and they still end up taking your advice so it can feel a waste of time.
  • It shows someone you can relate to what they are experiencing.
  • It lets you as the mentor know that you have been helpful. It’s much easier to track whether you have done a good job if you had something tangible to hand over to the mentee.
  • It makes your mentee feel grateful to you, and value your time and wisdom.
  • If your mentee is stuck, it can unstick them, even if they reject it, they have to articulate why, it can get their creativity going again.
  • A mentee might expect advice and if they don’t get it they feel disappointed.*
  • Your suggestion might be insightful. It might be something outside your mentee’s awareness, or a genuine blind spot, or something totally new to them.
  • Your suggestion might stop your mentee from making a serious mistake, wasting their time or getting into a difficult situation.

(—) Cons of giving advice:

  • We don’t know as much about our mentee as they themselves do. We may make a diagnosis about what they need or should do based on very limited information.
  • Listening to your suggestion halts their thinking process. Thinking out loud is very powerful and you interrupt that process when you suggest a solution.
  • It creates a dependency-like relationship. If you solve a problem for them they come back to you next time there’s a new problem.
  • It’s disempowering to a person if you always know more than them, or always want to ‘one up’ their ideas.
  • A mentee will prioritise your advice over trusting themselves. As a mentor, you are the senior colleague so they feel obliged to take your advice, they feel they owe it to you.
  • A mentee in a complex situation can feel relieved that you’ve made the decision, and act without evaluating whether it’s really appropriate for them or not.
  • What if the advice doesn’t work? This can lead to blame, if you suggest a way forward, you always own it, you can get the credit, or the blame.
  • A mentee can get overwhelmed with good advice and feel like they have to put it all into practice before meeting with you again. You never see them again because they never complete the list.
  • We are all just more motivated to actually follow through and carry out ideas that are our own, we’re more likely to put them into practice.

Please take time to consider the reflections above, and see if you can spot them playing out in practice the next time you feel compelled to give advice, or choose not to.

To conclude, advice is only part of good mentoring. Listening, questioning, summarising back, and sparking the creative thinking those you aim to support rather than advising, is another string to your mentor bow. It means you don’t have to always know the right answer, and that you are supporting your mentee to build confidence, independence, and good problem-solving skills – not just solving the problem for them.

There is still always a right time for advice, usually when there is at least a semi-right answer and the issue is more straightforward. Good advice is given with permission, so asking “Is this a good time for a suggestion from me?”. You can help your mentees evaluate your suggestion too, rather than just accepting it. Try adding “What can you take from my suggestion that would work for you?” to the end of your piece of advice. Remind your mentee they aren’t obliged to take your advice, and let them choose to adapt or reject it, if it doesn’t really work for them.

I hope you now feel more enabled to reflect in the moment and choose the right supportive approach, for the right situation.

4 responses to “Mentoring, much more than advice”

  1. […] yours to own. It’d be preposterous to say there should be no advice given, or stories shared, there’s a right time and place for advice within your mentoring practice. A good mentoring partnership offers more than that […]

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  2. […] Another point to ponder was how to encourage a postgraduate researcher to take action on the advice given to them about reducing stress. We discussed ideas for building trusting relationships that increase the likelihood of advice being heeded. We shared a variety of coaching techniques that help to build a PGR’s commitment to action, and even considered whether advice was the right approach to take, to support stressed colleagues (there’s more on that in this post). […]

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  3. […] part of developing a facilitative coaching style. This helps mentors to develop, as wrote about in my earlier blog post, a ‘repertoire beyond advice’. This enables mentors to work with a diverse range of mentees, with a range of career backgrounds […]

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  4. […] as a specialist educational practice, and we ensure that all mentors are helped to develop a skill-set beyond reliance on ‘advice giving’. The idea that mentoring is simply equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what […]

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