As trust grows between a mentor and a protégé, the types of issues that the protégé wants to discuss will change. At the beginning, when they are just getting to know each other, the issues will often be less complex. As trust grows, the types of issues the protégé will want to discuss will be more complex, sometimes having an emotional component to them. This change in the type of issues is a positive sign that trust is growing, as the protégé is trusting the mentor with more challenging issues.
It is important for a mentor to recognize the change in the topics the protégé wants to discuss, because they require a different approach to be effective. I call the three types of issues Hands, Head, and Heart.
Hands Issues: These are less complex issues, usually tactical in nature and without an emotional charge to them. They do not require a lot of trust for the protégé to bring them up, and are usually knowledge gaps that usually close over time with experience. For these issues, a mentor’s advice can shorten the learning curve as well as establish the mentor’s credibility with the protégé.
Head Issues: These issues are more complex, and sometimes have some emotional charge to them. The protégé usually has some experience with the issue, but needs a little bit of cognitive distance and a different perspective to find a way forward. These issues require more trust because they make a protégé more vulnerable; she has to admit that she doesn’t know the best solution to the situation and needs some help from the mentor. It is here that the fourth rule of mentoring starts to play out: Good Questions Beat Good Advice. Mentors need to use questions to help the protégé take a different perspective and think through how to approach the issue.
Heart Issues: These issues are often the most complex, and generally evoke stronger emotions for the protégé. They are issues with which the protégé may have struggled for some time, and often strike at the heart of how the protégé sees the world or even himself. The fifth rule of mentoring, Balance Empathy and Action, becomes salient here. The emotional charge usually keeps the protégé from thinking clearly about the issue, so the pressure needs to be released. A mentor’s empathy can provide validation and connection for the protégé that allows him to defuse the emotions that are keeping him from making progress. Once the emotional charge has been lessened, the mentor and protégé can treat the issue more like a Head Issue, using questions to work together.
Thinking of protégé issues this way can help a mentor see how to adjust her or his style to meet the protégé’s needs. Also, if a protégé is hesitant to move beyond Hands Issues, it is a clue that trust is not building between the two of them; both mentor and protégé may want to take step back and see what might be blocking the formation of trust.
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