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Mentoring Conversations

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All About Influence Conference
October 3, 2016

When I glance back at my elementary school education, about all that materializes are hazy images of desks in long rows, green chalkboards, my pencil box that refused to stay closed, the teacher’s large desk at the front of the room, staying in line for silent walks through long halls, and baloney sandwiches for lunch. The baloney sandwiches would be an exception, for I recall those vividly. I had to pack my own lunch every day, and the choice was either baloney or peanut butter. To this day I shun baloney in any form, and generally dislike sandwiches altogether. Some things just stick.

But then I also remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Woods, a woman whose strong personality led her to be frequently impatient. My sluggishness understanding long division and those two hands on that ever-changing clock prompted her open frustration with me. I made poor grades and decided I was dumb.

The next year I had a patient, kind teacher, but the conviction I was dumb held on and poor grades continued. One day my teacher graded papers at her desk while the class did seatwork. When she called me to her desk I knew this couldn’t be good. My terrified knees quivered as I approached the dreaded judgment seat. She simply pointed to the grade in red ink at the top of my paper. I had made an A. She pointed out what I’d done well, and told me she was convinced I could do more work like that.

That conversation changed me forever. A transformation took hold and I walked back to my desk on a mission to make As. And I did! Decades later I still remember this conversation, although I doubt my teacher ever thought about it again. It was most likely an insignificant part of her day but it set me on a different path.

Think for a minute . . . has a simple conversation ever started something significant in you?

Guided you to a different path? Changed your mind about something? Helped you solve a stubborn problem? Turned on a light bulb, and you still remember it years later?

While mentoring involves various elements such as teaching, sharing past experiences, life lived out, coming alongside, and guidance, young women today are more prone to see mentoring as significant conversations. Today I’m going to concentrate on how a mentor can develop significant conversations when mentoring.

Some of you may worry that a shift away from teaching material and toward significant conversations leads in a squishy direction, or is downright unbiblical. That’s a legitimate concern so let’s take a look at a foundational verse in Deuteronomy 6.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

God’s people finally complete the arduous 40-year journey from Egypt and arrive at the border of the homeland promised by God. They’re standing on tip-toe, anxious for a glimpse of their new dwelling place and thinking, “What’s it like, what’s it like?” But before they go any further, Moses gathers them and says, sit down for a minute. I want to remind you of something:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home, when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

Moses reminded God’s beloved people that before they got caught up in furnishing houses, building pens for animals, and planting crops they needed to remember that:

  • In order to live well in this land they must first deeply love the God who gave it to them.
  • His commands were to be alive inside of them and shape their souls.
  • As they went about life, they were to impress God’s life-giving commands on the hearts of the next generation.

Let’s focus on that last part—pressing God’s truths on the hearts of the next generation.

Notice that the method is simply talking, “talk about them” (his commands) and “impress them” on young hearts.

When were they to talk? When they were sitting in one place, walking to another place, lying down at night, and getting up in the morning. Moses used a familiar figure of speech that encompassed all activity during a typical day. What message did the people hear? As you go about daily life and naturally encounter less experienced people, talk to them about how to live righteously. Guide them as you share the same space and naturally converse about life.

Everyone in Israel could do this—parents, farmers or herdsmen employing seasonal help, cloth weavers and toolmakers who had apprentices, rabbis who instructed in schools, grandmothers who cared for grandchildren, shopkeepers who conversed with their customers, neighbors who shared the street. As you go about life, Moses said, every one of you comes into contact with others and have opportunities to simply talk. Be alert to these opportunities, for this natural method of passing on God’s commands fits every personality and lifestyle.

These are mentoring conversations, or conversations activated by a question, lack of experience, life situation, or current need. As a more experienced person brings God’s truths into these situations, they help younger ones make decisions in line with their faith.

It sounds simple—and it is, but there are some things we need to do to move the conversational process forward and make it meaningful.

Tools for Effective Mentoring Conversations

A. Mentoring Mindset

It all starts with a mentoring mindset. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-7, we often assume this instruction applies only to parents. But Israel didn’t hear it that way. In their community-minded culture this charge applied to all the adults. The instruction starts with “Hear O Israel,” not “Hear O Parents.” All of them were to be involved in passing faith to the next generation.

A mentoring mindset starts with the conviction that mentoring involves you, that there are women around you that you can help by talking to them. It’s not necessarily one designated woman, but the women who naturally intersect with your life. You may talk to one woman repeatedly, or several different women on occasion. It depends on where you are and what you’re doing. Either way, impactful conversations take place when women expect mentoring to be a normal part of daily life.

A mentoring mindset is essential to get things started, but it takes on life only when a woman is available to talk to less experienced women. Her demeanor says she’s approachable and available to talk. Her life experience beckons younger ones to ask her questions, process life with her, and learn from her. Her character and love for God marks her as a trustworthy resource. You don’t need to do anything special if you’re this woman; less experienced ones will discover you during ordinary life activities and conversation will take place naturally.

A mentoring mindset and availability is the first tool you need for significant mentoring conversations. But you’ll need another tool to get these conversations started.

B. Questions

Significant conversations often start with a question. These questions usually show up one of two ways:

1. With the younger one’s question

Something like, “Do you have time for coffee? I’m struggling with something and I’d like your input.” It often starts with the less experienced woman inviting the more experienced woman to talk about a life situation. There’s something she doesn’t understand and she needs another opinion. This is a short conversation, usually less than an hour, that focuses on a life situation. Young women often find these conversations life changing, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large ways. Like my school teacher, the mentor usually doesn’t know the impact and may think it didn’t accomplish much. But that is not the case!

2. With an older woman’s question

Something like, “How are you?” or “What’s going on with you?” or “Do you have time to catch up?” It can start with the more experienced woman inviting the other to talk. Describing her conversational encounters with a younger woman one mentor commented, “When I ask her what’s going on in her life, she just pours.” These particular conversations took place as the two women were “sitting in one place” driving home from the airport. Sometimes all the younger one needs is a friendly invitation to talk.

When the “question” tool is used mentoring conversations are simple to start. But as another mentor remarked, “I don’t want this to be just about her purse and kids.” Good deals online, what’s new on Pinterest, and the latest with the kids isn’t a mentoring conversation, it’s friendly chit chat. Friendly chit chat is often the way a conversation gets started, but conversations with impact must go deeper. One way a mentor can do this is to ask her something like, “Tell me how you are doing in the midst of all this.” A question that focuses on her sense of well-being is often a good way to direct the conversation beyond surface issues. Recently I was with a group of friends and we were catching up on each other’s activities. At one point I began conversing just with the friend sitting next to me and casually asked her, “So, how’s your heart?” She paused for a moment and then burst into tears. Needless to say, that took our conversation beyond the surface!

Now that the conversation is under way, you’ll need another tool to make it a mentoring conversation. The next tool is active listening.

C. Active Listening

Active listening is an acquired skill for most of us. It takes place when the listener disciplines her mind to focus on what the other is saying. She intentionally shuts out distracting thoughts—especially early thoughts about what she’ll say in response—and works to correctly understand what’s being communicated. It’s not as easy as it might sound; it requires serious mental muscle and restraint on the part of the listener.

Four reasons why you need the active listening tool:

  • You must listen carefully, without interruption to correctly understand her question, situation, or problem. You must hear her out to discern the real issue, and it may take some time for that to surface.
  • Jumping in with advice too soon may not address the real problem or give the guidance needed.
  • Jumping in with advice too soon will cause the younger woman to shut down.
  • She must feel heard and understood before she’ll accept advice.

Here are some suggestions for active listening so she feels heard and understood:

  • Pay Attention

Let her know she has your undivided attention. Make continuous eye contact as she speaks. Turn your phone off and put it away. If children are nearby try to keep them occupied as much as possible to limit interruptions. Carefully listen as she speaks. Don’t interrupt with your comments or insight—just listen. Your goal is to correctly understand her situation.

  • Clarify Her Thoughts

Paraphrase So, what you’re saying is _____________?

Sharpen  Do you mean _________or ________?

How is this person related to the situation?

Can you explain what you mean by ________?

Summarize: What I’ve heard you say is ___________. Is that correct?

Open questions: What led you to make that decision? What was the effect?

How did that make you feel?

Open requests: Can you tell me more about that?

Can you give me some examples?

  • Affirm and Encourage

As she speaks occasionally nod your head to indicate you are listening and understanding. Smile occasionally if appropriate.

Show empathy (“That must have been hard; I can see why you’re confused; That must have hurt you; You’re in a difficult situation.”)

Encourage (“You’ve asked a good question; I can tell you want to do what’s right; I like your thinking in this area.”)

Listening “Don’ts”

  • Don’t interrupt—if you jump in too soon with advice, she shuts down
  • Don’t rush her—most women will expend themselves in about 15 minutes
  • Don’t look at your phone
  • Don’t finish her sentence or thought
  • Don’t take control of the conversation with your thoughts or comments
  • Don’t make any judgments until she’s finished talking
  • Don’t determine your response before she’s finished talking
  • Don’t attempt to fix her problem—your goal is to listen to understand

You need the tool of active listening because it’s the basis for your discernment, and discernment comes when you listen carefully.

So, you’ve listened carefully…what happens next?

How does a mentoring conversation progress? The next tool you need is your own speaking skills to take it to a mentoring level.

D. Speaking Skills

Mentor, this is where you talk; you begin to guide the conversation to take it to a mentoring level.

This is how the speaking tool works:

1. Help her identify what’s going on in her mind or heart.

You’ve heard her story and about all those who are a part of it. Her focus will likely be on those who she believes are causing the problems. But instead turn the conversation to her heart.

Get her to focus on herself—not the other people involved. She can’t change others involved, but she can listen to what God is saying to her and change herself accordingly.

You might ask her, “What’s going on in your mind/heart right now?” Is she frustrated? angry? discouraged? in turmoil? fearful? confused? tired? sad?

2. Ask permission to give your input.

Say something like, “Would you like to hear my thoughts?” If she says yes (which she always does) say something like, “Here’s what I see . . . I think you’re struggling with fear.”

3. Bring in the Bible

Encourage her with God’s truth. Say something like, “This is what I know to be true about God—he doesn’t want us to be afraid or make decisions based on fear.” Use your own words instead of quoting a verse.

Give an example from your own life, “There are times I’ve been almost paralyzed by fear. Here’s what happened, and how God was faithful.”

Read from Bible (if you know the place) and discuss how this truth applies to her situation. Say something like, “Let’s think of how this might be true in your situation.”

4. Your goal is to help her think biblically about:

  • Where she is right now—what’s going on inside her?
  • Who God is, and how he might be working in her life right now. Ask her if she has any sense of what God wants her to do in this situation. She will often have some idea but needs to flesh it out.
  • What the Bible says about her situation
  • Where her life needs to be adjusted to live out her faith

Don’t tell her what to do—help her think. And remember that you’re not responsible for her decisions. She’s growing slowly just like you.

There’s power in seemingly simple conversations. If we’re attentive to God-given opportunities, we can be part of conversations that have lasting impact; conversations that guide, encourage, and help another live out her faith.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Women's Articles