Is there Anybody Out There I Can Talk to?

Karl WesterhofWhat Every Leader Needs to Know

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“I mean, like, you know, somebody who’s wise and experienced, and who gets me?”

Are you talking about a pastor?  A therapist?  A guru?

“I think I want a mentor.”

Whatever made you think of that?

“I don’t know; I just hear about mentoring from different people I respect, and I feel like it would be good for me. Colleges help students connect with mentors; business people are always talking about having mentors who help them get ahead. Sometimes I feel like I just need someone to talk to who has more wisdom and experience than I do, maybe even someone who can guide me and shape me just a bit.”

Sounds like you’ve been thinking about this for a while. That’s good. What does mentor mean to you?  There was a Greek guy named Mentor, but I doubt you’re thinking of him.

“Ha ha. Very funny.  I just happen to know he was a teacher or a guide or counselor for Telemachus. But that doesn’t help me know exactly what I want. Sometimes I feel lonely; sometimes I feel confused about where I am spiritually; sometimes I need someone to help me think about a career; oh, I don’t know, I just want a good, wise, encouraging friend.”

OK, sorry.  Being a wise guy was uncalled for; but it’s so rare that I get to use my college Greek major. Let me ask you this: let’s revisit your confusion. If you think of categories like your role in an organization, or your spiritual health, or psychological health, or vocational choice, or friendship, or leadership, what category seems to best fit what you’re thinking you need?

“Hmm, that’s a good question. I can see that it would be helpful to think more clearly about just what it is I’m looking for and then look for a mentor who fits and can help me focus there. You know, that helps me define how I’m thinking about this mentoring thing.  I’m getting clearer about what I need. I really do want this to be quite intentional, focused, and not just a casual, whatever kind of thing.”

Well, I know that mentoring relationships that really work have good chemistry. The people enjoy each other, and both of them get something out of it.  Mentoring sessions don’t need to be lengthy either. Sometimes short, powerful conversations are all that’s needed. But if there’s not good chemistry, it’s a pretty flat and artificial thing. And be aware of whether you are looking for someone with expertise you can learn from, or someone who can offer a more general supportive relationship.

“Choosing a mentor can be tricky, then, huh?”

I think it’s important to be choosy. What’s going to make this work is a willingness to really value each other’s time and make it count. Trust and honesty will also count a lot, of course. And, like I said, both parties need to get something and give something. There needs to be a two-way relationship if it’s to be high-quality mentoring.  I think that means having a conversation or two with potential mentors, doing some checking on expectations, willingness, matching interests.  Approach someone and explain what you need, and ask whether that person is willing to consider it.

“Whoa!  That’s presuming a lot, isn’t it?  Who would want to take time to mentor me?  I sure don’t feel comfortable with the idea of asking someone to be my mentor!”

Here’s a really important thing to know–people who are doing well in their careers and lives are usually EAGER to mentor. They love to be asked, and they love to enter into a relationship in which they can share their own life learning with someone who is eager to learn.  I think this is the mark of a truly successful healthy human–wanting to help others on the road.  Being a mentor is a way to invest in someone, and it’s also a way to come to new awareness about one’s own strengths and weaknesses.  I consider it a privilege to be a mentor.  And I wouldn’t want a mentor who didn’t feel that way.

“Well, that’s a perspective I didn’t think of!  It helps to think of mentoring as a mutually enriching relationship.”

Yes. For sure. The benefits do flow both ways; at its best mentoring is about a learning relationship. What’s unique is that there is a mutual agreement that this particular relationship is primarily for the benefit of one of the two parties.

“If it’s really such a genuine relationship, I’m surprised you haven’t said anything about shared values.”

Good point. You’re helping me smoke out my own unspoken assumptions. That’s good. I’d start by asking myself what values are key to the mentoring I want.  Is it important to me to know that my mentor shares my core spiritual values? My theology? My denominational background?

“Hold on already!  I’m not  going to catechize somebody I might want to be my mentor!”

Right, you’re not. But ask yourself if you see any signs of potential conflict of values.  Do you have concerns about this person’s integrity? Is this someone you want to learn from even though you know you don’t agree with how she treats colleagues?  Do you want a mentoring relationship where you start out knowing that this person only has a few specific things to teach you?  A relationship with someone whose character you don’t even respect?  Is this a person who doesn’t feel like a safe person with whom to be vulnerable?  Mentoring ought to include some real vulnerability on both sides, and a willingness to push and be pushed.

“Wow.  You’re making it seem like there’s a lot at stake.”

There is. Quality dialogue with a quality mentor can have very high payoff. This can be a time for intense conversation–giving and receiving straight feedback, affirming and being affirmed, growing and being grown, learning and sharing learning, enjoying and giving joy.  May you be blessed in your search for a mentor, and in your experience of being mentored.

Karl Westerhof has been married for 48 years, and is the father of two, one who lives in heaven and one who lives in Taiwan. He has worked in the US and overseas for the Christian Reformed Church since 1971 in the areas of race relations, community development, and organizational development. He’s interested in spiritual formation, and he loves to read. He also loves his family, his cabin near Lake Superior, and his kids