The Best Mentorship Advice I Can Give: Look Out The Window

Published on by David VanDusen.

As a mentor, it’s common to ask a mentee prompting questions that they have the knowledge to answer. Mentors ask these questions to reinforce trains of thought that they have found valuable in their own work. They have identified that the mentee is in a common situation, and want to show them a path that leads to a solution.

Because the mentor has followed this path numerous times, their access to the answer is quick. The mentee has the required knowledge, but they may not have applied it in their current situation before. Therefore, it may take some time for them to determine which knowledge the mentor is seeking. They also need time to construct an appropriate answer from their knowledge using an unfamiliar vernacular.

This situation causes push and pull between the mentor and mentee, as well as internal conflict. Each wants to resolve the problem efficiently, but understand that the outcome of the interaction should also include learning. The mentee might be frustrated that they are being asked prompting questions when they just want to know the solution to their problem. The mentor may feel conflicted because the mentee is taking a long time thinking about an answer to the question, and they could break the silence and give them the answer to get the conversation moving again.

This is where to apply the advice. What’s happening in the mentee’s brain while they try to answer the question is one of the critical moments of learning: strengthening neural pathways between their understanding of a situation and knowledge that they can apply to the situation. It is crucial to not interrupt this process! It can take minutes of active thought to answer some prompting questions. My advice to mentors is to let it happen all the way to the end. The flood of neurotransmitters that they produce upon traversing their knowledge to conclusion, and from the mentor’s ultimate approbation, is the process that reinforces that pathway in their brain.

When I have given this advice to aspiring mentors, they have often retorted that they’re not patient, and that makes it difficult to wait for their mentee to finish processing the question. In my experience, lack of patience is easy to address. While a mentee is deep in thought trying to answer a mentor’s question, they tend not to make eye contact with the mentor. They may look at their work, or off into the distance. This is the mentor’s opportunity to do the same. If the mentor looks away from the mentee while they’re thinking, it reduces the social pressure on them to shortcut their thinking and gives them the freedom to fully explore their knowledge to find the answer.

Look distracted! If the mentee is self-conscious about how long they’re taking to answer, the best thing the mentor can do is to hide any outward signs that they’re waiting. No foot tapping, no watch checking. This is where the cure to impatience comes in: don’t just look lost in thought—feel free to actually zone out, look out the window (or away from the camera if you’re on a video call‚) and think about something else. In the thousands of encounters when I’ve done this, I never received feedback that I seemed unengaged. Quite the opposite: mentees commonly thanked me for waiting so patiently for them.

As a mentor yourself, think about the last time you were asked a prompting question. Were you interrupted before you could fully think through your answer? Were you allowed to think through your response thoroughly? If you were given time to think it through, how did you feel about the way that the asker was waiting for you? Were they making eye contact with you the whole time, occasionally glancing at their watch? Did they look like they had dropped out of the conversation and had to be reminded that you were there, ready to provide your answer? What kind of experience do you want to provide for your own mentees? 🪟👀