Everyday Mentor Skill Building

Being an everyday mentor is not an inborn skill where you either have "it" or you don't. Instead, like most things in life, it can take practice to build the skills important when acting as an everyday mentor. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

1. Initiating Tough Conversations

Making a difference in someone’s life can be difficult. Tough topics can feel daunting. Here are some tips for making it easier:   Create a Safe Space Where you talk matters. Plan conversations in places that are emotionally neutral and comfortable for both of you. Or talk during activities you normally do together—like a bike ride, a walk or grabbing a bite.   Ensure Confidentiality If they’re confident that what they share stays between the two of you, they’ll be more likely to respond in future conversations. They might even initiate them.   Listen Completely No distractions. No judgment. No multi-tasking. Zero criticism. Be fully present and focused on them. This lets them feel heard, even honored and respected. And the better they feel, the more they’ll talk.   Ask Open-ended Questions By replacing questions requiring yes/no answers with open-ended ones, you encourage sharing of thoughts and personal perspective. Do ask:         “What was that like for you? Don’t ask:     “Were you afraid?” The second question labels the experience and offers an easy answer. The first one requires them to confront and express their individual feelings.   Make Conversations Two-way No lecturing. No preaching. No excessive advice. A respectful back-and-forth exchange allows them to express feelings and reactions. And it makes them more likely to engage in future conversations.   Grab Teachable Moments Often the most effective conversations are ones that aren’t planned. If an opportunity to address an issue pops up—in an event, during a TV show, on the street—capitalize on it to provide real-life examples and initiate spontaneous reactions.   Baby Steps Don’t try to do it all in one conversation. Keep a dialogue going in small bits, over time. Handling tough topics little by little makes them less overwhelming. It allows them (and you) to digest and process ideas before jumping too far ahead.

2. Active Listening

Active listening involves both verbal and nonverbal skills—and both send strong signals. The more we focus on what’s being  shared with us, the more we’ll understand and build connections.   Stay focused No distractions. No multitasking. No thinking about other demands. Try to be fully present. This lets them feel heard and respected.   Provide prompts These are phrases that indicate you’re listening. Prompt examples: “ummhmm” “Wow, amazing…” “I get that…” “…and then what happened?”   Paraphrase Paraphrases are quick summaries of what someone is sharing. In your own words, play back what they just told you. This has several benefits:
  • conveys that you indeed have been listening
  • gives them a fresh perspective on what they said
  • ensures that you heard correctly and offers a chance for them to explain more if you didn’t
  • validates your empathy, acceptance and positive regard
  Body language An active listener faces and/or leans towards the talker. They also nod their head and have an open posture (arms not crossed). This all conveys focus and interest.   Facial expressions Facial expressions can communicate warmth—or judgment or disapproval. Be aware of your expressions and don’t allow distractions or personal reactions to effect them.   Embrace silence Though silence sometimes feels uncomfortable, it can actually be positive. It allows us to process and think about what is being shared. It also gives us time to fully take in emerging emotions. Not allowing for silence gets in the way of meaningful conversations.

3. Confidentiality and Breaking Trust

The importance of confidence is magnified for young people because their beliefs and ideals are fluid. They are still finding themselves with respect to identity, gender and preferences.   There may be times, however—when someone's health or life is at risk—when you will have to break confidence. Here's what to do:   Be up front Have a conversation about what you're sharing and who you're share it with (e.g., parents/guardians). Allow them to help problem-solve and make recommendations.   Transfer the lead One of the best outcomes of 'being up front' (above) is that they may decide to share on their own. If this happens, support them by role-playing, accompanying them, and continuing a healthy transparency.

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4. Defining Boundaries

Boundaries are important. For health and safety. For relationships. For modeling behavior. Take a look at these different types of boundaries—and be aware of when to use them.   Safety Boundaries Help them set safe boundaries for themselves—-adhering to a curfew, avoiding substance abuse and risky behavior.   Lead by example Weak boundaries lead to unsafe situations. For example, if you agree to something you're not uncomfortable with—in hopes of strengthening your relationship—you're setting up a weak boundary. If you find yourself saying “only this one time”, pay attention to why you’re making such an exception.   Start out strict It’s often easier to loosen boundaries than to tighten them later. For example, don't make promises about your availability (“Call me anytime...”) that you can’t maintain. Another example is around physical contact (high fives versus hugs).   Minimize your roles Be mindful of taking on multiple roles. If you're the guidance counselor or intermural coach, you might avoid offering them a job—because suddenly you're the boss as well. This could result in confusing messages.   Respect others' roles Be cognizant of others in their lives. To avoid infringing on others' roles, try to maintain ongoing conversations and contact with their teachers, care-givers and family.   Tough love At some point a boundary may be crossed. When it this happens address it head on rather than ignoring it. But use an emphatic, nonjudgmental approach.

5. When to Notify Professionals

It’s not easy to know when to notify a professional. But here are some guidelines.   When you notice changes... The following changes may indicate they're struggling—and may require professional intervention.
  • Changes in mood—irritability, sadness, worry
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • New friendships based on risky behavior
  • Sleep and/or eating habit disruptions
  When in doubt If the situation seems unclear, consult others in your life (without breaking confidentiality.)   When you just don't know Don't try to take on something beyond what you have knowledge and expertise on. Support them by recommending professional help and offer to help them find it.