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Strategies for Good Conversation

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

"Maximize your mentoring time and experience by understanding the elements of a productive conversation and knowing how to put them into action."


The posting below looks at strategies for good mentor-mentee conversations.  It is from the bookStarting Strong: A Mentoring Fable by Lois J. Zachary and Lory A Fischler. Copyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594

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Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Global University Rankings: What should India do?


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Strategies for Good Conversation

It sounds straightforward - ask open-ended questions, listen actively to what your mentee is saying, and clarify understanding to make sure you are both on the same page.  But as all experienced mentors know, staying in authentic conversation throughout a mentoring relationship can be challenging.  You will need to think and work your way into good conversation.  It's easy to fall back on sharing wisdom, giving advice, and answering questions.  But as the Levels of Conversation Model (Figure 10.1) makes clear, the real work of conversation is not handing over a to-do list or book of personal aphorisms, but building trust with your mentees and encouraging them to grow and develop into their own authentic selves.  Mentoring conversations, with work and discipline, can help us connect with one another at the deepest level and bring us to new places of insight.  Maximize your mentoring time and experience by understanding the elements of a productive conversation and knowing how to put them into action.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

A mentor's thought-provoking questions can pave the way to a mentee's self-discovery and insight, and the ability to ask the right questions is an extremely important mentoring skill.  It allows you to facilitate and deepen your mentee's learning and helps you establish a meaningful connection with the other person.  Knowing how to use questions to facilitate mentee learning is art as well as science.

The art of asking questions involves knowing how to:
* Ask questions that tap into a mentee's unique experiences.
* Ask questions that challenge a mentee's intellect while also being sensitive to her feelings and comfort level.
* Ask questions that draw on the strength of the mentee's learning style, while at the same time being sensitive to unique cultural differences.
* Stage questions in such a way that they cascade and build on one another to lead the mentee to deeper insights.

The science is in knowing what kind of questions to ask:
* Good questions are clear, relevant, and specific.
* Good questions are open-ended, requiring more than a simple yes or no response.
* Good questions should encourage personal reflection on past experiences and facilitate the self-discovery of answers.
* Good questions must always be asked with genuine curiosity about the answers.

Listen Actively

Active listening, and making sure you understand your mentee's response, is the other half of the questioning equation.  Conversations are enriched by the depth and breadth of the mentor's questions, but it is virtually impossible to ask the appropriate questions if you are not actively listening to your mentee.

Strategies for Listening Actively

Active listening includes these basic elements:
* Set the stage for active listening: Remove distractions and interruptions during mentoring meetings.  Don't answer calls, check email, or do other tasks while you are engaged in conversation with your mentee.  Multitasking and other interruptions are a sign that your mentoring partner is not as important as your personal agenda.

* Pay attention: Give your mentoring partner's words your full attention rather than thinking about what you want to say while he is still talking.  Show you are listening by giving nonverbal cues - nod your head in agreement, smile, make good eye contact.

* Clarify: Restating what you heard for clarification ("So, you're saying that ...") reinforces listening and avoids making assumptions.  Probing for more with open-ended questions ("What made you feel that way?") also demonstrates that you are listening.

* Acknowledge feelings: Don't be afraid to acknowledge strong feelings when you hear them ("It sounds like you were really frustrated").  This is another way to show that you are listening, and it helps you better understand what is really going on.  Pay attention to hesitancy or pausing - clues that something is not being said - and probe further, if appropriate ("I'm wondering why that bothered you so much ...").

After your mentoring conversation, take a moment to think about how well you listened and what you can do better.  Practice your listening skills in a variety of settings - staff meetings, and meetings with direct reports.

Listening Actively During Virtual Conversations

You will probably find yourself engaging in virtual conversation during your mentoring relationship.  Geographic differences make it imperative to rely on email, Skype, videoconferencing, FaceTime, virtual mentoring platforms, and the like.   Each offers efficient and convenient ways to connect but also presents potential challenges, even to the most adept listeners.

As with all conversation - whether across the desk, the phone, or the Internet - what you communicate is not always what you meant to say.  No matter what form of communication you use for mentoring conversations, remember to check out your assumptions.  You will also want to assess how well the technology is helping or getting in the way, and whether it is creating misunderstandings.

Agree in advance

Discuss what modes of communication will work for both you and your mentoring partner.  Base your selection on what has the greatest likelihood of facilitating good conversation, not just which is easiest and most convenient.  Experiment with multiple modalities to see what works best for you. Maintain focus by agreeing to minimize distractions and interruptions.  And keep checking in periodically to ensure that communication is effective.

Don't rely on email and texting as a substitute for real conversation.

Optimize telephone conversations

Visual cues and body language are the most reliable means of effective communication.  Without them, it is easy to misinterpret intended meaning.  Because telephone conversations are dependent on voice tone, they lack this vital visual information.  This means that the listener needs to work harder at listening.  Verify your understanding of what you heard.  Provide clear verbal clues to your partner that you are tuned in (you might, for example, say, "Uh-huh, I see," and so on to let your partner know that you are actively listening.

Ask for clarification

Let your partner know what you are doing if it is going to prevent you from actively listening.  If, for example, you are capturing a note, idea, action, or recommendation, ask your partner to give you a moment because you are writing or typing.  Don't multitask, and don't interrupt.

Use email effectively

Email is the best way to confirm appointments, provide updates, and forward agendas, articles, or summaries for future discussion.  It is not an optimum way to communicate more deeply.

* Email lacks tonality.  Because it requires interpretation of meaning, there is always a high risk that at some point there will be a misunderstanding.  A remark intended to be humorous can easily be interpreted as serious - and even insulting.

* Avoid this situation by communicating sensitive information, particularly feedback and critical conversations, using other means - in person, by Skype or FaceTime, or over the phone.  When you receive an emotional or confusing email, stop - resist the temptation to react immediately, and before you respond, ask for clarification.

* Don't rely on email when there is a high likelihood of emotion and potential for misinterpretation.

Use Skype and FaceTime effectively

Virtual communication has the advantage of simulating real-time interaction, but it also has its challenges, not the least of which are technology glitches.  Although Skype and FaceTime offer the advantage of facial expression and voice to communicate meaning in real time, body language - a critical element - is often missed.  Ensure that you make eye contact with one another if you are taking notes.  Don't use up precious conversation time trying to repair technology problems.  Create a Plan B for dealing with technology problems.

Clarify Understanding

"We see the world, not as it is, but as we are."  Anais Nin's famous observation reminds us that what we hear, read, or see is filtered by our unique views of the world.  It is natural for us to interpret what we hear through our own filters.  This is why it is essential to take the time to clarify what your mentee is saying.  It will give you a more accurate read on where your mentee is really coming from.  Clarifying has the added benefit of validating important insights and demonstrating that you are listening actively.

Clarifying understanding can be accomplished easily by applying some time-tested techniques:
* Test your understanding by asking questions and getting confirmation.  "Are you saying...?" "Did you mean...?" "So it sounds like you feel..."

* Paraphrase.  Rephrase (shorter and clearer) what you heard your mentee say.  Make sure your mentee confirms your interpretation before moving forward.  "I hear you saying... Is that what you meant?"

* Ask for definitions or meaning.  "What do you mean when you say 'rigid'?" Or "How do you define 'rigid'?"

* Offer an interpretation.  "When you say 'rigid,' do you mean...?"  This is useful if your mentee is struggling to put something into words.  Again, get confirmation before moving forward.

* Highlight a major insight.  "So, you're coming to realize that ...? That's a great insight."

While clarifying understanding is essential, take care to avoid some common pitfalls.  For example, don't assume you know what your mentee means.  Avoid making statements that negate the mentee's point of view.  Take care not to alter your mentee's ideas or points of view when you paraphrase her words.  Don't allow significant mentee comments or insights to pass without addressing them.