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Mentoring — A Safe Harbor

Elective Performance Improvement

You know those meetings where one person does all the talking? Might be a well-intentioned expert. Might be an opinionated know it all.  For whatever reason the spark that fuels discussion just never happens. People get bored; they check their cell phones; respond to texts.  It is painful for everyone.

And then there are those inspiring discussions that are dynamic and insightful, with pregnant pauses and intense focus. Ideas shared. Suggestions offered.  Solutions discovered. It’s seeing Washington DC’s Japanese cherry trees blossom almost overnight after a spring rain, as in the accompanying picture taken by Redd Angelo on Unsplash. Awesome. Breath-taking. Beautiful. Transformative.

This is a true story:  I’d just completed leading a completely disheartening online “discussion” session; although I’d tried to create an atmosphere of collegial interaction, the session had ended up being a predictable and mind-numbing lecture punctuated by occasional commentary. Fortunately, a trusted colleague who was part of the group (and well known for being a phenomenal teacher) gave me a call and offered a friendly, “Want to debrief on the session?” I said, “Sure, do you have time right now?” He said, “Yes,” and it began …  a wonderful experience with mentorship.

He opened with “So, how do you think it went?” As he listened and probed, one observation or reaction led to another.  Soon my dismay was transformed to eager engagement as we brainstormed about how to prepare for the next session, identifying techniques to encourage discussion, how to create space for shared contemplation, what to do to elicit divergent opinions. Debriefing after each session became part of the course preparation. I formally acknowledged him as my mentor. It was fun. He created a safe place to explore areas for improvement and to develop insights and skills. The impact on the course was immediate. Discussions emerged organically and became the driving force in the course. Learning occurred. A community was created.

My experience is a classic example of a mentoring relationship. The mentor is the expert and the ‘mentee’ (horrible word!) is the learner. The learner’s professional experience per se is not the issue. The important factors are the learner’s level of expertise and desire to change. The mentor relationship is respectful and mutually agreed upon. It is an elective relationship that may be offered by the mentor, but the decision to follow through (the locus of control) is the learner’s.  The focus of the interactions is determined by the trainee, attending to the learner’s self-identified needs. It is not graded, although ongoing feedback is essential to its success. Whenever it occurs, it is a gift. And if one is open to the possibilities, it can happen at any point in one’s career.

The concept of mentorship is based on Greek mythology, the story of “Mentor, a loyal friend and adviser to Odysseus, king of Ithaca. Mentor helped raise Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was away fighting the Trojan War. Mentor became Telemachus’ teacher, coach, counselor and protector, building a relationship based on affection and trust.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines mentor is “a trusted counselor or guide.” In its Introduction to Mentoring: A Guide for Mentors and Mentees, the American Psychological Association describes a mentor as a “coach who provides advice to enhance the mentee’s professional performance and development and a role model and support system for the mentee.” Some organizations add a caveat that in a mentorship, the content and the specific area of focus are determined by the mentee.

Eller et al, in their 2013 study of mentoring, Key components of an effective mentoring relationship: a qualitative study, provide an illuminating review of the mentorship literature followed by a report on eight themes that described key components of an effective mentoring relationship. These included:

  • open communication and accessibility;
  • goals and challenges;
  • passion and inspiration;
  • caring personal relationship;
  • mutual respect and trust;
  • exchange of knowledge;
  • independence and collaboration;
  • role modeling.

Novice NPs elect to spend an additional year in high-performance clinical settings to develop additional expertise and confidence as independent practitioners. With all postgraduate programs, clinical experiences in partnership with seasoned experts form the backbone of the experience. A unique characteristic of NP postgraduate training programs is the additional expectation of a mentorship relationship – a ‘safe harbor’ for the trainees to explore issues that they encounter, with a foundation of collegiality between a novice and an experienced professional, and explicit attention to the trainee’s success.

As with my experience in acquiring new skills in creating an atmosphere that encourages dynamic and informative online discussions, effective mentoring is transformative and a gift that impacts the future. Whether as a recipient or provider, it is an opportunity to be embraced.

Wishing you well,