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Mentors and Managers: Three Tactics to Help You Help Those Who Rely on You

One of the most fundamental parts of my job is showing up and listening to people. I've had hundreds of one-on-one meetings in my office with prospective students, current students, coaching clients, staff I manage, and women I mentor. Now, just showing up and listening may sound like something we all do every day when we talk to people, but I work to listen in a different way. The three tactics I use during one-on-one meetings are instrumental in helping me move people forward, and they can be easily adopted by mentors and managers when approaching those they hope to empower.

1) Make Space (and protect it)

Making space for others is both deeply underrated and insanely easy to provide. Granted, when you're in the middle of a massive work project, or feeling the pull of personal obligations, giving another person space may be the last thing you feel you can manage. But the good news is, it's easy to do and doesn't take as long as you might think. Making space means three things:

1) Be obviously available to those who rely on you--those you manage, mentor, or support. This doesn't mean you are at their beck-and-call any time of day, but it does mean you provide an obvious pathway to approach you when they need it. How do those who rely on you know they can come talk to you? Do they know how? Do they know when? Do they know the benefit of it? Reflect on how the space is available and how you've worked to ensure they know the entry point to that space.

2) Understand that the space IS the benefit. It's not what you say in the space, not how you respond, not what you suggest, but it's the actual reserved space (and time) that is the benefit. Often, as people talk they can find their own conclusions. But for those listening, it's easy to think we need to chime in with answers, advice or knowledge. Really, all you have to do is provide the space and the space will do the magical work on its own.

3) Protect the space. This means you work hard to control the external forces around you--put your phone on silent, close your laptop, meet in a quiet space. If you can't offer space and protect it, move the meeting time to when you can. Meeting with you for an hour when you're distracted is not nearly as helpful as waiting a few days for 10 minutes when you can really focus.

2) Acknowledge their Agenda (and your own)

"Agenda" as a word gets a bad rap. "Having an agenda" implies you are being shady, plotting something, or being inauthentic. But the truth is, everyone has an agenda, and knowing what that agenda is can provide extremely valuable insight into what is motivating, or upsetting, the person with whom you are meeting. And uncovering it is as easy as asking the person who's asked for time (and space) with you: "What do you want to get out of our talk today?" That's it. One simple question can help you understand what they are trying to get from the discussion. Which, of course, helps you know the role you are playing in the space.

When students come to my office to talk I lead with this question and it allows them to articulate (sometimes for themselves) what they are searching for. Now, sometimes the agenda is, "I just need a chance to talk through some things." But even knowing that alerts me not to try to "fix" anything, but just to listen. After all, that's what the person sitting in front of me has expressed she needs. However, when two people meet, two agendas (which can sometimes conflict) are in the room. Be aware of your own agenda here. You may be wanting this person to behave differently, or act more like you, or stop wasting your time, or use your time better, or whatever the case may be. Which means that while you are providing space for someone, don't let your own agenda run the show. There is a time and place for your agenda, but don't use their space and time to advance yours.

3) Avoid Advice (but understand why it's requested)

If there's one lesson I've learned over and over again, it's that no one really wants advice. In fact, when people explicitly ask for it, they want it the least. Advice is what mentors and managers are quick to assume is needed. Now, sure, sometimes people need direction. Or industry tips and tricks. And I certainly appreciate insight on what stocks to buy and have come to rely on customer reviews. But overall, offering advice blows up in several ways. The first is that the person giving the advice doesn't have to live with the results. The second is that the one taking the advice is never truly bought-in to the advice being given. And finally, giving advice and taking advice implies a lack of trust on both sides.

The best thing we can do for other people is to assume they are wholly competent and capable. Then they aren't needing us to tell them what to do, but rather to help them uncover their own potential to solve the problem or conflict. One of the most powerful questions you can ask the person sitting in front of you when they ask for your advice is: Why is it important to you that I tell you what to do here? You can't imagine how much valuable data can come from their response. I've had people respond, "Because I'm terrified of disappointing you." I've heard, "Because I'm afraid of failure." I've been told, "Because I've never made a meaningful decision in my life." Point is, their answer to that question can be incredibly helpful in uncovering what someone may be wrestling with. And then, the thing they asked advice on isn't nearly as important as overcoming why they need your advice in the first place.

In general, mentors and managers can do less with more. Less advice, less direction, less reporting on progress. Instead, they can just provide space, and protect the space; really get at what the person across the table is wanting; and avoid giving advice. When these three strategies are employed, people are able to rise up to their abilities; discover their talents and potential; and uncover the solution to whatever their problem may be, safe in the space you've provided, protected, and trusted.


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