I had had a conversation like this a hundred times before. A student came to my office because she wanted to talk about something going on in her life. She began, “I have a hole in my heart, and I need to take care of it.”
I responded with empathy. “I’m so sorry. That sounds hard.”
From her first line, I just knew that some love interest had broken her heart, or some friendship had fallen apart, or some family relationship was on the rocks. She was heartbroken; there was a hole in her heart. I have had a conversation like this a hundred times before.
I took on a compassionate silence so she could tell me as much as she wanted to. As she told me more about this hole in her heart, I kept listening, nodding along and waiting to hear who pierced her heart and how, so I could help her figure out what to do about it.
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But as she kept talking, what she was saying did not exactly follow the kind of script I expected. Instead of talking about a relationship, she was talking about doctors’ visits. Instead of talking about her sadness and sorrow, she was talking about her symptoms. Instead of talking about restoring her emotional or psychological health, she was talking more about her physical health.
And then it hit me: “Oh wait … you mean … you actually, physically have a hole in your heart?!”
“Yes,” she said. “A real hole … in my heart … and I need to take care of it.”
She got how I totally missed what this was all about. She laughed. I laughed. Then we got back to the matter at hand, but this time I was really listening, because I had never had a conversation like this before.
A true original
The originality of that one mentoring conversation is not the exception but the rule. Even if, to a mentor, a conversation seems familiar because you have had ones like it with other people in the past, that familiarity is limited, and you must let go of it. Each person a mentor happens to mentor is never in any way just a repetition of other people you have mentored. This person before you is an original. Their situations are original. Their life is original. The best mentors are those who have become experts in recognizing the originality of the person and their particular situations — even as the mentor draws on past experience to do so.
The best mentors are not those who, like me, assumed they knew what was going on too soon because they’d had a hundred conversations like this before. Because I hadn’t. Even if my mentee had come to talk about her broken heart rather than the actual hole in her heart, she and her situation would have been original. This was about her heart.
I am writing to you about mentoring because mentoring is one of the most important responsibilities of adult life. It is also one of the necessary and essential facets of mature Christian discipleship — a way in which disciples give as they, themselves, have received. You may consider yourself more someone who needs to be mentored than someone who is called to mentor others. But there is no clear commencement date separating the former from the latter. For many of us, it just sort of happens: Suddenly, other people look to us for guidance; our support matters; our advice carries weight. Far too many people turn away from this responsibility of mentoring. I am writing to you about how to mentor because (if I can “should you” for a moment) you should not be one of those people who turns away from mentoring but rather someone who turns toward it.
This letter — like all my letters — is not primarily about “why” but rather “how” to mentor. I hope you will just grant that the willingness and availability to mentor is keeping with stronger character and true maturity. With that, then, let me share with you some thoughts about the “how” of mentoring.
From listening to rejoicing
Let’s make a plain thing plain: There is no such thing as a good mentor who is not a good listener. All good mentoring depends on and builds from good listening, careful listening, even creative listening. In the story I shared above, I thought I was ready to listen, but I wasn’t. I was assuming too much, interpreting too soon and falling into a certain kind of script while expecting my mentee to do the same. That’s not listening, and I was not yet ready to mentor, guide and support her well.
The first duty of a mentor is to prepare to listen fully and without prejudice. You may remember that in one of my previous letters, I recalled what Simone Weil said about loving your neighbor, which is that love of neighbor always begins from one question: “What are you going through?” For a mentor, that question should shape your fundamental disposition, because it is a question about the other person and their situation. It is about them, and they get the first word. The mentor’s first priority is to listen and listen well.
I don’t think listening well just happens in the moment — as in, when the other person is speaking or otherwise communicating. Good and deep listening happens afterward, too. I have learned from experience that I sometimes really hear what was said (or what was trying to be said, or hoping to be said, or begging to be said) sometime afterward, after things have settled into my mind. A wise practice for a wise mentor is, therefore, to keep a mentoring journal, or something like that. On the one hand, it is a way to take notes (after the fact) of conversations or other interactions with someone you are mentoring so that you can recall those experiences well later on, when memory fades. On the other hand, it is a way to reflect on what has been shared, to make connections that were not at first readily apparent, and to engage in some creative listening where you can start to think with your mentee and maybe even open up new areas of understanding or growth that they haven’t considered.
Good mentors make their wisdom and experience available to their mentees, for their mentees’ benefit. Good Christian mentors do that, too, but they also actively seek divine wisdom and guidance for their mentees’ benefit. In other words, Christian mentors pray for those whom they mentor, and they pray for the grace to be a good mentor. If mentoring is about seeking the other person’s good and fulfillment, then praying for a mentee is offering their needs and their growth to the One who knows them best and cares for them most. The good Christian mentor also prays for wisdom and humility in themselves, so that they can mentor well and truly become a student of their mentee: learning what they are going through, studying what is good for them, becoming more attuned to the originality of their life. In prayer, a good Christian mentor might ask the Lord to help them see what exactly is the good their mentee is called toward. You might ask for help in perceiving the knots and tangles that are part of the other person’s desires and relationships. You might petition the Lord to help you see what you have not seen but need to see, or what the mentee has not seen in their own life but may grow to see.
As I have thought about mentoring, especially in terms of those who have mentored me and those whom I have mentored, I have come to think in terms of music. Mentoring is about finding the music that someone else can dance to well, rather than trying to force your own taste in music on someone else. Think about the difference there. Mentoring is not shaping someone else according to your own preferences and preferred script, and it is definitely not about micromanaging another person. What mentoring is about is helping to shape the freedom and responsibility of another person in the way appropriate to your particular relationship and what they need or seek from you. The point is that they become more and more free, more and more responsible, more and more capable according to their abilities. Mentoring is about playing an important part in helping someone else to grow and flourish — to dance, if you will, in the way that they are created and called to dance. You might even think of mentoring as helping other people to someday become good mentors themselves, who may share their own wisdom, experience and support with generosity, patience and kindness.
Finally, as a mentor, you ought to let your mentee be a joy to you. If you do not find joy in the well-being of the other person, then pray — indeed, beg! — for the grace to delight in them. If joy will not come, then help them find another mentor in your stead. Yet, if joy does come from this relationship — as it should and often does — then thank God for that gift. The person who has trusted you is an expression of God’s own generosity toward you.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at bit.ly/lifesweetnesshope.