Advice is Nice, But First Listen

Last winter I created a new workshop to teach faculty members how to incorporate coaching tools into their mentoring relationships. As a coach, listening was the first skill I needed to master. Even with a question as simple as “How was your vacation?” the quality of our listening changes what we hear.

Here’s an example (with sincere thanks to Maria Saltiel for permission to share her experience)

Carlos: How was your vacation?
Vanessa: We went to Italy for the first time, and it was amazing.
Carlos: I love Italy! Did you go to Rome? It’s one of my favorite cities, with so much history, but also the great energy of a bustling city.
Vanessa: We didn’t make it to Rome, there was so much else to see. We’ll have to go next time.

In that example, Carlos listened as many of us would, by relating what he heard to his own experience. Notice the powerful change that happens below, when Carlos keeps the focus on his conversational partner:

Carlos: How was your vacation?
Vanessa: We went to Italy for the first time, and it was amazing.
Carlos: What were your favorite parts of the trip?
Vanessa: There was so much that was great. We loved the hikes we did at Cinque Terre, and Venice was lovely, but most meaningful was the trip we did to the tiny town where my husband’s grandfather lived through World War II.  My husband’s family is Jewish, and some of the people who sheltered his grandfather are still alive. They were so warm and welcoming, and we learned some things we never knew before. It’s not a town anyone would visit just for a vacation, but it was an amazing experience.

There is nothing wrong with relating our own experiences, but the above example shows how much we might miss if that’s where we start.

The same concept of listening first is essential to good mentoring and advising. Imagine that Carlos is Vanessa’s mentor, and Vanessa is lamenting that she has too much on her plate, “I’m on the curriculum committee, the university-wide diversity task force, and I’m the faculty advisor to the National Society for Black Engineers student group.”

Wanting to help, Carlos might advise, “The diversity task force will give you good visibility at the university level, and you probably can’t get out of the curriculum committee, but you won’t get any credit for advising the student group, and it will take a lot of your time. Is there someone else who you could suggest to take that over?”

However, if Carlos first listened, the conversation might go differently, as in the vignette that follows:

Carlos: Tell me more about how each of those service roles fits with your goals and priorities?

Vanessa: I’m really passionate about student education. Some people think the curriculum committee is grunt work, but I have ideas about how to overhaul our curriculum, I think I’ll be able to get us to add classes that I really want to teach. I absolutely love advising the National Society for Black Engineers Student Group. Those kids are super-smart and so excited about what they are doing.

Carlos: Wow. Your voice changed and your face lit up when you started talking about the Black Engineering group.

Vanessa: I love it. I leave the meetings feeling so energized. It fuels me for the rest of the week.

Carlos: Advising student groups often isn’t as highly valued by departments, but it sounds like it really feeds you.

Vanessa: Yes! I went the academic route because I love working with students. I could have made a lot more money in industry.  I enjoy my research, but even there, it is mentoring students that really excites me.

Carlos: Given your passion for that work, I suggest that I make the case to the chair that you are supporting diversity in a vital way through your work with the Black Engineers group, and that we should offer you cover to get out of the diversity task force by explaining to the task force head that we need you to do more service at the departmental level right now. I’m sure we could find someone else to serve on the task force.

In the second example, Carlos still includes the information that advising student groups is generally not highly valued by their department, but knowing how much the role energizes Vanessa, he suggests a way to manage her service that is in keeping with her own goals and priorities, rather than suggesting she let go of her favorite activity.

It’s natural to want to offer our own experiences in order to help those we mentor to be successful. When we are careful to take time to first listen and understand, we can offer advice and support that is spot-on.

Note: The above article is excerpted from Rena’s newest workshop, “Mentor & Coach: Utilizing Coaching Tools for Effective Mentoring Relationships.”