Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mentorships and Relationships (with Gareth)

There are fascinating people we almost come across in our lives. Our paths bump, but don't cross. Social Media makes this even more evident. We can start getting to know on an almost personal level authors, celebrities, politicians, sports stars. Almost, but not quite. They aren't really friends. It feels stalkerish. We can follow the progress of someone's career as they do amazing things, but we can't just go for coffee. My path bumped with Gareth Morgan at school. A few years ahead of me, I can remember him starring in our school play as Pippin. I then heard about him going on to Oxford. I had always dreamed of studying there after reading 'The Power of One'. He then went on to become a Member of Parliament, then a consultant in various fields including coaching, training, politics, and the environment. Just over a year ago, I saw he was in London and suggested a coffee. Actual face to face exchanges of ideas trumps 'almost, but not quite' hands down. There are strange barriers that stop us creating connections. Even when people are almost in our circles already and we have lots of mutual friends. I chatted to Gareth about mentorship and how we can go about building relationships that expand our worlds. 



Trev
I have been lucky to have some great mentors in my life. Some of my best 'bosses' weren't actually my boss. I don't like the idea of hierarchy and so normally learn more from people who assume more of a partner role. I have also been on the other side and seen how much you can learn by being a mentor. It would be great if we could extend this idea more widely than businesses and schools. 



Gareth 
My personal experience of mentoring has been in being a mentor in formal, often contractual relationships with various mentees over the last decade. Not one of these mentor roles also had me in an authority position (e.g. boss) over the mentee. Mentoring relationships can exist in almost any context provided the reason for the mentoring relationship is established; they have application far beyond businesses and schools. They function best when the mentor has a particular set of insights and experiences and is willing to share them with a curious, willing mentee who has largely established that he or she lacks these insights and experiences. 

Trev
My friend Karabo wrote a beautiful piece about how her family have been custodians of the family's education. There is something of a mentorship role is just spending time with people. The adult conversations overheard. Being taken seriously with unformed, young opinions. I have always thought the word mentor carries a lot of emotive content. There is something of friendship and empathy there. I can see how if we could start to take the idea of mentorship beyond our usual circles, i.e. where we work, where we learn, where we live, we could go a long way towards bursting bubbles and building a truly inclusive community

Gareth 
I get your point. I see the aspirational potential of mentorship. However I am concerned that through your broad application of the concept much will be lost. For one, your application presupposes that most adults would be good mentors, or secondly, that there are adults around. Neither is necessarily true. Some communities are sadly quite broken. It is in such communities that mentorship is perhaps more needed than most. Let's not concern ourselves too much with people who already have resources at their disposal if we want to encourage meaningful society benefit. The challenge is how do we share the productive human resources more, and how do we pair those resources with people most in need of mentorship but who can't access it easily. Thereafter how do we make the relationships impactful. 

Trev 
That is where I have the most questions but think we can have the most impact. Some of the world's problems seem unsolvable because the numbers are so big. When looked at from a smaller community sized lens, they seem achievable. Malcolm Gladwell talks in 'Tipping Point' of communities of 150 being at a size where you can both know everyone, and know how they know each other. Looking at a global age pyramid, if the 7.4 Billion people were 150, there would be about 30 below the age of 20. A further 15 in their twenties. It then becomes a question of how we find mentors for that handful. Where are the adults missing? Where are the communities broken? How do we consciously build relationships. Changing from broad concepts to practical measures. 



Gareth 
Yes, the scale is massive. The questions you pose are the correct ones to ask. We can work from that. Let's speculate about a workable model, perhaps not on the planetary level for the moment, but just in a few underprivileged communities, whether urban or rural. In cases where adults are missing or not deemed suitably capable of being effective mentors, perhaps here we need volunteer mentors from outside the community. These kinds of models exist. I am currently a mentor on a programme which pairs me with a young person each year who is usually from a very different background, with completely different life experiences. Mentors can be found in civic, religious, business and public organisations. Determining the beneficiary communities can be coordinated by civic organisations with strong community knowledge and established contacts. It would be important that nothing is imposed. Beneficiaries will need to want and accept the offer of mentorship. How would you suggest we answer the question on how to build conscious relationships. 

Trev
There are some low hanging fruits, and some areas where I am very unsure how to start. I have recently met a few people who work with 'hard poverty'. The type that involves drugs, alcohol, self-esteem, mental health and broken relationships. The type that exists even in the first world and can't be solved by throwing money at the problem. The easier type, in my view, is where we just need to consciously deconstruct our bubbles. 'Six becomes Five' would involve us introducing people we know so we reduced the degrees of separation. Much like orientation weeks at university. The challenge lies where bubbles don't overlap at all. That involves contacting the kind of organisations you are talking about. There are tool for 'connected people' like Twitter. There are also people who are good at building bridges. I think we just need to come up with simple, practical, friendship building exercise. We need to learn each others languages. We need to show respect. The learning between mentor and mentee is two way. It isn't about hand outs. It is about walking together. Sharing knowledge. Empowering. 

Gareth 
We have chatted a little about how mentors and mentees can come to be in the same space. But what do you think makes for a successful relationship once a pairing is established? From my own experience there is a need to get to know each other. It does not have to be a friendship, but there does need to be respect, empathy and resonance. Ideally you would want the mentee to ask the questions that begin the conversations. This may be difficult at the start of a relationship particular while the mentee is warming to the mentor. In cases like this the mentor would need to do some probing to establish what the mentee may be curious about. But there is no need to move fast, particular if the mentor has time on his/her hands. It really is worth putting time into establishing the connection even if the content of the conversations is initially a bit thin. From my own experience as a mentor I try to share experiences of challenges in my life, both currently and in the past, in order show my own vulnerability in order to create a conducive space for the mentee to do the same.

Trev 
I have also seen that mentorship works best when it is mentee driven, provided the availability is there. The challenge is the experiences which lead to that connection are often shared ones. 'When I was younger' stories which resonate with the kind of challenges the mentee faces. I will put my hand up and say my life has been relatively cushy. I have been in dark places. I have felt hard done by. I have had disappointments and failures. Many. But when I read books like 'Country of My Skull', I feel somewhat inadequate as a mentor. The level of trauma faced by some makes my pain look juvenile. That is why I like the level playing field idea. Perhaps more friendships outside our usual bubbles where there is ambiguity in who is the mentor and who is the mentee. When initial conversation is thin, there are things to do. Walk together. Run together. I would like to find some case studies of where people have genuinely managed to form meaningful relationships far outside their bubbles. 



Gareth 
So how do we pull all of this together and find the golden thread? You and I have taken slightly different approaches during this conversation. While there is plenty that we find common ground on (the value of mentorship), we differ on application. I prefer a more formal approach with a chosen methodology, while you prefer, it appears to me, something more informal and organic and less content driven. Nevertheless, each to their own. Our respective approaches both have considerable merit and will work in different situations. So I guess the last point to make is lets commit to encouraging more people we know to mentor others or build relationships "far outside their bubbles". Since we started this conversation two weeks ago I have managed to encourage a colleague to become a mentor on a formal programme. He has got stuck in very quickly and his feedback is good. Let's take up this conversation again at the end of year to see if I our thinking as developed further.

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