Mentoring Skills Tune-Up–Reality Testing

As a self-proclaimed mentee, I’ve fallen victim to the unrealistic view that mentors have all the answers. On the flip side, as a mentor, I’ve had to resist the urge to blurt out solutions and answers to my mentee’s issues. While expecting or providing quick answers may seem to be an efficient way to mentor, it hardly supports the notion of mentoring as the valuable component of learning that it is.

We’ve discussed on here previously that mentors are not meant to be “fixers” and sometimes may have to take a step back and help mentees learn from mistakes. This requires conversations that bring to light what’s on the mentee’s mind and asking questions to assess understanding.

Once you’ve had an honest and open conversation with your mentee and have some ideas to explore, what’s next? In the spirit of learning, now is a good time to help your mentee generate options and do a little reality testing. Here’s what that might look like.

Consider the case in the last blog post. The conversation ended like this:

As the conversation goes on, John keeps returning to this state of frustration. You begin to suspect there is a lack of understanding between John and his manager. Your reframing response might be something like: “It sounds like having clear expectations from your boss is important to you and that you would like more feedback. Let’s think of some ways of how you might communicate this to your boss…”

Already, the mentor has given John a cue that it is time to think of some options for solving his dilemma. What might those options be? For one, he may be thinking about how to let his boss know he needs clarity around expectations for his performance. In thinking how to approach this conversation, you may ask John to consider how his boss might respond depending on how he starts the conversation. This is a type of reality testing where you ask the mentee to put themselves in the other person’s shoes or see the situation from the other person’s point of view. In this scenario, “flipping” the roles may help John come up with several ways to start the conversation.

What if after all this discussion, John decides he wants to do nothing. You might be thinking, “Maybe he just needed to vent.” Keep in mind, though, that doing nothing is an option, and as such, it needs to be reality tested. In this case, you might respond, “Okay. That is one path you can take. Let’s talk for a moment about what that might look like.” And then you may wish to encourage John to think about the consequences by asking questions such as:

  • What do you think will happen if you doing nothing?
  • How might you expect things to change?
  • What kind of things can you do if the situation doesn’t change?

Generating options and testing them out is about pushing brainstorming past the idea phase and into the results phase. It is about asking the “what if” and “how” type of questions. What do you think will happen if you do X? What do you think the response will be if you say Y? What is the best/worst thing that can happen if you do nothing? How will doing X, Y or Z get you closer to your goals? How do you think doing X, Y or Z will impact your current situation? What would you like to see happen and how will the proposed solution get you there?

As you and your mentee work through reality testing options, don’t forget past lessons on asking open ended questions and clarifying understanding along the way. Conversations are a journey, not a destination!

Additional reading for having productive mentoring conversations:

Coaching Questions for Mangers Using the GROW Model

A Useful Guide to Mentoring by Pansophix Limited

Looking at questions from a Mentee’s point of view—Questions for Mentees to Ask Mentors

Zachary, Lois J. (2012).The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships, 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Where I learned reality testing as a practical concept:

Center for Conflict Resolution

Northwestern School of Professional Studies Mediation Skills Training Program

About Kristene Henne

Kristene “Tina” Henne is Argonne’s Postdoctoral Program Lead for the Argonne Leadership Institute. In this role, she facilitates the postdoc appointment process, postdoc career development, mentoring, advises the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne and serves as a navigator for postdoctoral issues.
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