Head Mentor Sinclair Dorman
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Mentoring: the art of keeping secrets

The lips of mentors should be kept firmly sealed shut, but keeping secrets is known for being a hugely difficult task. This begs the questions, how do mentors manage such an art form when listening to confidential information day in and day out?

12th Nov 2020
Head Mentor Sinclair Dorman
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One of the golden rules of mentoring is that conversations are 100% confidential. This is essential for creating a safe environment in which both mentor and mentee are able to truly open up; however, as a result mentors are privy to some highly sensitive information. 

The art of mentoring involves the ability to develop this inviting space – to enable the conversations needed for effective mentoring, and to encourage a mentee to open up, share their thoughts and feel completely at ease with being inquisitive on a work-related, and sometimes personal, front.

Peeling away the layers of an onion

In mentoring and coaching we commonly refer to the ‘layers of the onion’ and anyone who has attended one of our webinars or training sessions will be familiar with the onion exercises we perform. 

These are simple breakout activity sessions (thank goodness for Zoom rooms in lockdown) where we equip participants with topical questions in order to really get to know the person they have been matched with, to peel away the layers and ask those bold and curious questions that count.

Naturally, this entices all sorts of slants on frustrations and jubilations in a mentee’s life. A mentor has to process and carry all of it. But what they do with that information is simple – they keep it wholly to themselves.

Over the years, mentoring, training mentors and being mentored, mentors have heard and discussed all sorts! The likes of:

  • Acute toxic company politics 

  • Character clashes

  • Imposter syndromes 

  • Narcissism

  • Racism

  • Affairs 

  • Marital breakdowns 

  • Early signs of mental ill-health

  • Successful cunning plans to reach promotion 

  • A search for a new employer

As well as, of course, the common issue of dealing with ego. 

All these situations are found in the SME world just as much as the corporate. Human behaviour is an extraordinary thing and wonderful to study.

Why keeping your lips sealed is no easy feat

Keeping secrets is one of the hardest tasks for humans to do. Art Markman wrote in Psychology Today about the negative effects of keeping secrets which are, mainly:

  • Mind space consumed with continual thoughts on the information

  • A sense of poor authenticity driven from the need to share or enlighten a concerned party

  • A decrease in wellbeing derived from both the above factors 

This is regardless of whether you know the other people involved or not. So how do mentors manage the load of carrying such secretive information? 

How mentors keep so many secrets

It is strongly encouraged by industry associations and the codes of conduct that we sign up to that we adopt the professional custom of what is referred to in coaching as supervision and reflection in mentoring.

This practice assuages the urge to offload to a mentor's partner or friend that which is professionally inappropriate whilst being able to access an equally confidential arena when there is a need to seek an alternative slant on a particular issue as well as generally lightening the load. Furthermore, reflection allows a mentor to sense check their conduct and that they have covered all bases.

An exercise we share in mentor training called ‘The Helicopter’, which is featured in The Mentoring Manual by Julie Starr is a healthy way of reflecting post a session or indeed a meeting during everyday work. Here it is step by step.

  1. Take a breath post meeting and take some time to re-run the session or meeting in your head from an aerial view

  2. You should be able to see yourself participating. 

  3. Run through the discussion content, remembering individual approaches, questions, reactions and body language. 

  4. Make a mental note of anything that went well, you may have missed or could have introduced. Pay particular attention to tone as well as the outcome and next steps.

  5. Refine and readdress with a follow up.

This may need a little practising to begin with, although over a short amount of time it should become second nature. 

Carrying the information that we do as mentors is a privilege. As is sharing our experiences to guide and support.

Part of mentoring in a professional manner includes how we process the discussions that we have and use the knowledge we share to help our mentees be the best versions of themselves, rise to challenges and fulfill their true potential.

There is only one circumstance in which such breach of confidence is acceptable, and that is if there is a genuine mental ill-health concern that is not being addressed by the mentee or perhaps a second if there is proof of any illegal activity. In these cases, it is a mentor's responsibility to signpost and alert the right form of help starting with HR, or a colleague or family member in the absence of HR.

When it comes to mentoring, communication and awareness are crucial. A mentee must be able to offload and talk about what is happening in their professional and personal lives, and mentors must be capable of taking on confidential information while keeping distanced from it. They must maintain objectivity while using the knowledge to mentor effectively. By reflecting on mentoring sessions to professionally process certain information, secrets never become a heavy load for a mentor to carry.

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