Updated: Apr 11
In a previous post, I covered a foundational mentee skill that helps us avoid being lazy mentees: the skill of asking a good question. But left on its own, this skill can create far too much dependency. If this is true, then we must ask what correlating skill is needed so that interdependence is maintained. Enter the skill of differentiation.
The Skill of Differentiation
It is essential to recognize an important point about you and your mentor. You are distinct from one another. You each have a unique voice and perspective. To be differentiated means that you each maintain your uniqueness during the mentoring relationship. You avoid enmeshment. You are not overly dependent on one another; nor are you solely independent. Instead, you are interdependent.
Therefore, it is vital that you see yourself as a source of learning rather than your mentor as a fount of knowledge. It is true that certain types of mentors have rich experiences, knowledge, and wisdom. But as the mentee, you must learn to trust your own judgment and practice your own decision-making skills. It is not enough to just ask the mentor questions and merely accept the answer. Instead, the goal of asking a good question is to gather a range of faithful options from you which will take the responsibility to choose.
To discern the faithful options, it might be good to get a “second opinion.” You can do this from a mentor who practices a different mentoring form. It is very important to think of your mentored life as one with a constellation of mentors. In my years teaching mentoring in Higher Education, I suggested over and over that no mentor is perfect. What’s perfect is the constellation. Engaging with different mentoring forms as you discern your faithful options might help. Just be careful not to overwhelm yourself with too many opinions. That can invite paralysis!
As you seek advice from just one or a variety of mentors, it is important to listen well to the mentor’s advice so that you use it well as you decide and take action. This means that you must learn to evaluate the mentor’s advice and discern what works best for you. Differentiation requires a mentee to think critically about the mentor’s advice, and not simply accept it as gospel.
To think critically about advice, ask the mentor to provide an explanation for the advice given. This bolsters meaningful dialogue. If you’ve collated advice from other mentors, share that with the mentor you are currently speaking to. A good mentor will know that you are developing your own ideas and perspectives and will find the points and potential counterpoints invigorating. And this type of engaging dynamic will increase trust.
It goes without saying that trust is critical to a differentiated mentoring relationship. You and your mentor do well not to take it personally when you decide to go in a different direction from the advice given. Whether your direction ends up in failure or success, you will grow and learn from your experiences regardless of the outcome. And honestly, if you grow and learn, was the failure a failure? Hmmm. That might require another blog post!
To conclude, if you grow in the skill of being differentiated, it will encourage your mentor because he/she will know that you are working to develop your own ideas and perspectives. Truth be told, this takes a lot of pressure off mentors when they know you aren’t expecting them to be that ultimate source of knowledge. And pressure off the mentor means the pressure is off you. Being a source of learning becomes more fun. And mentoring can become far more of a dynamic and generative environment.
I bet you can’t wait until the next post when I share what’s needed in order for the skill of differentiation to be possible! I know you already know that the skills all relate to one another.