When I was ‘on-the-road’ as a professional musician at the age of 18. I found it difficult to continue with formal percussion lessons with the best drummers because I was traveling too much to sustain a teacher. So, wherever I was located for the next gig, I would set up two sets of drums and invite drummers to play with me. (They were easy to find at each city’s music stores.) It is interesting that each drummer who played with me, learned many of my patterns (percussion vocabulary); yet, I learned many new techniques from each of them. Each mentor interaction provided me with more information about drums and percussion. This is “informal mentoring” at its best and it cost me nothing but my rehearsal time—smart investment. It helped me to stay on top of a very competitive market. The more versatile I became as a drummer and percussionist, the more work came my way. “Intelligent Leaders need breadth and depth.”
Although I was not aware of it at the time, I was continuously looking for role models. My father passed away when I was twelve and I kept looking for good people doing good things. I found many role models—some good and some struggling with life. I was quite deliberate in looking for behavioural responses that made sense—what to do and what not to do. All of this time, I was gradually developing the character of “me.” Informal mentoring can be powerful as long as you are open to it.
After university and three honours degrees, I entered professional life from a business perspective and learned about “formal mentoring.” I have been involved in Formal Mentor Training since 1985. However, I have been the recipient of informal mentoring my whole life. I continued to seek out people who were doing things that impressed me and I would ask them if I could speak with them about their work. Mentor questions came out quite naturally because I was interested in people and their work.
In 1989, I was introduced to one of the best Student Retention Programs in the Province of Ontario by Tom Connolly with the Waterloo Board of Education. I was completely hooked. There was no turning back. Tom continues to be an informal mentor to me and he introduced me to Dr. Rey Carr, Peer Resources in Victoria, B.C. who developed the strongest “International Mentor Programs.” I trained in all of Dr. Carr’s programs: Peer Mentor Training, Mentor Training (Levels 1-3), Coach Training and Executive Coach Training. Then I followed with Cy Charney’s Mentor Management Training and ICF (International Coach Federation) training. Each of these connections added “breadth and depth” to mentor/coach training skills.
With all of this training and experience over a lifetime of mentor and coach training, I still believe that Dr. Carr’s Mentor Training is the strongest program internationally [www.mentors.ca]. The foundational principles of his training programs are well researched, sound in practice and transferable to any setting. In addition, I have been using Carr’s closure procedure for years in many counselling and social settings. These mentor principles provide a process for strong, empowering and facilitative processes that move groups and individuals forward.
For Canada Day, Dr. Carr published a free ebook about Canadian Mentors and match-ups that reflect his lifetime of work on mentoring in Canada. He is an incredible mentor and role model.
Finding The Best Mentors
What I have learned about mentoring and coaching is that mentors/coaches are simply a phone call or email away. It is about getting to yes. You simply have to ask the question: “Would you be willing to meet with me for an hour so that I can learn about…?”
It is that simple at setting up an informal mentor. If you do this often enough, your learnings will happen. From those meetings, you might ask one of those informal mentors to be a more formal mentor. If by chance they say ‘no’ or they don’t have time right now, then your next question is: “Do you know of someone who may be able to help me with this area of learning?”
It is all about getting to yes and your personal professional development.
(Thanks for my friend and mentoring partner, Wayne Townsend for allowing me to share his post here. I treasure our relationship and it is a great example of how a true mentoring relationship shifts to where the mentor learns as much from the person he or she has mentored.)
Advice-giving in a coaching, mentoring, or peer assistance relationship appears to be a controversial topic. Yet, access to such advice is often the most frequent reason why clients seek the help of coaches, mentors, and peers. How can there be such a disconnect between the anti-advice-giving training that these practitioners receive and the desire on the part of clients and partners to obtain such advice? This article identifies the origin of the no-advice principle and provides a concrete alternative that enables clients to maximize their needs and coaches, mentors, and peer leaders to maximize their skill.
Prohibitions Against Advice-Giving
Lesley Matile, the Managing Director of The Coach Academy and a 25-year veteran coach exemplifies the standard view of advice-giving. She believes that “in the purest form of coaching, which I believe is the most beneficial to clients, there is no room for advice-giving.” She equates “purest form” with a “non-directive” approach to coaching. She has merged the counselling technique originally developed and perfected by psychologist Carl Rogers with coaching. She thinks that giving advice hinders client motivation, ownership, commitment to change, and reduces life-long learning. She does provide two benchmarks to use to determine whether advice given by a coach has value for the client. She instructs coaches to keep track of the number of times a client will say “Yes, but” as a reaction to a coach giving advice; and (2) to track the action taken by the client as a result of coach suggestions versus ideas the client has generated as a result of asking the client a “wisdom-accessing” question.
Management expert Chris Argyris (1999) supports Lesley’s position. Mr. Argyris argues that a preponderance of advice from the “masters” is full of mixed messages and often yields a range of unintended and counterproductive consequences. Often people send these mixed messages without any awareness of doing so. And in many cases, the sender may also send a subtle message that says this advice is not for discussion or full examination. Not all advice will lead to disaster, and Argyris tempers his view by providing a basis for determining how to sort the good from the bad.
Rosamunde Bott (2007), a career and writing coach, believes that making suggestions to clients can actually have a catalytic impact and often helps a “stuck” client or session get back on track. She supports the necessity for a coach to be flexible and not become paralyzed by a coach training instruction such as “coaches should not give advice.”
It’s likely that the prohibition of advice-giving in a helping relationship was made popular almost 50 years ago when Tom Gordon, a student of Carl Rogers, created the revolutionary approach to raising children known as “Parent Effectiveness Training.” Gordon characterized the typical ways we respond to others into 12 categories called “Roadblocks to Communication.” Such messages interfered with effective communication and typically made the person on the receiving end of such messages feel defensive, blamed, angry, accused, patronized, or admonished; not the necessary ingredients for improving a relationship. Probably the most controversial “roadblock” he identified and the one that appeared to be the most difficult to stop was “giving advice.”
Tom Gordon based his practical ideas on the work of psychotherapists Carl Rogers and Alan Carr, both of whom had no place for advice in their therapy. Most of the thousands of lay practitioners who became advocates for Gordon’s communication effectiveness approach described giving advice as a “no-no.” Literally hundreds of books and articles on communication skills published after his pioneering work echoed or duplicated his twelve roadblocks approach (many without accurate attribution). Parents, teachers, and thousands of others learning the Tom Gordon system were stymied by this end to advice- giving and struggled to prevent it from creeping back into their repertoire.
The best contemporary media example of the prohibition of advice-giving in a helping relationship is depicted weekly in the award-winning TV-show In Treatment. This North American cable-TV show is about a psychologist, Dr. Paul Weston (superbly played by Golden Globe winner Gabriel Byrne), who provides weekly one-on-one psychotherapy to a series of four different clients. The show also includes a weekly session where the psychologist sees his own therapist, Dr. Gina Toll (brilliantly played by Oscar- and Emmy- winner Dianne Wiest).
The show is adapted from a popular Israeli television series and recast for a North American audience. Each week, at some point during the patient’s half-hour session, the patient will ask the therapist for advice. The psychologist always responds by asking the patient a probing question, and never gives the requested advice.
While the show is intense, moving, and very realistic, it also has some lighter moments– one of which highlighted the advice-giving dilemma. At one point when Dr. Weston is in session with his own therapist, he asks her for advice. The therapist responds with a question; to which the psychologist has a short tantrum and says, “Now I understand why my patients get so frustrated when I don’t answer their questions. Just tell me what you think!”
The Alternative for Effective Advice-Giving
But is advice-giving really a “no-no?” Isn’t getting advice often the primary reason people seek out coaches, peers, and mentors? And how many times have coaches and mentors had to “sit on” an idea they thought would truly help the seeker merely because the “no-no” approach taught by all the disciples of “effective” communication admonished them against it.
There is an alternative. Years ago when I was one of Tom Gordon’s students, I created a simple, five-point method for dealing with advice-giving. I modified my mentor’s system so that the powerful human urge to give advice and the strong motivation to get advice from a peer assistant, mentor or coach could occur without being a roadblock to effective communication.
In my system, the first step for dealing with advice-giving is to determine the degree of risk associated with giving advice. For example, start by assessing the emotional state and the visionary capacity of the person asking for advice. Is the seeker overwhelmed, calm, agitated, enraged? The more activated (at one end of the emotional continuum) or the more depressed (at the other end of the continuum), the higher the risk that the advice will be meaningless, not heard, or completely rejected. Even worse (and often a stated reason for withholding advice), the advice seeker may act on the advice and when it doesn’t work or leads to even more severe circumstances, the seeker blames the advice giver for the muck he or she is now mired in.
At the same time, a lack of vision, a low ability to forecast, or an inability to state goals, places the advice seeker in a poor position to understand advice and often leads to arguing with, disputing, or demeaning the advice giver. Persons who have a better idea of where they want to go and can articulate their goals are often able to hear advice not as a command, but as a possible option or suggestion.
Before doling out advice, then, the advice giver can reduce the risk of advice-giving contributing to poor communication by assessing both the emotional state and visionary ability of the seeker. When the assessment results in a low-risk conclusion, then advice- giving is more likely going to contribute to an improved and fulfilling relationship. (When the assessment reveals a high-risk situation, then continued deep listening and asking powerful questions are better options than advice-giving.)
When the advice giver determines that the seeker is in an appropriate low-risk state to receive advice, he or she can then extend what I call step two or “the invitation.” In many cases, the seeker has already specifically asked me for advice. But if this hasn’t happened or is implied, I will ask seekers whether they think my sharing a similar experience and what I did about it might be helpful to their situation. In other words, I want the seeker to invite my contribution. I recommend an invitation such as “Would it be useful to you for me to let you know what I did about a similar situation and how it turned out for me?” This step can help the seeker feel supported and that he or she is not alone.
In step three, which I call “the disclosure step” the advice-giver draws upon his or her own life experience and frames the advice within that experience. Rather than saying, “Here’s what you should do…” the advice-giver constructs his or her advice as a personal statement: “When I was experiencing (the advice-giver describes his or her similar situation), here’s what I did or thought…” (The amount of description of the experience may vary depending on the circumstances.) The two key elements to this step are the advice giver’s ability to “own” the advice (“here’s what I did” and not “you should do this…”) and “frame” the advice within his or her own life experience.
The fourth step in effective advice-giving is called “the open dialogue step” and is simply the next sentence that follows the disclosure step. I recommend adding a question to the end of the disclosure statement such as: “In what way, if at all, does my advice fit for your situation?” or “Having heard my description and what I did or told myself, how close does that come for your situation, challenge, or circumstance?” The purpose here is to encourage the advice-seeker to honestly react, respond, reject, or modify the advice giver’s statement without disrupting the relationship.
Finally, in step five the advice giver listens deeply to the reaction of the seeker and through asking powerful questions helps the seeker modify, revise, or create the advice as to what to do or think. I call this final step “switching gears,” (a term borrowed from Tom Gordon). The purpose of this step is for the advice giver to “let go” of the need to give advice, and let go of the need to ensure that the seeker complies with the advice. Instead the advice giver tunes in even more deeply to the seeker’s circumstances and life experience.
Advice-giving is neither good or bad in a coaching relationship. Instead, it’s more useful to think of giving advice as having risks. As coaches, mentors and peer assistants we can reduce the risk and ensure that giving advice contributes to an empowering relationship. Since giving advice and seeking advice are so strongly ingrained in our being, it’s probably more useful to figure out how to do it effectively rather than relying on the more outdated communication skills models that prohibit giving advice.
Argyris, C. (1999). Flawed advice and the management trap: How managers can know when they’re getting good advice and when they’re not. London: Oxford University Press.
A common thread that ties peer assistance work to mentoring and coaching is the increasing use of group models (peer coaching and peer mentoring along with peer helping) to provide services or supervision, and assist participants to accomplish their goals more effectively and more quickly.
In both peer mentoring and peer coaching, group members typically distribute leadership within the group and take turns initiating activities to act as a catalyst for all members. Peer assistance differs somewhat because there is typically an assigned leader or supervisor, but the leader still works toward increasing the empowerment of each member to act as a leader for all other members.
Participants in all three types of groups, when given the opportunity to act as the group leader for any session, often wonder about how to start the group. Typically, this start-up is called a warm-up, transition or check-in activity. Most leaders want to get off to a good start and energize, focus, or center the members with an activity that will act as a lead-in to the group’s agenda or purpose for being together. And while often a leader’s desire is to use a “fun” activity, all too often the activity chosen is only marginally related to the group’s purpose or more formal agenda.
Peer Resources has devised a group beginning activity that is highly effective in helping a group get started with an enjoyable “ritual”, deepen the connection of the group members to each other, provide a strong foundation for the group’s upcoming agenda, and provide an opportunity for participants to help, support, and encourage one another. The activity is called “trinity,” and while it has a strong spiritual element, it is spelled with a lower case “t” so that it won’t be confused with the more religious meaning of Trinity.
Trinity consists of three questions. Any member of the group can start and provide an answer to the first question and from there each group member, one after another, provides their own unique answer to the first question. The first question is: “What am I grateful for today?” The range of answers to this question can be far-ranging, and it is purposely asked as a “what” question instead of a “who” question, although it is perfectly acceptable to identify a person. No discussion of responses needs to occur; the idea is to quickly create an atmosphere of “gifts” we each have in our lives and a mood of heartfelt connection.
When everyone in the group has volunteered their response to the first question, another group member can ask and be the first to respond to the second question: “What are my intentions for today?” Responses to this question can focus on outcomes, feelings, accomplishments, or even how a participant wants to respond if things don’t go as planned.
The third question that concludes this opening ritual is started by a group member asking, “What’s most important today?” In peer assistance groups a variation of this question is: “Considering what you are going to engage in over the next week as a peer helper, what’s the most important thing you want to accomplish today?”
Sometimes a fourth question is included after participants have identified what’s important: “What can I do today to integrate my gratitude, my intentions, and what I think is important?”
While it might be possible to spend an entire session on the answers participants give to just these questions, the questions are really meant to create a start-up climate or mood that will help every participant to be present and focused. Various responses can be noted or placed in a “parking lot” for further exploration at a later date, if appropriate.
If SpiritMentor readers try out these questions, I’d appreciate hearing about how they worked. I’m grateful to communications specialist and writer Laura Lallone for providing the reminder of the power of these questions and giving permission to adapt them here.
Ray Bradbury, the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream, died June 5, 2012. He was 91, and had amassed not only a phenomenal body of work but also acted as a literary mentor to hundreds of writers as well as scientists, in addition to having mentors of his own.
Two of Bradbury’s own mentors were Robert Heinlein, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time; and Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer in motion picture visual effects creating the elaborate special effects in movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.
Ray Bradbury met Ray Harryhausen when he was 18 and they began a lifelong friendship. Bradbury said of Harryhausen, “This guy kept a mechanical dinosaur in his garage. And we were both ridiculed for our dreams as kids.” This struggle to be accepted helped them work together to find ways to express their creative ideas.
Harryhausen was also best man at Ray Bradbury’s wedding in 1947 and said that the minister at his friend’s wedding gave Bradbury’s donation back, saying, “You’re a writer, aren’t you? Here, you’re going to need it.”
Another one of Ray Bradbury’s early mentors was Mr. Electrico, a carnival entertainer who jolted himself with electricity and then zapped members of the audience with a sword. Mr. Electrico touched young Bradbury and said, “Live forever!”
On the day of his uncle’s funeral, Bradbury spotted Mr. Electrico and his troupe alongside the road as the family drove by. Bradbury made his father stop and let him out. The entertainer showed him around, introducing the boy to the other entertainers, including the illustrated man, who were then called ‘freaks’.
“You’re the reincarnation of my best friend, who died in my arms during World War I,” Mr. Electrico, once a Presbyterian minister from Illinois, told the young Bradbury.
“That day I was running away from death,” Bradbury explained. “Mr. Electrico saw something in me that I didn’t see.”
Ray Bradbury was a mentor to many writers. One of them was Richard Bach, who was later to be best known for his book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When Bach finished his first book, Stranger to the Ground, Bradbury wrote to him and said, “At the end of life when we must all lay ourselves out, with what thoughts shall we do so? Will we think, ‘I did my best!’ or will we think, ‘I never tried.’”
Colin Marshall, the host and producer of Notebook on Cities and Culture reviewed a keynote address that Ray Bradbury made in 2001 to the Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea, where Bradbury tells stories from his writing life with the intention of acting as a spirit mentor to those aspiring writers in the audience.
Marshall identified the following 12 points from Bradbury’s speech and offered his interpretation of what Bradbury told the audience:
Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. He waited until the age of 30 to write his first novel, Fahrenheit 451. “Worth waiting for, huh?”
You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to imitate your favorite writers, just as he imitated H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.
Examine “quality” short stories. Bradbury suggests Roald Dahl, Guy de Maupassant, and the lesser-known Nigel Kneale and John Collier. Anything in the New Yorker today doesn’t make his cut since he finds that their stories have “no metaphor.” Bradbury suggests a course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”
Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you. Do they make fun of your writerly ambitions? He suggests calling them up to “fire them” without delay.
Live in the library. Don’t live in your “goddamn computers.” He may not have gone to college, but his insatiable reading habits allowed him to “graduate from the library” at age 28.
Fall in love with movies. Preferably old ones.
Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.
Don’t plan on making money. He and his wife, who “took a vow of poverty” to marry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still never got around to picking up a license).
List ten things you love and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later—also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.
Just type any old thing that comes into your head. Bradbury recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”
Remember, with writing, what you’re looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, “I love you for what you do.” Or, failing that, you’re looking for someone to come up and tell you, “You’re not nuts like people say.”
When U.S. President Barack Obama learned of Ray Bradbury’s death, he offered the following words of tribute:
“For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values. There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”
Ray Bradbury has published more than 500 works of literature, including short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, televisions scripts, an opera, and verse.
A major league baseball player’s talented bat and glove contributed greatly to his team’s winning seasons. But most of his multi-million dollar contract earnings went up his nose or into his veins. His drug troubles, time-outs for rehab, legal fees, fines and conflicts with teammates left him unemployed, bankrupt and living in a friend’s basement apartment.
Devastated by painful injuries that occurred week after week for 9 years and making it almost impossible for him to get out of bed, a star National Football League player decided to retire and start his own business with the substantial earnings he made playing a game he loved. But retirement led to isolation, loneliness, and depression. Mood swings, minimal business experience, and an altered lifestyle that no longer included a giant salary, public adoration, or teammate camaraderie led to several failed businesses, significant alcohol use, and divorce.
After many years of being a scoring leader, a top National Basketball Association player planned to retire, write a book on the game, coach youngsters, and use his salary savings to fund community projects. Less than a year after retirement he was in jail, convicted of spousal abuse.
One of football’s best running backs who appeared to have established a successful post-play career is arrested and tried for a double homicide.
Stories such as these appear with much more frequency in major newspapers. Athletes from virtually all professional sports are with increasing regularity involved in activities that are disturbing, personally debilitating, and highly contradictory to the spirit of sport and their own vision of their future. The thrill of competition, the high-salary lifestyle, media attention, and fan adoration, while intoxicating during their careers, are suddenly missing during retirement. And prior to their professional careers, most athletes never considered having or preparing for a “plan B.”
Making a successful transition from active player to retirement has become a major, yet hidden, problem for many professional athletes. Post-play life is of little concern to team owners and league officials. Although they know significant problems exist, they don’t want to bring a focus on these issues for fear that it will upset the public’s image of the athlete/hero.
Current players have minimal sympathy or time for their retired colleagues and their own fear of retirement typically results in derisive comments about the former stars. Problems that were hidden by agents, ignored by coaches, or suppressed with money during a high-profile sports career are often magnified during retirement.
Described as one of the best defensive linemen ever to play professional football, Jerry Sherk had dedicated his current career to finding ways to help athletes achieve a successful and spiritually-rewarding life during retirement. After a 12-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Sherk returned to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in counseling.
During his graduate work, Sherk studied what psychology calls, “Athletic Transition,” the difficult but rarely discussed move from public to private life. Sherk also researched mythology, and he found the “hero’s journey” and the pro athlete’s experience to be one and the same. He points out, “As an athlete you move from an ordinary world to a special world, but in the end, the task is to return back to the ordinary world, and to be able to function and be happy there.” Sherk goes on to say, “As with any type of hero, for the athlete there are two things that can help you return successfully. One is to let go of the past–to let it die, and the second is to give back to others. Mentoring is a great way to give back to the next generation.”
Sherk has put that learning into practice through creating opportunities for mentoring and leading an organization called Mentor Management Systems (www.mentorms.com). Sherk’s understanding of the challenges that active and retiring players experience combined with the knowledge he has gained about dealing with transitions has enabled him to have greater insight and sensitivity to assisting other players.
Mentoring, according to Sherk, is a way to bring together players who have made a successful retirement transition with current players prior to their retirement. By sharing their wisdom and assisting current players to articulate and plan for their vision of a post-play life, mentors can provide the support and guidance necessary to help players approach post-play life challenges with the same talent, fervor, determination and skill they used on the playing field.
Locating ready-made mentors is not an easy task. Although there are many professional athletes who have successful and productive post-play careers and lives, finding athletes who are both motivated to help and clear about the boundaries of mentoring is more difficult. Sherk has created a training program to help mentors stay focused and not become immersed in the perks typically associated with today’s player contracts and lifestyles. In addition to providing mentoring skills, Sherk’s training program enables the mentors to be clear about their expectations, learn how to share their experiences without preaching, and facilitate in-depth discussions about the future without telling others what to do.
Sherk believes that such mentoring connections are suitable for athletes from every professional sport and that the same principles and practices of mentoring ought to be available to college and high school athletes. From his office near San Diego, Sherk has been a leader in California for youth mentoring and has helped hundreds of organizations create effective mentoring programs.
Don Obe was an award-winning contributor to the Canadian magazine industry as an editor, writer, teacher and mentor. As a faculty member at Ryerson University he taught and mentored many of Canada’s brightest journalists. One of those he mentored, also an award winning journalist, said, “Don was one of the great characters of modern Canadian journalism. He could be funny, biting, sweet, profane, hard-assed and kind, sometimes simultaneously.
He was, for decades, the kind of journalist about which movies are made: hard-drinking and irascible with a soft heart. He was an important mentor of mine, as a writer, editor and, especially, as a teacher. But do you know what really matters? I owe everything I know about the soul of journalism to him.”
Another award-winning journalist said of his mentor: “I still hear him in my head: ‘Magazine writing is an intellectual exercise: it involves a lot more thinking than anything else; if you can’t write better than other people talk, you’re in the wrong business. Style at the expense of clarity is a waste of words.’ But quoting his advice does nothing to capture his passion for journalism and writing, especially narrative non-fiction, or his love of sharing that passion.”
“Lots of people, including me, learned so much about teaching journalism from Don,” said Ryerson professor Tim Falconer. “He really was a mentor to so many journalists in this country and that’s quite a thing to say about someone.”