Transforming the Journey:
Mentoring Lives Through Magic and Myth

The Mentor

"If mentors did not exist," Daloz claims, "we would have to invent them. Indeed we do so from childhood."7 But our invention could not be patented all that easily.

I would imagine if I took a poll here this morning as to what characterized mentors in your own lives, I bet I would hear stories about very ordinary people, and maybe even a few extraordinary ones, who seemed to approach such relationships in very distinctive ways. I probably would hear a story or two about a crusty old type who insisted that certain parameters never be compromised. (Maybe they are sitting right here in this room--probably in the back!). I bet I would also hear stories of some effusive types, who braced us into shape at one time or another through the weight and force of their own personal qualities. And again, I believe that some of you would also describe individuals who, seemingly disinterested, created exactly the kind of space you needed to do your own thing. My point is that there probably is not a single mentoring template that fits all, but rather a mix-and-match array of types that makes it possible for each one of us to connect at some time or another.

In the midst of this variety of experiences, though, there seems to be a fairly predictable sequence of events that occurs as mentoring relationships unfold. From Lois Zachary's work, "preparing, negotiating, enabling, and coming to closure are part of every mentoring relationship, formal and informal."8 These identify four phases that complete the usual cycle of a mentor-mentee relationship. Let us examine each for a moment.

First there is the preparation phase. In this phase,

Mentors explore personal motivation and their readiness to be a mentor. . . . Clarity about . . . expectation [s] and role [s] is essential for establishing a productive mentoring relationship. Preparing is also a discovery process, [where] the mentor evaluates the viability of the prospective . . . relationship . . . [through a] conversation with the mentee . . . . This initial conversation then sets the tone for the relationship.9

Part of preparing to be a mentor also entails taking inventory of one's own mentoring talents and skills, which might include, according to Zachary: the ability to broker, build, and maintain relationships; to coach, communicate, encourage, and facilitate; to set goals and to guide; to manage conflicts and to solve problems; to provide and receive feedback; and to reflect. That is the preparation phase.

In negotiation, the second or "business phase of the relationship," this is the time "when mentoring partners come to agreement on learning goals and define the content and process of the relationship." This phase "has more to do with creating a shared understanding about assumptions, expectations, goals, and needs than actually putting a formal agreement in writing. It involves talking about some of the soft issues in a relationship--topics like confidentiality, boundaries, and limits. . . ." The intention here is to lay "a solid foundation for building trust . . . [as] the details of when and how to meet, responsibilities, criteria for success, accountability, and bringing the relationship to closure are mutually articulated."10 That is the negotiation phase.

The third and longest phase, enabling,

is the implementation phase of the learning relationship, when most of the contact between mentoring partners takes place. It is complex. Although it offers the greatest opportunity for nurturing learning and development, the mentoring partners are also most vulnerable to myriad obstacles that can contribute to a derailment of the relationship. Even when goals are clearly articulated, the process well defined, and the milestones identified, every relationship must find its own path. The enabling phase is a process of path building . . . [where] effective communication is key. The mentor's role . . . is to . . . [maintain] an open and affirming learning climate and [provide] thoughtful, timely, candid, and constructive feedback. Both the mentor and mentee monitor the learning progress and the learning process to ensure that the mentee's learning goals are being met.11

That's the enabling phase. Now we move on to closure. "At some point, the mentor always departs, generally before the journey is over. The trip belongs, after all, to the traveler, not the guide."12 Coming to closure, the last phase, is

an evolutionary process that [itself] has a beginning (establishing closure protocols when setting up a mentoring agreement), a middle (anticipating and addressing obstacles along the way), and an end (ensuring that there has been positive learning, no matter what the circumstances). All three components are necessary for satisfactory closure. A relationship may start out splendidly, with the mentoring partners respecting each other, sharing mutual interests, and developing good rapport. Suddenly the spark goes out. When this happens, mentors often find that working their way back through the phases enables them to evaluate and refashion a stalled relationship into a productive and mutually satisfying experience. Being aware of signals that indicate it is time for closure helps to ensure a timely and positive closure. Closure involves evaluating, acknowledging, and celebrating achievement of learning outcomes.13

All of this "requires a mentor's commitment . . . of time during the entire mentoring cycle . . . [and] familiarity with the predictable phases in the cycle is a critical part of the mentor's tool kit."14

I must admit that, as much as I appreciate Zachary's detailed guidebook approach, I find such sources, usually filled with various schemes and checklists, at times to be a bit too mechanical in understanding what I know to be a much more complex process and something more art than science, more dance than exercise. Actually, while some of my colleagues thrive on frequently consulting their "Century at a Glance" planning books, I am a guy who works with piles of stuff surrounding me in my office. Every day is a new day for me, discovering what is there, and looking for new connections and arrangements, if for no other reason than to keep the stacks from falling over. I sometimes think that carefully marked file drawers are just illusions of how things really do work. Frankly they terrify me, although there are days when I wish I subscribed to such practices, and so I resolve to do better. But then I get over that and return to my chaotic comfort with all the imaginative possibilities it offers.

At the heart of understanding the journey, and our response to it, is this act of human imagination. What is at stake in any journey is trust in the center from which one composes the meaning of it all through constructing an image of how it all works. Sharon Parks suggests that

the human imagination works for both good and ill. Thus, . . . if human beings are to awaken to the fulfillment of their own humanity, they must become aware of and responsible for the powers of imagination. The human being is most mature and true to his or her own nature when the powers of imagination are fully awake, alive to the presence of the Spirit--the deep motion of the universe--and to the power of those who participate in this motion of life to create (and to distort) self and world.15

What distinguishes a good mentor in that role is how she or he participates in this essential act of constructing or imagining the real. From the perspective of Daloz three strategies are most important in that regard: support, challenge, and vision. These are "principles offered to anyone concerned with guiding development"16 in others.

Support involves "those acts through which the mentor affirms the validity" of the mentee's experience--listening, providing structure, expressing positive expectations, serving as advocate, sharing ourselves, and making the relationship special. The bottom line to this strategy is the building of trust. "Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go of what we no longer need and to receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead. Courage and trust are sister and brother."17

The second strategy, challenge, includes "setting tasks, engaging in discussion, setting up dichotomies [or as Morrie Schwartz refers to them, the "tension of opposites"18] constructing hypotheses, and setting high standards."19 These activities serve to sustain momentum in the relationship.

Finally vision is offered through modeling, invoking traditions, offering a map, suggesting new language for naming what it is that we see, and holding up the mirror.

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7Daloz 17. return

8Zachary 50. return

9Zachary 50. return

10Zachary 51. return

11Zachary 52. return

12Daloz 34. return

13Zachary 52. return

14Zachary 63-64. return

15Parks 107. return

16Daloz 206. return

17Daloz 206. return

18Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (New York: Doubleday 1997) 40. return

19Daloz 44. return

© 2003 by The American Benedictine Academy / www.osb.org/aba/