Learning can be scary.
A protégé’s path when learning is not only potentially unpleasant, but also it generally comes with no guarantee of success. Learning in its rawest form almost always entails a public display of weakness.
No one learns to walk without falling. Learning without facing some chance of failure is superficial progress, not real change.
Learners leave a safe “who I am” in search of a vulnerable “who I can be.” They’re willing to withstand emotional arrows in the back as they blaze unfamiliar territory.
What can mentors do to support such pioneering recklessness? How can they guide protégés to take responsible risks? They can provide courage.
But courage is not an attribute to be bestowed. We don’t really give courage. Instead, think of courage as a pre-existing condition which is there to be awakened.
Like a shy child at a party, courage is a trait that is already present but in need of an invitation. The role of mentor is to partner with the protégé to surface courage, and acceptance is the context in which surfacing and supporting occur.
In a mentoring partnership, acceptance is an invitation to risk, extended to the protégé in three ways: dynamic modeling, judgment-free communication and rational affirmation.
Dynamic modeling: There’s no more effective teaching technique than personal example. If you’re inviting the protégé to take risks and you also engage in risk-taking, you’re communicating acceptance.
Consider the courage of the shy child at the party. A public request for all shy children to join in the fun is not likely to invoke participation. But if another child makes a private invitation, the outcome will be completely different.
The modeling of courage needs to be dynamic. Dynamic modeling means you act as an obvious prototype for the protégé. Courage-building requires more than support from the sidelines. Dynamic modeling requires “Follow me!” behavior that is obvious and noticeable.
Take your protégé to a seminar or conference. Ask your protégé to teach you something she or he knows that you’d like to learn. If you attend a conference, make time to share the highlights of your learning. If your protégé attends an event, pick his or her brain afterward.
Judgment-free communication: Anatomy experts tell us that courage occurs physiologically when the circuits in the thinking portion of the brain turn on and restrain the overexcited emotional center of the brain. Rather than being emotionally stymied, clear thinking directs action even in the face of risks.
Mentors see the opportunities for exploration as chances to make good even better. Focusing on their role as the conveyor of wisdom, mentors have a confident view and see no minefields of emotional loss.
But protégés enter exploration looking at the possibility for failure. They believe that somehow their hidden inadequacies will be exposed and come under the disapproving scrutiny of a critical judge.
This is where nonjudgmental communication works as an antidote. Instead of a tone of censure, mentors communicate with acceptance. An open posture replaces the cross-armed stare. Their pace is deliberate, not clipped and ambiguous.
Above all, nonjudgmental communication works by sending a friendly message that the protégé’s emotional armor is unnecessary. Make the message an act of discovery based on the idea that the protégé’s view is legitimate and normal, but also inaccurate.
Rational affirmation: Ever thought about the role of cheering at an athletic event? Cheering is not simply an expression of joy; it’s also one of affirmation. When sports announcers speak of the “home-field advantage,” they’re acknowledging the power of affirmation as a tool for summoning courage.
“Rational affirmation” is an intentional oxymoron. Evoking courage is about quieting the overactive, irrational anxiety in the protégé.
An effective mentor invites the protégé to face the risks of learning by being a good model, engaging in judgment-free communication and offering rational affirmation.
When the protégé witnesses courage, hears its sound and feels its glow, experimentation ensues and wisdom results.
Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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