Mentor Skills Critical to Building Rapport

In our section on the Evolution of the Mentoring Relationship, we examined the phases of the mentoring relationship and listed the competencies to successfully take the mentor and mentee through each phase. At this point in our learning it would be beneficial to review several of those phases and then explore some of their critical competencies in greater depth for the mentor.

Phase 1: Building Rapport

The mentor and the mentee are exploring if they can work together. They are determining the alignment of values, establishing a mutual respect, agreeing on the purpose of their relationship, and establishing the roles, behaviors and expectations.

Two key competencies for the mentor to have in this phase are those of empathizing and active listening.


Empathizing, or having rapport, is key in building a successful mentoring partnership. Strong rapport results in effective communication and a mentee open and willing to take the steps needed to effect change in their performance and development. Rarely are we immediately comfortable with someone we have met for the first time. This is because we have unconsciously been influenced, either positively or negatively, by their appearance, language or behavior and formed an impression as to the degree of our common issues or values. Our level of rapport is then determined by virtue of how different or similar they are to us.

It is important to note that a series of seven steps take place in the first few minutes of meeting someone for the first time that work together to form that impression of “commonality.” Even though these steps occur unconsciously, understanding what we do when they happen can help us become more aware when we are trying to affect a professional relationship.

Step 1: Discounting Within seconds of meeting someone we start to “discount” or “mark people down” depending on their appearance, voice, body language, etc. using ourselves as a benchmark for perfect. This assessment of how similar someone is to us has a direct bearing on the level of rapport established. It is important to note that this appraisal is also the initial input our mentees use to ascertain their response to us. As mentors, we need to be able to adapt successfully to many different styles.

Step 2: Judgment By now we have unconsciously critiqued the person we have just met and are placing them into the appropriate “box” or stereotype. Judgment is one of the ways we process information but it is also a two-way process. Within two minutes, our mentees have decided whether we are a credible professional – or not.

Step 3: Eye-Contact The first point of contact in a face-to-face meeting is via the eyes. Not only have we determined that appearance is important; more subtly eye-contact, or the lack of it, is part of the discounting process. You should strive to maintain good, open and honest eye-contact when you meet with your mentee. That can be achieved in a non-confrontational manner when you keep your gaze anywhere within an inverted triangle, with the apex ending at the point of the chin and the base of the triangle between the mentees eyes.

Step 4: The Handshake A handshake can inculcate feelings about us in someone as soon as first contact is made. We can use this perception in our favor by extending our hand palm upwards in the “submissive” position. We place our mentee in a “dominant” and therefore safe position, as they feel in control.

Step: 5 Power of Your Smile Smiling at your mentee conveys an attitude of openness and acceptance, helping them to loosen-up and be open with us in turn. As mentors, it helps us to relax and places us in a positive state, makings it easier for us to manage the communication.

Step 6: Intelligent Questions As a mentor we need to remember that the person who controls the questions is the person who controls the conversation. Ask the mentee questions – lots of them. The mentee's feeling of safety is enhanced, as the person they hear talking the most is themselves – and who do they feel the most comfortable with but themselves.

Step 7: Body Language People will always look to the body language before they listen to the spoken word and will act on it first when making decisions about your message. You only get one chance to make a first impression, make it a positive one!

What Would You Do?

Here's a dilemma faced by an actual mentor. Read the facts, put yourself in this situation, and choose your preferred solution…or develop your own! Go here to see how your solution compares to the answer suggested by The Mentoring Group or see the entire scenario in your Mentoring Workbook.

You agreed to be a mentor in your organization's new mentoring program. After a lengthy matching process, you were paired with a person who is extremely shy. You're very outgoing, so this has proved a challenge for you. Your mentee is very diligent, shows up for all your meetings, does mentoring homework, and frequently expresses appreciation to you. You notice that when you and this person are talking she/he almost never makes eye contact with you. Most of the people in your organization value eye contact. What do you do?

Possible Responses

A. You assume this is a cultural or style difference not only to accept but to respect and honor. You cut down on the amount of eye contact you make with her/him.

B. You start smiling broadly every time he/she looks you in the eye. You believe if you do this often enough, through conditioning, your mentee will start making more eye contact with you.

C. You write a note to your mentee describing what you've noticed and suggesting he/she make more eye contact. You recommend that this be one of the goals the two of you work on in your relationship.

D. You bring up the topic of conversation styles in your organization and what seems to be valued. You ask your mentee if she/he has ever noticed anything about looking into people's eyes and you share your own experiences on the issue.

Active Listening

What do we mean by active listening?
Active listening is an essential mentoring skill. Many mentors make the mistake of confusing “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is only the first part of listening, the physical part when your ears pick-up the sound-waves. Listening, however, is the interpretation of what you heard that leads to understanding or misunderstanding. This is followed by the evaluation stage where you weigh the information and determine how you will use it. Finally, based on what you thought you heard and how you evaluated, you react.

Our primary communication activity is listening.

In any given day we spend approximately 80% of our waking hours communicating. Of that time, at least 45% is spent listening. However, tests have shown that most individuals are inefficient listeners. After listening to a ten-minute presentation, the average learner retained approximately half of what was said. And, within 48 hours, retention drops another 50% indicating that often we only retain one-quarter of what is said.

Some of the benefits of active listening:

•  Encourages the speaker
•  Promotes trust and respect
•  Enables listener to gain information
•  Improves relationships
•  Makes resolution of problems more likely
•  Gains cooperation
•  Promotes better understanding of people

Ask, discuss, listen; all tags for communication. But communication is more than the sharing of knowledge or information by any number of means. At its high point it can be motivation, inspiration, consolation; at its low it can be desolation, isolation or worse. This video "Communication: The Foundation of Understanding" contains a series of inspiration quotations set to music. Enjoy!

What are the Barriers to Active Listening?

Forming a judgment or evaluation before we understand what is being said. Are you so busy criticizing what the other person is saying that you don't hear them? There is nothing wrong with using discrimination, but it is more helpful to defer judgment until you fully understand what the other person is talking about.

Interrupting or excessive and incessant talking. When you don't allow the other person to complete a thought, you are not listening. Many people interrupt because they are impatient. If you find yourself losing the train of a conversation because the other is talking excessively, ask for a summary and then continue to listen.

Attributing your own thoughts and ideas to the speaker causing distortion. It is easy to mentally fill in the details of what another person is saying and then to assume you have understood them. People often take everything they hear personally, which is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings that lead to breakdowns in relationships. You can remedy that tendency by checking out your assumptions first.

Hearing what we wish to hear. People tend to hear what they expect to hear, need to hear, or want to hear and block out the rest. Keep in mind that everybody uses some form of selective listening. Get to know your form of selectivity and observe your tendency to block listening with it.

Always needing to offer advice. You may think that you have to answer every question asked and solve every problem. The other person may simply be thinking aloud, asking rhetorical questions, or just looking for a supportive presence. Let others specifically ask for help or advice. Otherwise, just listen and be there.

Being inattentive. Do you let your mind wander frequently in conversations, giving in to other external noises and distractions or to your own daydreams or plans? If boredom is the problem, remember that the more involved you become in the conversation, the less boring it may be. Ask questions. Ask for examples. Summarize what you hear the other person saying.

Go to your Mentoring Workbook and locate the worksheet entitled "Listening Is Never Easy - Mentor Exercise!" This activity invites you to look into your own life for examples of active listening, or the lack of it. It will help reinforce the listening skills you are learning as well as identify the consequences of your efforts.

Suggestions for Improving Active Listening Skills

1. Make Eye Contact: Lack of eye contact may be interpreted as disinterest or disapproval. Making eye contact with the person who is speaking focuses your attention, reduces the chance of distraction, and is encouraging to the speaker.

2. Exhibit Affirmative Nods and Appropriate Facial Expressions: The effective listener shows signs of being interested in what is said through nonverbal signs. Indicate through your body language that your mentee warrants your full attention.

3. Avoid Distracting Actions or Gestures: Do not look at other people, play with pens or pencils, shuffle papers, or the like. These activities make the speaker feel like you are not interested in what is being said.

4. Ask Good Questions: Questioning helps ensure clarification of what your mentee is saying, facilitates understanding, and encourages the mentee by letting them know that you are engaged.

5. Listen for Both Fact and Feelings: If feelings are ignored, the true meaning and intent of the message is often missed. Pay close attention to your mentee's nonverbal communication as well as their words.

6. Paraphrase: Paraphrasing means restating what the individual has said in different words. This technique allows the mentor to verify that the message was received correctly.

7. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker: Allow the mentee to complete his or her thought before responding, and do not mentally prepare your response while the other person is speaking.

8. Do Not Talk Too Much: An active listener recognizes that it is impossible to talk and listen acutely at the same time. Keep your ratio of talking to listening down to about 20 percent talking and 80 percent listening.

Go to your Mentoring Workbook and locate and complete two (2) worksheets. "Listening Is Never Easy - Statements," will aid you in learning more about using statements to improve your listening skills. The activity "Listening Is Never Easy - Questions" will provide you with an opportunity to practice using open-ended questions.

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