Sometimes I am asked, what is the single most powerful tool that facilitates personal development? This is a tricky question because of course any answer must be contextual; one factor might be speed. How fast do you want the personal development to occur? If speed is the issue, then clearly you may choose a process that is not the most powerful, or transformative, but it gets a job done. But if we stick to our principles, and think what really does make the biggest impact, then I think that the process which really does deliver is also possibly the oldest; certainly it goes back to the dawn of time. I am referring to mentoring.
Mentoring is powerful because it is virtually synonymous with parenting; indeed in its nature and its origin, mentoring is parenting. Mentor was the wise and experienced counsellor to whom Odysseus, in the Odyssey, entrusted his son Telemachus when he set off to fight in the Trojan War. Odysseus was gone twenty years before he returned to claim his throne and re-join his family. By which time Mentor was long dead, but he had taught Telemachus, Odysseus’ son well. He had been a father to him – and a mother too. For one curious aspect of the story is that once he died, no-one had noticed because the goddess Pallas Athene, who had a special relationship with Odysseus, had substituted herself for Mentor and carried on fulfilling his role. Pallas Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom and it seems to me entirely appropriate that the tuition and learning that Telemachus received was thus both masculine and feminine in character.
There are various methodologies that can seriously help, develop and build people up that are people-centric: coaching, counselling, therapy, consultancy, and in the appropriate situation they are all powerful and they can all work – do work, indeed. But they operate usually on one or two of the four dimensions that seriously impact people; mentoring must work on all four. So mentoring is the most difficult, the most challenging of all; but then it is also the most rewarding and can lead to the most transformative effects.
What, then, are these four dimensions that impact people so strongly? First, perhaps, is support. People love to feel supported – that someone is there for them, sometimes by their side or alongside them as they face difficulties. But we see – oftentimes with parents – that only giving support can lead to problems: co-dependency for one thing. With support, there needs to be its opposite: challenge. People need challenges, and to be challenged, for if they are not it is highly unlikely they will achieve much. Then again, as with support, too much of anything can lead to problems. Too much challenge and lack of support can lead to serious burn-out.
On another axis are two other dimensions that develop people. One is empathy. This is like support in that it means that someone is resonating with you on your wave length, is seeing life as you see it and with compassion, and this can be so necessary to bring out the best in others. It can sometimes seem that we are alone, that no-one else in the world has our problem or has been in our situation, and so that we are somehow a freak; but when we experience empathy from another, we feel that this is not so, and we can more readily accept advice or help. But again, too much empathy can be a problem: the acceptance with feeling of our situation can mean that we habituate our position and become entrenched somewhere that is unhealthy and unhelpful to us personally. And the antidote to empathy is the fourth element, which is objectivity. We can be so wrapped in our problem or situation that we can no longer see the ‘object’ for what it really is; we lose our true grip on reality, and so someone providing us with an objective view can be massively useful. But too much objectivity can seem distant and cold, and be rejected for those very reasons.
If we consider these four elements and draw them on two axes, we can see clearly that coaching typically involves either being challenging-objective or challenging-empathic; on the other hand, counselling might typically be considered empathic-supportive, whereas therapy can be seen as objective-support; and finally consultancy may be challenging-objective. All have their place and importance, but my point is that mentoring has to be all four!
In other words the mentor has to balance yin and yang: challenging and objective are ‘hard’, are yang, while support and empathy are ‘soft’, are yin, and for any given person the right proportion is necessary. If that can be done then one is approaching what I earlier called the ‘parenting’ position; this level of work with another person, this level of intimacy, is almost a form of love. That is why when it is done properly it is so effective. However, to say ‘when it is done properly’ sounds like condensing it to a set of skills and although that is true, parenting is always much more than that. It is an attitude, a mindset, a level of commitment that transcends mere skill – and when we encounter people who can do this for us, then we are truly transformed.