Mentoring is nothing new

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mike Jones
  • 8th Force Support Squadron first sergeant
Ever since Odysseus entrusted the education of his son, Telemachus, to an advisor and friend named Mentor more than 3,000 years ago, the concept of mentoring has become firmly tied to the educational process.

Mentor was actually the goddess Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, who assumed human form. Mentor personally took over the responsibility of educating and guiding Telemachus. This mentorship lasted during the ten-year siege of Troy and throughout the next ten years, the time it took for Odysseus to journey home.

Although the term "mentor" is rooted in mythology, it has grown and flourished throughout history. Today, not only are mentors linked to the education of students but also to the professional development of today's Airmen.

There is no fixed rule about what traits or circumstances surrounding a given mentoring situation are the most critical. The most frequently mentioned characteristic of effective mentors is a willingness to look after another person. If there is not openness, a willing spirit, or a desire to help another on the part of the mentor, then the mentoring process is doomed to from the start.

Openness can be defined as effective, meaningful communication between the mentor and the protégé. The mentor has to be willing to "call the baby ugly" and help the protégé learn from their mistakes. However, a major source of problems with communication is defensiveness. Effective communicators are cognizant that defensiveness is a typical response, especially when negative information or criticism is involved. To overcome this barrier, mentors must make adjustments that compensate for the likely defensiveness.

They understand that when people feel threatened they will try to protect themselves; this is natural. This defensiveness can take the form of aggression, anger, competitiveness, and avoidance. A skillful mentor is aware of the potential for defensiveness and makes needed adjustments.

However, communication is not a one way street. Both parties have to learn to accept constructive criticism in order for any meaningful mentoring to take place. The protégé must put forth his or her best effort and learn what is being taught, but more importantly, the mentor must be able to listen when the message gets lost in translation. Remember, in any communication at least some of the "meaning" is lost in the simple transmission of a message from the sender to the receiver. In many situations a lot of the true message is lost and the message that is received is often far different than the one intended.

This is most obvious in cross-cultural situations where language is an issue. We all know that the same words spoken in different parts of the United States can have very different meanings. So, use the acronym ETHNIC to help overcome these barriers:

Everyone has a culture;
Take time to learn about each others cultures and backgrounds;
Hold all judgments;
Notice and negotiate differences in teaching as well as learning;
Involve cultural resources as appropriate; and
Collaborate to develop objectives and educational strategies.

Being a mentor can be a very rewarding part of your Air Force career. It is everyone's responsibility to recognize the importance of effective mentoring and how to select the appropriate strategies that will facilitate a protégé's professional development. The key is effective communication and learning to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate ways to provide feedback by overcoming cultural differences and biases. Finally, both parties must recognize the importance of managing the mentoring relationship from inception to completion.