Starting a new mentorship may feel rocky at times - you or your mentee might sense that something’s off. You can’t always put your finger on it, but it just doesn’t seem to gel. Of course, not all mentors can guide everyone, but there’s always room to improve as a better mentor for your mentee.

Sometimes, the problem can be easily fixed by simply learning to listen better, and that’s where active listening comes in. It’s a simple concept to understand, yet also easy to get wrong if you don’t know its secrets.

Here’s what active listening is and the five key elements you must get right to achieve better results for your mentees.

Passive vs. Active Listening

Not all listening techniques are equal or accomplish the same thing. When you started mentoring, passive listening was probably your go-to strategy. But it’s not really more effective than just hearing what your mentee has to say - here’s why.

When we engage in passive listening, we’re not reacting. Sure, we allow others to speak without interrupting them, but are you really paying attention? You’re probably not as attentive as you think you are because you can’t properly register the message being conveyed to you.

Unfortunately, communication can’t be a one-way street, and understanding someone takes more than hearing their words. This is where active listening comes in.

Active listening is a two-way communication strategy where you convey that you understand what your mentee is trying to say.

At the same time, you’re paying attention to more than words to contextualize and process the message. Doing this will make the conversation more genuine, build trust, and create a more comfortable environment for the mentee where they can open up and experience new realizations.

Here are five key secrets to active listening that will make you a better mentor.

1. Paying Attention

Active listening works best when you give your mentee your undivided attention and take in their message. You’ll want to maintain eye contact and pay attention to your mentee’s body language and avoid preparing a rebuttal or conversing with a third party - even when you’re in a group mentorship session and someone might be trying to get your attention.

Acknowledging the messages conveyed through both non-verbal and verbal communication is a crucial part of active listening and will provide more insight into your mentee.

2. Show You’re Listening

Two-way communication strategies require some back and forth. But how do you do that if you’re supposed to give your undivided attention and allow your mentee to share their story uninterrupted? You can use body language like nodding, smiling, and various other gestures and facial expressions as indicators to demonstrate that you’re listening to what a person is saying.

Adopt an inviting posture and avoid crossing your arms to help your mentee open up. Occasionally, you can throw in verbal comments like “aha,” “carry on,” “yes,” and others to show you’re listening without interrupting the message. You can accomplish a lot with the faintest gesture and a brief verbal comment without interrupting the mentee’s train of thought.

3. Defer Judgment

You might not always agree with your mentee, and there’s nothing wrong with offering a different perspective or advice - it’s inevitable! But you can still do it in a constructive manner by deferring judgment until such a time when it’s appropriate.

You have to pick the right moment to intervene in a conversation and share your thoughts. At no point should you do it while your mentee is talking and sharing something. That may work in casual conversations, but you’re a mentor. Your goal is to provide value!

With that in mind, avoid interrupting the speaker. For one, it’s a frustrating act. Secondly, it may prevent you from hearing and understanding the complete message. Keep any counter arguments until it’s your turn to speak or the other person asks you to interject.

4. Offer Feedback

Don’t be afraid to offer feedback even if you don’t fully understand the message. Active listening is a skill you must master, and it takes time. However, if you’re unsure what you took from your mentee’s story, reflect back on the message, perhaps by paraphrasing and asking for clarification on points that confuse or elude you.

Only then will you be ready to provide feedback at a high level, as a mentor should. This is a particularly sound strategy if you have a tendency to respond emotionally to what someone might have to say. It’ll help you keep an open mind, clarify the message, and give you a chance to provide better feedback without going off-topic.

5. Formulate Appropriate Responses

Remember your goal and duty as a mentor: You’ll be taking someone under your wing to guide, teach, and nurture. That’s the opposite of putting them down or attacking their opinions. Your mentees want to be understood before you offer your help and expertise.

It’s crucial to be open and honest with your responses. But whatever opinion you share, you must do it respectfully. Don’t make assumptions about how a person wants to be treated. Don’t treat others how you would like to be treated because you believe it’s the best way.

Take your cues from active listening and hear what the other person is conveying with oral and non-verbal communication. Whether they want to or not, they’ll give you clues on how they like to be treated and spoken to, and you can use that information to respond appropriately.

It’s All About Two-Way Communication

Five simple adjustments to your active listening strategy will make you a master of this skill and a better mentor. You must show you’re listening, pay close attention to all verbal and body language cues, postpone judgment, offer feedback, and come up with appropriate responses, but most importantly, you should keep in mind what active listening is all about.

This means turning communication with your mentee into a two-way street. This allows you to truly hear what the other person has to say, so you can come up with helpful responses. Simultaneously, it lets the other person know that you’re really focused, listening, and understanding the message. It’s an invaluable assurance that they’re not wasting time and you’re actually there to help.

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