Guidelines on distance mentoring

Virtual mentoring covers three main approaches: mentoring by email, telephone and Skype/ teleconference. Each has both disadvantages and advantages compared to face-to-face mentoring.

E-mail mentoring

Some of the advantages are:

  • It provides built-in reflection time, so mentors have more time to think about good questions and mentees have more time to consider answers
  • Greater reflection time also generates higher creativity
  • It allows mentors to see patterns of expression and language, which reveal issues that may be missed in vocal exchange
  • There is a record of each conversation, so it’s possible to go back to what has been said in previous mentoring conversations
  • People tend to be more open and less aware of power differentials in e-mail based learning exchanges
  • Mentoring can happen at the time it is most needed, rather than having to wait for a scheduled meeting
  • Where appropriate, an email conversation can be broken into several small chunks, spread over a day or more – so not creating a significant disruption to either party’s day
  • Mentor and mentee can be in different time zones, yet hold an (asynchronous) conversation at times convenient to them.

Some of the disadvantages are:

  • There can be a loss of spontaneity
  • The “colour” of spoken conversation (tone, emphasis, emotion etc) is less obvious – so it is easier to misinterpret what has been said
  • People tend to read email-based statements as more critical than intended
  • E-mail correspondence may not be fully confidential, especially if it goes through a company mail system.

Telephone mentoring

The main advantage of telephone mentoring is that, like e-mail, it can be “just-in-time”. While it lacks the visual clues of face-to-face, it is still possible to glean a lot of information from auditory clues – how passionately the other person speaks, when they hesitate, etc. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to build in time for reflection – when someone is silent, it’s hard to tell if they are still there!

Mentoring by Skype or teleconference

When the technology works, these conversations can be a close approximation to face-to-face sessions. However, it may not always be possible to arrange meetings of sufficient length at short notice.

Mixed media mentoring

Many mentoring programmes employ mixed media mentoring – use of any or all the above media, along with some face to face, where possible. The advantage of this approach is that it allows a flexible response to a wide range of situations.

Using remote mentoring media effectively

Mentoring by email

Useful guidelines here include:

  • Agree clear protocols. For example
    • Avoid using capitals, unless you want to shout
    • Don’t send large attachments
    • Mentees should give enough detail of the situation for the mentor to understand and ask pertinent questions, but not so much that they drown in detail
    • Whether and how to share documentation
  • Where appropriate, indicate strong emotions with emoticons or some other form of agreed marker
  • Agree a maximum frequency of email and a maximum response time
  • Make good use of the reflection time by creating a draft, then letting it percolate for half an hour or more, before sending
  • As in a face to face relationship, take time at the beginning to get to know each other. For example, exchange emails about your learning journey, your passions, your previous experience of mentoring etc
  • Check the meaning and words and phrases, to ensure that you have understood each other’s intent
  • Just as in face to face mentoring, remember to establish a measure of rapport at the beginning of each virtual mentoring session. Demonstrate an interest in each other as people, rather than just in the issue the mentee brings
  • E-mail mentoring conversations need structure just as much as face to face ones. Useful questions in creating structure include:
  • What is the issue you’d like to explore?
  • Why is it important to you? Why now?
  • What do you genuinely know? What do you think you know? What do you feel?
  • What level/ kind of resolution are you looking for? (Or do you perhaps just want to examine the issue from other perspectives?)
  • Review and recap more frequently than you might with face to face mentoring, to ensure that you are both on the same wavelength. In particular, ask the mentee to reflect on whether their perception of the issue, which they have brought for discussion, has now changed
  • As with face to face mentoring, aim to review the relationship once every few meetings, to establish what you could each do to make it even more effective.

Telephone and Skype/ teleconference mentoring

Useful guidelines include:

  • Ensure that you are both in an environment, where there will be no interruptions or distractions
  • Re-establish the human connection at the beginning
  • Have a protocol for dealing with silence – for example, that you will wait for up to two minutes before asking another question, or checking in
  • Agree whether and how you will exchange supporting documentation during the mentoring conversation
  • Have a clear agenda
  • Only record the conversation with each other’s permission
  • As with face to face mentoring, aim to review the relationship once every few meetings, to establish what you could each do to make it even more effective.

© David Clutterbuck, 2012

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