Monthly Archives: January 2009

Making the most of the mentoring relationship

Jenny Christenson January 14, 2009

“Overwhelmed” is how Rachel Hoffman describes feeling when she started her master’s program in counseling. In fact, she remembers, the idea of becoming a professional counselor just didn’t seem real to her at the time. Then, she says, “one of my counseling teachers helped me to map that out and told me the steps to take. That really broadened my horizons.” The professor became Hoffman’s mentor, encouraging her to expand her idea of what it meant to be a professional counselor by joining associations and advocating for the profession. Today, Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University and serves as a mentoring liaison herself.

Hoffman isn’t alone in her experience. Because of the complex role they play in clients’ lives, many counselors and counselors-in-training find that they can use extra assistance in the form of mentorships. “Mentoring is a matter of working with somebody to help them become more grounded in the practice of their profession,” explains Bret Hendricks, an associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University and a member of the American Counseling Association. This most often involves someone with longevity in the profession figuratively walking beside a less experienced colleague — usually a student — to help that person with his or her professional development or scholarly work. “As far as the student goes, we try to impart to them what it means to be a professional counselor, what it means to practice ethically and, looking at the macro level, things such as social justice and advocacy,” says Hendricks, immediate past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. Hendricks has helped to establish mentoring relationships between students at Texas Tech and professional counselors in the community and has also worked as a mentoring advocate, encouraging the Texas Counseling Association to involve counselors-in-training at all levels of the state association.

“Mentoring is so integral to being a counselor that it is hard to extricate it,” Hendricks says. “It is just part of who you are as a counselor to connect not just with clients, but with the profession.” He believes counselors have an ethical responsibility first to seek out good mentors for themselves and then to return the favor later by serving as mentors to others. “Whatever mentoring we do helps the counselor and, ultimately, the client,” he points out.

Angela Shores, a doctoral student in counselor education at North Carolina State University and assistant director of academic advising at Meredith College, both in Raleigh, N.C., has a similar perspective. “Mentoring provides an opportunity to serve and teach the next generation of counselors, thereby providing service to one’s profession,” she says. Shores has participated in a formal mentoring program through the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of ACA, and served as a mentor herself in a more informal setting.

Mentoring in the counseling profession is both different from and similar to mentoring in other professions. Says Hoffman, “I think it is different than counseling a teacher, for example. The day-to-day activities are different. Sometimes mentoring in the counseling profession includes more clinical skills, and sometimes mentoring covers more administrative skills. It becomes more situational.”

While mentoring at the micro level is influenced by counseling’s theories of practice, the overall mentoring processes and concepts are generally the same across all professions, Hendricks adds.

Some of the benefits of mentoring seem obvious in a profession as challenging as counseling. “It is important for people to feel supported. It was valuable to have many people along the way giving me feedback, both in my doctoral program and in the process of looking for jobs in academia. I think it is beneficial that we have others who help us along the way,” says Hoffman, who as president of the Kappa Sigma Upsilon Chapter of Chi Sigma Iota spearheaded development of a mentorship program for doctoral students called FLASH (Forming, Linking, Achieving, Succeeding, Helping).

But mentoring relationships can also offer other less recognized, though equally important, benefits to mentees, including opening doors to networking and research opportunities and assisting in the development of a wider perspective of the profession and the professional role of counselors. Mentoring can also provide strategies for successfully navigating graduate school, writing a thesis or dissertation, or pursuing licensure.

Having a mentor can also help mentees navigate a system that is governed in part by unspoken rules, says ACA member Valerie Schwiebert, author of Mentoring: Creating Connected, Empowered Relationships and a professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. “Mentors provide support to their protégés in an effort to remove organizational barriers, to assist protégés in negotiating the ‘system’ and to provide protégés with opportunities for upward mobility,” she explains. Because they have already experienced some aspect of the system, mentors can offer guidance concerning what mentees need to do to succeed in an organization.

Finding a mentor

Mentoring relationships often begin informally. “There’s such a loose definition of mentoring,” Hendricks says. “It could be teaching a class, or it could be sitting down and having coffee. I would say most of us in the (counseling) field have been mentored, whether we’d call it that or not. Engaging in those sorts of relationships is mentoring.”

Many relationships are initiated by would-be mentees simply approaching a professional colleague and asking that person to be their mentor. But, as Hendricks points out, “You can recruit in either direction. A mentor can go to a mentee and say, ‘I can make myself available.’”

More formal mentoring relationships are often established by an intermediary, such as a graduate school or a professional association. “Joining your ACA branch is a great way to share experiences with other counselors in your area,” says ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan.

In certain counseling programs, senior students serve as mentors for beginning students. While these mentorships typically end when students graduate, other mentoring relationships last indefinitely. “It’s almost like a family,” Hendricks says. “Once you have this mentor relationship, it goes on. You still have that bond 10 years down the road,” even if the mentor and mentee don’t see each other for several years. Although there may be times when the mentoring relationship isn’t as strong and the dialogue isn’t so frequent, ideally, he says, the mentee should feel that he or she can still seek out the mentor at any time.

Guidelines are often helpful when it comes to maintaining ethical mentoring relationships, Schwiebert says. “When a power differential exists that governs my behavior, I need to make sure that I am operating ethically, particularly in dual-role relationships,” she explains. One benefit of formally established mentoring relationships is that they are more likely to be conducted under the ACA Code of Ethics, Schwiebert adds. (In particular, refer to Standards C.6.d., “Exploitation of Others”; F.3.a., “Relationship Boundaries With Supervisees”; F.3.e., “Potentially Beneficial Relationships”; and F.10.d., “Nonprofessional Relationships.”)

Power differentials aside, the mentor should invite the mentee to engage in a conversation about what he or she wants out of the relationship, Hoffman says. “The mentoring relationship is more a collaborative journey, where both can learn from each other, with the ultimate goal that the mentee feels that he or she is well prepared and has the ability to make decisions,” she says.

Each mentoring relationship should be unique, Shores adds. “Mentoring is defined by the mentee and the mentor, so based on their needs, expectations and interests, mentoring can be quite a creative adventure.”

Hendricks says the mentoring relationship should play itself out on two levels. At the micro level, the relationship focuses on how mentees can grow in their understanding and application of counseling theories. At the macro level, mentors should teach their mentees that they will be at their best only if they take care of themselves properly, participate in wellness activities and set appropriate boundaries. The wellness aspect of mentoring can help mentees successfully integrate their many facets of life, including work, family and school.

Schwiebert has introduced another perspective on mentoring, creating the word “womentoring.” She explains that womentoring is the more feminine-driven aspect of mentoring, whereby women use their inherent strengths in building relationships to teach their mentees how to create connected, empowered relationships without sacrificing other people as they move up the ladder of success. This community-building take on mentoring can be applied to both men and women, Schwiebert says, and can be used by all groups of people, both in counseling and other professions.

Challenges in mentoring

While few counselors would deny the potential benefits of mentoring, making the time to establish or nurture a mentoring relationship is often a challenge. “We, as counselors, get tunnel vision about what we are doing because we are so busy,” Hendricks says. “Too many times, mentoring gets pushed to the back seat because it is not a pressing issue.”

One of the best ways for counselors and counseling students to minimize the challenges of time constraints and the sometimes spotty availability of mentors is to get involved in their professional organizations and take advantage of formal mentoring programs. The Texas Counseling Association has encouraged students to become a part of the organization and reap the benefits of membership, including participation in a mentoring program, Hendricks says. “Mentoring is a self-perpetuating process,” he says. “If you are well mentored, then you will become a good mentor.”

Another often unforeseen challenge is allowing the mentoring relationship to remain fluid enough to accommodate changes in the mentees’ role as their careers advance to the level of their mentors or beyond, Schwiebert says. One solution is to “make mentoring more formalized between the mentor and protégé, because then the protégé can explain his or her specific needs, and the mentor can tell if they can help them,” she says. With each change in the mentee’s career, the mentoring relationship has to be renegotiated. But even when mentees and mentors become professional equals, Schwiebert says the relationship can remain beneficial because each participant has specific strengths and skills that can be shared with and taught to the other.

Developing trust in the relationship is another common challenge,Hoffman says. Mentees can alleviate some of these trust issues before they even enter into a mentoring relationship by developing clear expectations for what they want from a mentor. Then, Hoffman advises, mentees should actively try to engage someone who will be a good fit for them.

Finding this good mentoring match is another challenge, of course. Shores suggests mentees look for someone who is engaged in the same kinds of research, advocacy or counseling techniques that they are interested in or want to learn more about.

But don’t let a slightly imperfect fit ruin the potential to have a genuinely beneficial relationship, Hendricks advises. Oftentimes, he says, dedication and commitment within the mentoring relationship can overcome differences in personality. “Some of the people with whom I have the best relationships don’t have personality types anywhere close to mine,” he says, “but they know the value of commitment.” And in the big picture, Hendricks says, commitment is more important than personality type.

Finding a good mentor-mentee match can be even more difficult for counselors from minority or subdominant cultures. “There are so few role models out there for them,” Hendricks says. “It is so important for minorities to find mentors, and yet there is no clear road map for that.” The counseling profession generally acknowledges that finding a mentor of the same race, gender or socioeconomic background is ideal, in large part because the mentor can relate to many of the challenges the mentee is facing, which helps to build a higher level of trust. But while “it would ultimately be best if people could be mentored by someone from the same cultural group,” Hendricks adds, “I think it is most important to have a mentor, period.”

Regardless of the mentee’s background, an important tool in finding a good mentor match is networking. “Most people who are successful are so because they have relationships and networks that provided opportunities in their lives,” Schwiebert says. “Most giants in the counseling field have multiple mentors.”

In her book, Schwiebert states that “mentoring is most effective when the individuals share similar values, attitudes, goals and worldviews.” However, she goes on to say that both parties can benefit from cross-cultural mentoring relationships because they can “expand their awareness and understanding of individuals from different backgrounds.”

These relationships can also be very powerful because the participants demonstrate unity and acceptance — two of the very principles most counselors advocate.

Effective mentors

Many of the qualities and skills needed to become an effective mentor are already second nature to counselors. “Being available and listening and encouraging people, especially on the wellness aspects, are important,” Hendricks says, adding that if mentees are not taking care of themselves properly, they cannot be effective counselors. “Don’t concentrate so much on theory and technique that you ignore the bigger picture of wellness,” he says.

Having an open dialogue with mentees is also important. This involves helping mentees to determine what is best for them instead of making decisions for them. As Hoffman points out, this often means “not just providing quick answers.”

As counselors mature as professionals in the field or in academia, they can give back to the profession and to society by becoming mentors. “As we find our own places in life, we can assist others in negotiating their own journeys toward shared goals, visions and attainment of personal and professional accomplishments,” Schwiebert says.

Adds Hendricks, “I think that the counseling profession is one that needs advocacy. For us to present a united front, to present consistent messages to the public, we must be mentoring one another. We must be talking to one another.”

Jenny Christenson is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at jchristenson@counseling.org.

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