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What Would You Do?

Your mentee came to you rather reluctantly because she didn’t trust so-called helpers and other authority figures. She was shy and had very little self confidence. This was a real dilemma, but you made up your mind to make a positive difference in her life.

Over the months you’ve met together, you’ve been careful to praise her frequently, giving her positive feedback on her accomplishments as well as on who she is as a person. You feel good that you’ve built her up, and she’s eager for each session with you. You’ve overlooked some mistakes and behaviors that slightly irritate you, because you’ve been intent on helping her self confidence increase.

Now you have a new dilemma. She now seems overly sure of herself and boasts about how well she’s doing in every aspect of her life. At the same time, her mistakes and irritants have started to annoy you a little. Her grammar is quite poor, she has a habit of rolling her eyes when she disagrees with what you say, and she has started blaming her boss and others for situations she probably contributed to.


What do you do now? Read the responses below, and put a check mark next to what you would do. See The Mentoring Group’s Reactions that follow.

  1. Continue to overlook these small things. It’s more important to build a mentee’s confidence, and she’s probably just going through a phrase right now. Grammatical mistakes aren’t that important in life’s larger scheme. It’s too important that you and she have an enjoyable, positive relationship. Since your formal relationship is nearing its end, her next mentor can work on correcting these behaviors.
  2. Ask permission to give a summary of where you think the two of you have been and where you’d like to focus next. If she agrees, say something like this: “In our final weeks together, I’d like to be more of a coach on some specific areas that I think you could do even better than you’re doing now. How does that sound?” If she agrees, go on to name one or two of these"development areas" that you’ve observed in your sessions.
  3. Be up-front with your feelings and apologize. Say something like this: “(Name), I haven’t been totally honest with you. I should have told you this when I first noticed; please forgive me. As much as I enjoy our relationship, you’re doing some things that are starting to worry and even annoy me. For example, you often make mistakes in grammar, and that makes you sound uneducated. I don’t want people to think less of you. When you roll your eyes, I feel hurt that you don’t value my ideas....”
  4. Without asking permission or sharing your irritation, start gently correcting her on at least one area in each meeting. For example, when she makes a grammatical mistake, say something like this (with a smile): “You just said‘I’ve got no reasons.’ The correct way to say it is “I have no reasons” or “I haven’t any reasons.”

The Mentoring Group’s Reactions

Overlook these things: This response is avoidance and is the response a lot of us would like to make. When we work with mentees with low self esteem, we want to pump up their self confidence and not worry about the “small stuff.” Especially if you only have a few meetings left, you’re not sure you suddenly want to switch gears. Yet, you’re her mentor, and mentors are usually valued when they bring the good news along with the bad. You’ve built up a lot of trust, and she will probably be open to some correction, especially if you package it well. With your next mentee, set the expectation early on that you’d like to give both types of feedback.

Ask permission to summarize and change focus: We like this response. Asking permission shows respect and keeps the trust going. Saying “areas I think you could do even better” doesn’t make the behaviors sound worse than they are. Starting with one or two areas during your remaining time is better than trying to improve everything. She can probably make some progress even in a few weeks. You didn’t mention your feelings, which we probably would, but that isn’t a must.

Be up-front with feelings and apologize: Although we like the feelings (enjoy, worry, annoy), this may seem like a huge dump because you’re saying so much all at once. Are you really sorry, did you do something wrong in retrospect (e.g., sit on some of your observations too long), and do you want forgiveness? If so, you should do more than say “please forgive me” and then move right on. If you take this route, we’d like it combined with the slower approach of response 2 above.

Start correcting without permission: We don’t think this will work well. Even though you’re smiling, your behavior is very different from what you usually do and say. You’ll get her attention, but she may think you’re kidding. Or she may conclude you’re now showing your true colors and trying to bring her down just as so many others have in the past. She’s likely to discount and resist what you say because she hasn’t asked for or agreed to receive such feedback from you.

A good rule of thumb in mentoring is to discuss your mentor role as early in the relationship as possible. Negotiate what you will (and won’t) give your mentee in the way of feedback, especially the corrective type. Don’t sit on your irritations; gently yet honestly share your perceptions and how your mentee’s behavior is affecting you. Ask your mentee to do the same for you. Use the famous “4 to 1 Rule”: give at least four praises/compliments/encouragements for every one correction or negative feedback.

What Would You Do?
by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

13560 Mesa Drive, Grass Valley, CA 95949, USA
Phone: 530.268.1146 Fax: 530.268.3636 e-mail:
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