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  • 0 Navigating Challenging Conversations

    Some conversations are downright terrifying. Even if you are a confident person with competent communication skills, trying to fulfill a need without being able to predict the outcome (“Will she say yes?” “Is he going to be upset?”) can be overwhelming. When returning from maternity leave after the birth of my first child, I was fraught with worry over letting my boss know that I’d need to take the 4:50pm train out of the city every day to relieve the babysitter on time. When I tried to find the words, all I could see is how this new schedule made me less. It was a busy Manhattan office where few had children and many routinely worked well past traditional business hours. I agonized over the timing, the verbiage, the perfect rationale. The more I tried to get the request just right, the more I spun circles, moving from anxiousness to avoidance. Eventually, I couldn’t spend another second trying to perfect this question that I had convinced myself would mark the end of my career. There was a job, a newborn, a train, and a babysitter. No amount of handwringing was going to change those variables. And, as it turns out, my supervisor was great. She just wanted to know if it was okay for her to get in touch with me after 5:00 pm if something came up. Capitalize on the moment A lot of us are currently on the edge of transition. Many have summer vacations in the pipeline and we’re beginning our re-entry after many months of working and schooling from home. There might be something you are looking to ask your supervisor but don’t know how to get started. Perhaps you want to work remotely more often, take time off for a trip, or ask to be considered for a new position with more responsibility. We’ve spent over a year accomplishing our work completely differently than ever before which leaves us with a strong position for any changes we want to make. If you are seeking more authority or responsibility, articulate the way you’ve navigated the recent obstacles. If you are hoping to expand your remote working routine, quantify the output you managed this year from your home office. Be respectful and persuasive. Take the conversation into your hands In the TED Talk series “How to Be a Better Human” series, Daryl Chen says that sometimes we avoid difficult conversations because, even if something hasn’t been going our way for a while, we’re worried we might make things worse. He urges us to “move toward- not away” from the conflict. Be informed but stay humble. When asking for something, ask the other person about their experiences. Keep quiet, especially in the beginning. Once you address the question (for example, transitioning to a new project?) be quiet for a few minutes. Give the other person a chance to talk. Try to see things from their perspective. Why might there be hesitation on their part? What other issues could they have going on in that moment? If you sense things aren’t going your way, try to slow the dialogue by paraphrasing the other person’s points. Taking time to show that you are listening and thinking critically demonstrates your genuineness. A recent Harvard Business Review article described how asking questions can also be a persuasive tool. It requires humility to give the other speaker space to elaborate on a position that contradicts your own. They said, “When you listen deeply and sincerely, others feel less of a need to resist you in order to be heard.” Prepare and research No matter what the nature of your conversation, take the time to prepare and practice: Understand your organizational landscape as it relates to your request. What are the trends? Do you know anyone in your situation? Can you ask them about their experience? Explain how this change could help you do your job better. What are the benefits to the organization? How would it make you more productive? Is it a good business decision? If so, what is the return on investment? Write a workplan. How might you adjust your day to absorb this change? What would each day look like in the coming weeks? How will you take charge of this? Explain how you will prove your success. How will you demonstrate a positive outcome? How will you stand out? Articulate- for yourself- why this matters If you’re still having a hard time getting started, jot down three reasons why this is important to you. Project how your situation might be different in a few months- or even after a year- if things work out the way you want. Why is this worth the conversation?  

  • 0 Polishing Your Writing Style

    Effective communication is a major topic in mentoring. Success at everything we do- giving and receiving feedback, wielding political savvy, networking, seeking career advancement- comes down to our ability to thoughtfully say what we mean. Over the past year, many of us have polished our online presence and dug deep into our toolboxes to work productively in a virtual world. In this month’s newsletter we are going step back from technology and address good-old fashioned writing fundamentals. Don’t worry the rules have relaxed Admittedly, texting and social media posting have forever altered the writing craft. Some of the hard-nosed grammatical rules we learned in school have been lifted, for example: it’s okay to start a new sentence with a conjunction (“But let me know if you can’t access the server.”) if it adds gracefulness to your message. You can end a sentence on a preposition (“Which session were you in?”) if it makes the sentence clearer. Even capitalization can be optional depending on the medium. The north star for correspondence in the modern world is clarity. In other words, your emails need not sound Shakespearean for the sake of proper grammar. Please do not misunderstand relaxing the rules for rushing your process. Be a careful writer and an even more careful editor of your own work. The final chapter of Strunk and White’s prized writing guide, The Elements of Style, urges: “Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally, your product is without flaw.” Be concise: fewer words make a bigger impact Say what you mean and say it quickly. Be polite and conversational but try not to couch your point in too many niceties because the meaning could be lost. Consider these two passages: Example A: “I hope you are well! Let me start by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity to work on this project. I have really enjoyed getting to know everyone and the very challenging work and hope to continue working with this team for a long time. I did want to let you know that I’ve actually had some trouble accessing the platform. Do you have any idea who I should contact for help with this? Thank you again. I really hope to see you soon!” Example B: “Hi- Who should I contact for password help? Thanks! Enjoying the experience and the work!” The second example quickly outlines the sender’s needs. Their straightforward phrasing also better expresses their genuine appreciation because it’s easier to see what they’re saying. Taking too long to get to the point is confusing and frankly, you lose the reader’s attention after a while. Be genuine but also direct and succinct. Here are a few tried and true tips for eliminating wordiness: 1. Qualifying words such as “really”, “very,” and “definitely” are distracting. If a situation needs more emphasis, then find a better word. If you are “really happy,” maybe you are “thrilled.” If you are “very concerned,” perhaps you are “worried.” 2. It takes more words to be vague. Asking for the item “somewhat quickly” sounds clunky and offers no answers. If you need your colleague to step on it, advise them to expedite or fast-track. Better yet, tell them you need it by Friday at noon. 3. Lean on key nouns and action verbs to cut down on unnecessary words. Notice how trimming Example A made the purpose of Sue’s spreadsheet much clearer. Example A: “Sue made a spreadsheet in an attempt to keep us organized.” Example B: “Sue’s spreadsheet will keep us organized.” 4. Keep prepositions under control. Prepositions are those little words that show the relationship between a noun or pronoun and some other word or element in the rest of the sentence. These words (with, into, up, of, for, about, because of, during, concerning…) should be attached to an object. While it is important to say things precisely, too many prepositions can cause a reader’s eyes to glaze. See how eliminating at least six unnecessary prepositions transformed Example A from a weighty overbearing sentence to a powerful point (Example B): Example A: “An understanding of what the organizational mission is about will be necessary for any employee working with the team who wishes to move up in this division.” Example B: “Team members looking for advancement will need to understand the mission.” Avoid the passive voice Passive writing, though hard to identify, can quickly weaken your message. The sentence subject should be the person or thing taking action rather than an action happening to the subject. One trick is to reduce the distance between the subject and the verb: Example A: “The brief was filed by Mark on Tuesday.” Example B: “Mark filed the brief on Tuesday.” In example B, Mark is one word closer to the brief. You won’t always be able to avoid passive phrasing, but overdoing it makes for dull reading. Check your writing to make sure most of your sentences are active. Cut diminishing words from your vocabulary There are certain words and phrases we should limit because they dilute our meaning and diminish the importance of our needs: Just Hopefully Actually Kind of Consider how those words can come across as nervous and undeserving, “I just wanted to check in.” No way. You needed to check in. Not just. “I am checking in because the staff meeting is tomorrow.” Or even, “Hopefully you saw my note.” If they have not responded to you, stronger language will urge them to prioritize: “Did you see my note?” Similarly, you aren’t “actually writing because” you are “writing because.” Also cut sentence openers such as “I feel…”, “I think…”, and “I believe…” Be convincing with your words and put your salient points out in front. Not “I feel we are on target for our goal,” but instead “we are on target for our goal.”  

  • 0 Driving the Mentoring Relationship

    I will never forget my first meeting with my first formal mentor. To set the scene, I was new in my career, new to my organization, and new to participating in a formal mentoring program. Painfully aware of my overall lack of experience, I arrived at the meeting expecting my mentor to tell me what to do. I sat across from him, notepad open, pen poised, ready to write down all the wise things I was sure he would say. So, imagine my surprise when it turned out that he had not prepared a lecture or even a list of things we should discuss. Furthermore, he had no intention of doling out wisdom or the secrets to success. Instead, he wanted me to do the talking. He wanted me to tell him what I needed to work on, what I intended to get out of our partnership, and how I envisioned achieving my goals. I was dumbfounded. I was the wide-eyed new mentee, and he was the seasoned expert—shouldn’t he be taking charge? My initial naivete about mentoring roles is all too common among new mentees, who often come to the partnership with either a conscious or subconscious expectation that their more experienced mentor will take the reins and drive the relationship. To dispel this misconception of the mentor’s role, we need to look no further than the definition of a mentor: A mentor is defined as an experienced and trusted adviser. Mentors use their expertise and knowledge to advise and support—not to direct, decide, or do. If a mentor is directing outcomes, they inadvertently defeat the purpose of mentoring, which is to help mentees learn to lead themselves. Thus, for effective mentoring to take place, the onus for driving the relationship must remain with the mentee, with the mentor seated firmly in a supportive role. Here are some things mentees can do (or mentors can encourage them to do) to take initiative and responsibility for building and maintaining mentoring momentum. Define goals and expectations. Chances are, if a person signs up for a formal mentoring program, they have at least some idea of what they hope to gain from it. Mentees should commit time to reflecting not only on specific objectives they would like to achieve, but also their reasons for those objectives and how they hope the mentor will be able to help. This introspection will enable mentees to clearly articulate their goals and expectations and prepare them for larger conversations with their mentor about their partnership and the Mentoring Action Plan. Initiate meetings and discussions. A mentoring pair’s first meeting should include a discussion of how much time they would like to commit to the partnership and how often they would like to meet. Once these parameters are established, the mentee is responsible for initiating meetings and discussions. This could be as simple as sending a recurring calendar invite or creating a calendar reminder to reach out after certain events or milestones. Another best practice is to end each meeting by answering the question, “When should we meet again?” Come prepared. Mentees who make the most of their mentoring experience will come to meetings with clear goals (“Today, I would like to accomplish…”), a list of topics or questions to discuss, and their own ideas or solutions for which to seek feedback from their mentor. They won’t show up unprepared expecting their mentor to do the work for them or tell them what to do, but rather will take the initiative to identify their own thoughts and ideas and arrive ready to ask for feedback, advice, and new perspectives to help them decide their next steps. Take initiative. Mentees sometimes comment that they wish their mentor would reach out more often or suggest more learning activities. However, these mentees may not have communicated their expectations to their mentor nor taken any action to resolve the issue for themselves. Have they increased their own outreach or researched and suggested additional learning activities to their mentor? The most successful mentees are those who take initiative rather than waiting for someone else to intuit what they would like or make it happen for them. Follow through. Mentees can drive the relationship forward and keep the partnership on track with one simple behavior: following through. By doing what they say they will do when they say they will do it, mentees demonstrate that they are serious about their goals and value their mentor’s time.

  • 0 LISTENING ON SCREEN

    Virtual working has turned many of us into unwitting stars of the 10” screen. And while the pandemic zeitgeist is that humanity, young and old, has evolved into sophisticated technology users, there are still some glitches. We have all learned to stay calm when we get kicked out of a meeting and mined our homes for the most compelling and tidy corners to use as Zoom backdrops. We even remember to mute our microphones. But the truth is, for many of us, collaborating through a screen still doesn’t feel natural. At The Training Connection, we’ve been developing new resources to provide mentees with strategies for driving their partnerships from a distance and engaging with their partners virtually. We tend to emphasize attributes such as being prepared, articulating goals, and following up as a means not only for maintaining progress but also avoiding awkward conversations. In this month’s newsletter, we are going to zero in on listening. Listening, as in the art of conversation When communicating through a screen, it can be hard to find the right rhythm between speaking and processing what others are saying. Part of the reason is that nonverbal clues are limited, for both parties. It’s harder to see if the other person is stifling a yawn or fidgeting (“Is this story boring to them?”). Sometimes we can’t get over our own image (“Is that really what my neck looks like?”) or maybe there’s person out of view asking a question (“Mom, can I have a snack?”). There’s at once a lot more going on and, as a result, a lot less in terms of conversational give and take. Psychology Today urges us to lean into listening in order to be heard ourselves. In a recent article, they explained, “in order to know what to say in response, we must know what has been said to us.” Since virtual meetings don’t afford us the same opportunities and cues as in-person meetings, we need to work really hard to simply hear what’s being said. Listening and being present makes us happy Here’s the thing. When unfocused and spacing out, we aren’t only dissatisfied with what we get out of the conversation, we’re downright unhappy. Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert developed an app to study the “wandering mind.” They contacted 2,250 volunteers at random times throughout the day to find out what they were doing, what they were thinking while doing it, and whether they were happy. They learned that we spend 47% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing at that moment. According to Killingsworth and Gilbert, we are happiest when we are doing things like exercising or having a conversation- because those activities require us to stay focused on what we are doing. Put your active listening on display People who work in sales are trained to listen more than they talk. They understand that you can’t sell someone something they don’t want. A good salesperson will listen to their customer- a lot- to better understand their context and needs before recommending a product. Being a good listener makes it more likely that they will close the deal. Not to mention, people who are good listeners tend to be perceived as more sincere. Here are some ways to actively listen: Physical signs of listening Sit still, face forward, camera on. Look at the speaker (not at yourself). Take notes. Nod or smile when something they’ve said resonates. Show that you’ve received the message Ask questions periodically, which reinforces your learning and assures the speaker of your attention. Summarize what they’ve said (“so what you mean is…”). Hold judgement, don’t be defensive, avoid sharing opinions or personal anecdotes. Listen to them instead of planning what you’ll say next. Save a great idea until the end. Exude the spirit of a listener Be curious (“That’s fascinating. How did you become interested in this topic?”). Look for commonalities between you and the speaker (“I can’t believe you’re a runner too!”). Stay out of the chat. When people are presenting, don’t participate in the sidebar, stay in the main conversation. Set a good example and encourage others to speak Organizing your words ahead of the meeting so that you can speak in a calm manner with a clear message will help align the talk with the natural pauses. Preparing also ensures that you don’t overwhelm with too many details- which sets the stage for others to run on with their words instead of saying productive things. Send out the agenda in advance and consider starting with something that will encourage others to volunteer or speak up. Maybe even an ice breaker. Sometimes, if you are talking to someone who isn’t a good listener, you can lead them into better behavior by setting an example for how to do it. Save it One reason to stay quiet and listen instead is that it keeps you from using all your best material at once. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once revealed that he believes his edge in joke-writing comes from his habit of writing things down and saving them for the right time. Don’t reveal too much. If you have a great story you want to tell, but it doesn’t fit the conversation perfectly, maybe save it for a time that it does. Also, your stories have the most impact when they’re fresh, not told over and over. If you aren’t always speaking, when you do speak- people listen.  

  • 0 Power of the Pause

    There’s power in a pause. A pause can come in many different forms – the pause for summer or holiday break, the pause of a good night’s sleep – even the visual “pause” of the white space a graphic artist might use as a design element. But interestingly enough, one of the most powerful pauses can come in the form of a simple pause in a conversation. All excellent listeners are masters of the pause. They are comfortable with silences. When the other person finishes speaking, they take a breath and relax before saying anything. They know that the pause is a key part of good communications. Pausing before speaking or responding has many benefits, including: 1. Avoiding the risk of interrupting the speaker if he or she has just stopped to gather his or her thoughts. One of the pillars of good communication is building trust - and active listening does just that. When pausing for a moment before responding in a conversation, the speaker will often continue speaking. He or she will be sharing additional information and insight which greatly improves the chances that your response will speak directly to the points the speaker is trying to convey. 2. Showing you are giving careful consideration to what the speaker has just said. By carefully considering the other person’s words, you are paying him or her a compliment by giving them the gift of attention and contemplation. You are implicitly saying that you consider what he or she has said to be important and worthy of quiet reflection. You can often give the speaker a feeling of value with your silence, raising their self-esteem and confidence in the process. 3. Giving you, the listener, time to actually hear, absorb and understand the speaker more fully. The more time you take to reflect upon what has just been said, the more conscious you will be of their real meaning. You will be more alert to how the speaker’s words connect with other things you know about them, increasing your ability to craft your response with a more holistic approach that takes into consideration many factors. And pausing isn’t just useful for listeners, it can be a powerful tool for a speaker as well: 1. The easiest way to pause effectively is to use the moment of silence to take a deep breath. A deep breath sends oxygen to the brain, which can help a speaker to be more functional and alert, think more clearly and even reset the timbre and tone of voice. A deep breath can also calm nerves – which tend to result in speakers talking too quickly and breathlessly, which becomes a vicious cycle. A pause for a deep breath can break this cycle. 2. Pausing increases credibility. A pause suggests a speaker is thinking about what they are about to share. It requires a tremendous level of confidence to purposely pause during a presentation, as there is enormous pressure to talk continuously when in front of a group. Inserting periodic pauses when communicating with others, or when presenting to a group, will convey a level of composure, poise and confidence – it’s also an effective tool for grabbing or refocusing attention. 3. A pause can substitute for those “filler” words – the "you know," "um," "ah," "like," "so," "whatever" – words that add no value and, when repeatedly uttered, will distract your listeners. The secret to eliminating filler words is to use a pause instead. This sounds simple, but it's not always easy and will likely take practice and diligence. But the results will be well worth the investment.  

  • 0 Effective Communication

    The office is a dynamic place. Deadlines are in constant motion, work volumes fluctuate, org charts shift and departmental responsibilities change.  And that’s just when things are moving along normally. Today, this quick pace is even further compounded by several concurrent trends. For one, we are all navigating a historically robust workforce with as many as five generations working side-by-side in some offices. With our age differences comes different expectations from our social interactions. Also, rapid advances in technology means we regularly need to take time to learn new systems and alternative approaches to productivity, which can be stressful and require us to speak with employees outside of our regular workflow. While the physical workforce is changing, so is the way we work, including flex schedules and more time spent in home offices. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 74% of American workers spend between 1 and 10 hours a week working remotely with either their computer or electronic device. This means less in-person collaboration and more reliance on email to get the job done. Successfully navigating a changing workforce and organizational culture requires a firm foundation in effective communication. Things might feel confusing and hectic at times, but in this newsletter we will share some simple strategies for your written correspondence and face-to-face interactions that will improve your office relationships and set you apart as a competent employee. Five Tips for Communicating Effectively Every interaction in the office is an opportunity for you to both positively impact your projects while also asserting your competence and leadership potential. Here are some tips to remember in your next correspondence or meeting. Share ideas when communicating issues. When explaining a problem to your supervisor, think ahead to some possible solutions. Instead of simply dumping a conflict on their plate, use your critical thinking and decision-making abilities to take the first stab at developing the fix. For example, consider the difference between these two messages: Example A. “I’m stuck on the proposal paperwork. The budget isn’t coming out right. Can you help?” Example B. “I’m having some trouble with the numbers on the proposal paperwork. If we allocate three employees to the project for three months, we’ll go over budget. I wondered about having two fixed employees and asking a third to come on at the very end. Or, instead, we might ask if we can be assigned one of the summer interns.”   Be clear and concise. Whether writing emails, leaving voicemails, or speaking in person, steal a page from a newspaper journalist. Share the most important information first. Be direct and clear. Follow-up with the details. With everyone’s inboxes overflowing, assume you will only have the reader’s full attention for the first two sentences. Listen. Remember the old saying, “Listen more than you speak. That’s why you have two ears and one mouth.” Listening is a difficult skill because our brains are busy with ideas and interjections. Practice putting them on hold here and there. When communicating, let the other person finish their thoughts. Intense listening communicates sincerity, trustworthiness, and caring. Drop defensiveness. Things go wrong. Every day. The way you handle those problems speaks volumes about your leadership potential. If your supervisor approaches you with a question about a mistake on the meeting agenda, instead of replying, “That was Briana. I wrote the agenda but Briana was the one who was supposed to be editing it.” Try something like this, “I’m sorry to see that. Would you like for us to distribute a clean copy to the team?” Read communication preferences/styles. We each have different preferences when it comes to communication and decision-making. For example, if your colleague is quiet and reserved try to limit the chatter, write your notes out ahead of time, speak a little quieter and stay focused. Plan your discussion in bullets. Have all the details in hand. Don’t just drop by - plan the meeting in advance so they have time to prepare. Get your emailing skills together As we said, keep your communication clear and concise. This is especially true when it comes to email which - because it is one-sided- can become long-winded and disorganized. Fast Company suggests this brilliant acronym for a well-constructed email: BRIEF. B- Background: Provide some context. R- Reason: Tell them why they should put this issue on their radar. I- Information: Share 2-3 details and consider putting them in bullet form. E- End: Set the tone here. Are you asking for help? Or letting them know you’ve put things on track? F- Follow-up: Consider the kinds of questions the recipient might have and get the answers ready. Shut down your email every once in a while A recent Forbes article discussed the risks of an organizational culture that is completely reliant on technology. They argued that email is too fast, too organized and, that its “effectiveness” can at times be its greatest flaw. Wrapping up our response quickly and streamlining our questions might squash the possibility of discussing what they call “the first whisper of a new idea or potential solution to a problem.” Although face-to-face communication is hard work, can be messy, and leaves us open to being challenged, it’s often how innovation is born. A quick reminder about non-verbal communication What you say is important. But don’t underestimate the impact of what you don’t say. Here are a few things you can do to demonstrate poise and focus without uttering a single word. Check your posture. Both feet flat on the floor, shoulders back, neck straight so that your ears are just over your shoulders. Stop to notice their eye color. When you meet someone, pause to see what color eyes they have- the extra second will communicate your sincerity. Give them a little room. If the person you’re speaking to folds their arms- step back a little. They might be telling you that they need more space. Show that you are calm, pleasant, and optimistic. Plus, smiling makes you feel good.