Brain-friendly mentoring

by Eszter Ernst-Kurdi

Eszter Ernst-Kurdi, Training Coordinator, SIL Francophone Africa

Have you ever wondered what makes certain mentoring pairs more performant than others? Do you know colleagues or teams in your organisation that work so well together that it’s a joy to watch what they achieve together?

As I look back on my professional development, I am particularly thankful for two mentors with whom I had the chance to work closely together and experience a mentoring relationship that made us both more performant. What made these two mentoring relationships different was that I found both mentors very safe people. They were open, approachable, authentic and encouraging. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. I could be myself with them. This trust started as we worked together on a bigger project where we met regularly for several weeks. We got to know each other not just in a professional setting but also through activities such as playing volleyball, going out for a coffee, watching football games, going bird watching and eating together. Through these shared experiences we began to learn about each other’s cultures, personalities, families and values. Another thing that helped to build a sense of psychological safety was that both of these mentors took time to listen to me and my ideas even before I knew I wanted to ask them to be my mentors.

In a recent article about performance improvement and the brain, S. Pillay explains that focusing solely on performance in the workplace will not necessarily bring about the results that the organisation wants to see. He highlights that psychological safety and organisational health have a much bigger impact on performance than practicing skills:

Efficient task execution requires brain synchrony which is highly dependent on the quality of attachment between team members.

Movement [eg.: going on walks] can improve cognitive performance.

These findings, I believe, can influence our mentoring practice, too. Betz (2020) also affirms that “the more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the pathway becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain.

In the article Neuroscience of Teaching, Mentoring and Coaching, G. Ontai writes:

Teachers, mentors, and coaches who work with adults need to apply personal skills and strategies that focus on emotional mechanisms of how the brain functions.  Whether communications takes place in the classroom, in the privacy of an office, coffee shops, or outdoor venues, developing brain-friendly approaches to motivate or transfer knowledge are significantly improved when mentors are aware [of the neuroscience behind learning]. […] Introducing humor and laughter into the communication process counteracts the effects of stress.  Inserting empathy and caring behavior triggers happy hormones in relationship building which helps to enhance motivation, engagement, and knowledge transfer.

In other words, a mentoring relationship can be more effective, if we apply brain-friendly skills and strategies both for building the relationship and for helping the mentee advance in their professional development plan. These strategies (eg.: humour, empathy, reading body language, accommodating for different information processing styles) will look different in different cultures. In intercultural contexts there is an even bigger need for mentor and mentee to invest time and energy to get to know each other in the beginning of the mentorship in order to create a safe environment where learning is supported by positive emotional mechanisms and where activities are tailored to the learning and processing style(s) of the mentee. This requires sensitivity on both sides but especially from the mentor.

Based on what we are learning from neuroscience, it might be helpful to reflect on how we can apply these brain-friendly strategies in our mentoring relationships. Here are a couple of questions to spark discussion.

Psychological safety

  • What does it mean to each of us in this mentorship – whether it is a one-on-one or a group mentoring situation –  to have a healthy and safe working relationship?
  • How can we reduce the stress often associated with “awkward” initial mentoring meetings?
  • How can we promote psychological safety? What are some simple, practical steps to take?
  • How can we introduce brain-friendly mentoring practices – activities and habits that foster relaxedness, trust and learning – in our mentoring relationships?
  • Are our communication practices and working together clear and synchronised enough to facilitate connection and good performance?

Physical movement

  • Do we know each other’s preferred learning styles? How can we practically take advantage of this in our mentorship?
  • Can we integrate physical movement into our meetings, when and where it’s possible?
  • How can we use physical movement to our advantage?
    • Does my  mentee think more creatively or pay attention more intently or process information better when she is in movement?
    • Can we stay calmer in a difficult conversation when we are walking?
    • Can I listen in a more focused way, if I have something in my hand to hold?
  • Have we integrated appropriate feedback mechanisms that take into consideration the above mentioned points?

This sounds quite daunting, right? My mentor always encourages me saying that mentoring is learned by doing. You don’t have to be an expert at all these things before you can start mentoring. Why not start out in a small way and try out a brain-friendly strategy on a simple mentoring task?

Share your thoughts by leaving a reply below. I look forward to reading about your experiences.

Further resources:

Photo from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Brain-friendly mentoring

  1. Thanks Eszter for drawing our attention to these things.
    I like the idea of taking (some) mentoring meetings out of the normal work environment, maybe to go a coffee shop, maybe to go for a walk. I think that showing an interest in each other’s non-work interests can be a good way to relax.
    Now that so much is happening online, I do wonder what we can do about activity and movement online, any ideas anyone? Personally I don’t like people calling me while they are out for a walk or joining a Zoom call from their exercise bike! One thing that seems to work well with my wife’s remote team is that they devote one of their daily meetings together to some kind of fun activity (quiz, “icebreaker” type activity, etc) could something similar work for mentors and mentees?

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