How (not to) Kill a Mentoring Relationship Before It Even Begins

By Arnie Grahl posted 10 days ago


A while ago, I switched careers after more than two decades as a community newspaper editor. About a year into my new job, I agreed to participate in a mentoring program that connected me with a person in the legal department who had been at the organization for many years.  

I thought it would be a valuable exercise as I had a lot to learn, especially considering that I was responsible for communication pieces that explained our organization to members and the public.

I also knew I had plenty of room to grow professionally.

During our first meeting, after pleasantries, I brought up a difficult situation I was in. I was finding it impossible to convince one of the members of the communications team to meet a deadline. Although I led the team, most of the members did not report directly to me and controlled their own individual fiefdoms. The co-worker had missed his deadline on a story, not just by days, but many weeks. I kept having to juggle other stories in its place.

Sharing this conundrum with my mentor, he expressed shock and dismay that someone could go that long without completing an assignment (and implicit in the response, how I could let it happen). On one level, I completely agreed. I too was shocked and dismayed, which is why I brought it up to my mentor. But my mentor failed to exhibit any empathy for my situation or offer any specific steps on how I could change the structure (or lack of it) of my role at the time. I left feeling helpless and stupid.

There was never a second meeting.

I offer this little story as exhibit one in “how to kill a mentoring relationship before it even begins.”


A while ago, I wrote a blog post about listening empathetically, one of three golden traits of being a good mentor. Time for trait two: providing specific and timely feedback. In my opinion, exhibit one above failed in both of these categories.

Giving and receiving feedback plays a vital role in a mentoring relationship. It is what lets the mentor guide the mentee in identifying and learning the skills and knowledge they need to grow, to acknowledge the mentee’s strengths, and motivate the mentee to work on areas of weakness.

But before you can properly provide specific and timely feedback, you first have to establish a foundation of trust and respect. That begins with taking the time to get to know each other, through informal conversations, chats, or in-person get togethers (when things like this pandemic don’t prevent it). These could be sharing a mutually enjoyed activity, meeting for coffee, discussing kids and family and friends. Anything that creates a bond.

Alongside that foundation of trust, you’ll need goals.  When mentor and mentee take time to set goals, it creates the assurance that both participants are in it together, advancing the personal or professional development of the mentee. As a mentee, you are better prepared to receive feedback if you know that your mentor wants the best for you.

Both giving and receiving feedback can be challenging, so let’s walk through some tips for each:


  • Give feedback on a regular and timely basis, as close as possible to the behavior or action you want to comment about.
  • Acknowledge the mentee's accomplishments and successes along with the areas in which you think they could improve.
  • Always be specific. “Your work is sloppy” is not terribly helpful. It would be much more useful to describe a particular element that concerns you. “I’ve noticed that you wait for days or weeks to read or reply to certain email.”
  • Keep the feedback simple. Decide on a small number of areas that you want to cover, not a shopping list of faults.
  • Maintain eye contact and a measured tone. A bit of gentleness goes a long way.
  • If your mentee wants to respond to your feedback, let them, and actively listen to their thoughts and words employing empathetic listening skills. At the same time, be prepared to give your mentee some space if what you share initially upsets them.


  • Listen and wait until your mentor is finished before responding
  • Make sure you understand the feedback. Try paraphrasing it back in your own words to ensure that you captured the intended meaning. Or ask your mentor to be more specific or provide more clarification on a point or two. You could also ask for strategies to resolve the issues and work together to develop solutions.
  • If you find yourself getting defensive, remind yourself that your mentor is trying to help you succeed. You might want to ask if you can make an appointment to discuss the feedback later, after you've had time to consider it. It’s better to take a cooling down period than to continue the conversation while you are upset.
  • Whether you agree or disagree with the feedback, remember to thank your mentor for their time and observations. 

Feedback is tricky. It’s frequently hard to receive constructive criticism, no matter how careful the person giving it is trying to be. Our defensiveness gets in the way. But with practice, and an established relationship, specific and timely feedback add so much to the mentoring experience, and potential for professional development.

What has your experience been? What advice do you have?
Let's discuss

#mentor #trust #respect #givingfeedback