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Ways to Discuss Sensitive Topics with Your Mentor or Mentee

Ways to Discuss Sensitive Topics with Your Mentor or Mentee

Many subjects are difficult to talk about.

Whether with colleagues, friends or family, some subjects make us uneasy, which can lead us to avoid them altogether. However mentoring relationships are about the uncomfortable, just as much as the comfortable. In order to commit to mentorship, you need to allow yourself to be as open to difficult conversations as you are to easier, lighter ones. We understand sensitive topics can be difficult to approach. We want to help you navigate the waters with preparation and intention.

The current state of the world has made it completely impossible to expect people to separate their emotions and personal lives from their professional and educational pursuits. From a global pandemic to the horrific actions that lead to the outcry of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it is safe to say many people are scared, angry, confused and exhausted.

With your role as a mentor or mentee it is imperative to check in on your partner to see how they’re doing in light of these often-overwhelming events. With that in mind it’s also equally important to approach these matters with care and intention. Here are several tips for how to handle sensitive topics with your mentor or mentee.

Ask First

If you’re unsure about whether you should discuss a topic with your mentor or mentee, ask permission to ask before you bring up the subject. Just because current events involve someone’s race or gender does not mean it is an invitation to discuss it. Be considerate when opening the door for conversations that may be triggering or out of the ordinary to discuss in the context of your relationship. Here are some ways to open the door to conversation:

  • Would it be okay with you if I asked how you’re doing just on a personal level?
  • I’ve been talking to other people who are experiencing (insert emotion) about (insert topic), and I don’t know if that’s something that you’re wrestling with, too?

These questions can help you gauge the person’s reaction and from there you can decide whether or not they’d like to discuss the topic further. Regardless of their reaction it is important to continue with respect and proceed accordingly. Allow your mentor or mentee to share how they’re feeling or how they’re not, whether it be personal or professional. By dropping the expectation that you leave your emotions at the door, you can help create room for these discussions.

Do Your Research

Come prepared having done your homework and research, just like any other mentoring meetup. Don’t rely on your mentor or mentee to educate on their unique circumstances/cultures.It is very easy to find content and research on matters of racial inequality, gender adversity, religious freedom and more in the world. Make sure you’re aware of the current happenings, as well as historic ones that you think your mentor or mentee might be dealing with. It is critical to understand these issues to have an open conversation with your mentor or mentee, but it is also important to stay informed on all current issues even if they don’t directly involve you. There are many levels of diversity in our world, here are some examples.

  • Cultural
  • Racial
  • Religious
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Neurodiversity

Be open to learning about experiences outside of your own. It will enable you to be a more helpful mentoring partner.

Be Open to Other Opinions

By hearing other people’s opinions and experiences and developing a growth mindset will allow your perspectives and worldview to grow. Using active listening is just as important as asking questions to your mentoring partner.

Allow them to share their interactions and reactions with you without interruption. Adding your experience or commentary to the conversation may not always be helpful. You should stray away from adopting a ‘devil’s advocate’ persona in these conversations. The priority is for your mentor or mentee to simply share their feelings and perspectives without making them explain every detail of reaction.

Ask questions and be humble when interacting in these discussions. Listen from a place of curiosity. Your mentor or mentee is sharing deeply personal thoughts and experiences with you. Internalize these things and proceed from a place of equal vulnerability.

Offer a Welcoming Safe Environment

These subjects are never simple or easy to approach. Often, these sensitive topics come with their own level of difficulty, internal scars or sadness. Trust is incredibly important. Your role is to be a confidant, and the things said within your relationship of trust are confidential and sacred. Encourage your mentoring partner to share their authentic feelings, even if they may be uncomfortable for you to hear or may challenge your own beliefs.

Be an ally to them, not just in mentorship, but in the workplace and the world beyond. This conversation will often be continued on at another time, remember to respectfully check-in when the time is right with them. And allow them to react to topics and events when they choose. Your allyship and willingness to listen can be a great comfort to your mentor or mentee in a time where they feel unsure of what to do, what to say or how to proceed.

A genuine connection can be built between people through mentorship. While it is often thought to be in connection with skill development and career growth, it can also be a space for issues of personal concern and vulnerability. Giving attention to both sides, as well as professional goals will strengthen the connection of the mentorship and bring a greater understanding between two people with different experiences and perspectives.

Sophia Williams

Principal & Co-Founder