Advice for mentors: listen first and talk later

It was great to have the opportunity to give a short talk at the second Forward Partners meet up for the FP50 mentor network. Mentors were keen to know more about how to kick off a mentoring relationship with the founders of startup and early-stage businesses. I talked about the importance of listening and understanding, with some suggested questions that can be asked to open up the conversation.

I started with a quote from Sal Virani’s recently released book Mentor Impact. Based on over 200 mentor interviews and extensive personal experience of working with accelerator programmes across Europe, he launches the book with a quote from one of the best mentors he interviewed (also a founder who had been through an accelerator). That person’s advice to other mentors:

Listen. Let them explain before giving advice, fully understanding what they do, and what stage they’re at. Give us ideas but not advice. Telling us what to do has been a bad experience.

The corollary to listening, understanding, hits home in Ben Horowitz’s recent blog post reflecting on the death of his close friend (and own mentor) Bill Campbell. Ben says:

Whenever I struggled with life, Bill was the person that I called. I didn’t call him, because he would have the answer to some impossible question. I called him, because he would understand what I was feeling 100%. He would understand me.

Before launching into solving other people’s problems, the best first step is often to simply listen. As one of my favourite books The Trusted Adviser explains, it can be unsettling to find that your mentee is:

Primarily interested in having their problem understood, in all its emotional and political complexity, as a precondition to having the problem diagnosed and solved.

But listening is hard. It takes a lot more effort than you think and it goes against our natural instinct to feel that we are only adding value to a conversation if we are talking and proactively seeking to solve problems. Here are some of my favourite coach-approach questions for opening up a conversation. Ask them, and then shut up and listen! As my old man has always drummed into me, you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order.

  • What would you like to talk about?
  • How do you think I can help you most?
  • What do you want to walk away from this conversation with a clearer idea about?
  • What are the top 3 things on your To Do list right now (and which one are you most concerned about)?
  • And perhaps one of my favourite questions; what is keeping you awake at night?

Finally, here’s a fantastic short video that opens up the discipline of good listening further.

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