Mentoring in the Cyber Age: Some need help learning how to deal with others in person

Our current Cyber Age, fueled with an incredible bounty of computer-driven information and facilitated by a seemingly endless number of ways to connect and communicate, is a tribute to human progress. Why then, in the face of such richness, do studies show that we are more isolated, lonely, depressed and disconnected than ever before?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that managing a relentless stream of data through email, texts, IMs, alerts, news feeds and the like requires enormous attention, and often in split second increments. Constant use of such tools is exhausting and can lead to feelings of futility when things that needed attention on any given day were ignored, forgotten or purposely avoided. It seems the tools fall short of a more basic need.

Thank goodness for mentoring!

Mentoring has long been embraced as a way for more experienced professionals to assist rising stars in expanding their professional networks, learning the ropes inside an organization, structuring and delivering impactful presentations, and more.

Here’s where the Cyber Age complicates things. Technology has fundamentally changed the game. Electronic networks span the globe. Information and expertise is widely available. Research studies and expert opinion are everywhere. Who needs a mentor?

The short answer is that all can benefit. Mentoring can bridge a gap between haves and have-nots, and I’m not talking about wealth or opportunity. One of today’s biggest and most dangerous gaps is that between maturity and its lack. Immaturity is the hallmark of the undeveloped. It is not negative in itself; it is simply a state of being.

Immaturity becomes negative – even dangerous – when the immature individual believes he or she is more developed, knowledgeable or experienced than he or she really is. When the immature person seeks to establish a position of power, exercise authority or demand fealty, others react unfavorably.

Mentors can help the maturing process in significant ways. Engaging in personal dialogue is a great starting point. Sitting with another human can be enormously uncomfortable, especially if you are used to communicating electronically. In some cases, personal interaction can feel like unnecessary exposure – a violation of your space physically, intellectually and emotionally.

Learning to master this discomfort gives you a powerful advantage over those who cannot or will not do this work. Using a mentor to sort your thoughts, acknowledge your emotions and choose a next step can lead to an exploration of the implications, repercussions and potential unintended consequences of something you might say or do in haste. You can, for example, decide how to not take things personally, dealing with disagreeable people without becoming a jerk yourself. Choosing silence may be a wiser strategy than blasting out a snarky remark.

Stepping back from an immediate moment to put a challenge into greater perspective may reveal tangential relationships, additional resources and even a surprise angle that may resolve something that felt impossible to overcome. Recognizing that every human you encounter has had a different experience of life than yours can open many doors. Yes, they can learn from you. But they can teach you, too.

These are the kinds of explorations a mentor can offer. Additionally, a mentor can help you shape your professional reputation, which is the product of your speech, actions and mannerisms. The words you choose, the way you carry yourself (posture, gestures), and how you engage with others (either listlessly or with energy) create messages that shape others’ impressions of you.

Wouldn’t it make sense to create habits that communicate power, intentionality and purpose? Your mentor holds a mirror.

Now, for all those who might be called upon to mentor another, please give careful thought to the responsibility you accept when you agree to shepherd someone. Serving as a mentor is not the time to prove your smarts, highlight your remarkable network or crow about your stellar accomplishments. It’s time for you to learn, too!

Your gifts of active listening, asking relevant questions to encourage deeper thought, and respectfully appreciating your protégé’s knowledge and experience create the kind of relationship so many long for.

In today’s noisy and distracting Cyber Age, the greatest gift of mentoring is providing a satisfying human experience.

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Susan Marshall
Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.