Intentionality: A Critical Factor for Effective Mentoring

When someone comments to me that their mentoring partnership is not going so well the first thing I investigate is the level of intentionality. In my experience, low levels of intentionality are the most common cause of unsatisfying mentoring. With inadequate intention, mentoring sessions tend to meander along without ever actually getting anywhere. The times together in conversation may be pleasant enough but end up as a bland, boring waste of time for people who were hoping for more.

But what is this ‘intentionality’? In practical detail, what does this rather broad term mean, precisely? I suggest we can unpack intentionality into four elements: clarity, structure, intensity and continuity.

  1. Clarity

In an intentional mentoring partnership both the mentor and mentoree will be able to clearly express in a few words why they meet together. They will both have the same understanding of the process they are following and how they will go about it. This is especially important in a process like mentoring where there exist such varied definitions and understandings of what this discipline is all about.

Intentionality in mentoring may be enhanced by clearing up fuzzy or misaligned notions of the purpose and methodologies that the partners will pursue together and keeping these sharp at each regular review of the partnership.

  1. Structure

This element of intentionality has to do with arrangements. It includes planning appointments in advance with starting and finishing times and working out a place to meet or what form of telecommunication will be used. It will involve settling questions of costs, what level of accessibility is appropriate, who is responsible for taking initiative, mutual expectations, confidentiality and privacy.

Depending on the clear understanding of the purpose and methodologies of a particular mentoring partnership (discussed above) it might also be helpful to specify key themes to be regularly addressed in mentoring conversations and the outcomes desired by the mentoree.

The structure of an intentional mentoring partnership does not have to be rigid, but it does need to be agreed and have some measure of stability and predictability. With a higher level of intentionality these structural items may be documented in a written covenant.

  1. Intensity

Two kinds of intensity underpin intentionality in mentoring: mental intensity and emotional intensity.

Mental intensity sticks with difficult, complex questions and resists the tendency to shrug them off when it all gets a bit puzzling. It takes hard work and serious concentration to both figure out what’s really going on and to craft a positive, creative response. It can be awkward to deal with the silence that comes when a deep question has you stumped. However, without this element of intentionality, mentoring conversations only ever deal with the obvious and superficial which is clearly going to get pretty tedious.

Emotional intensity is the preparedness to press on with a topic that stirs up strong feelings. Intentionality in mentoring is sometimes blunted by the desire to keep things bright and breezy and pleasant. Yet breakthroughs in personal growth are often attended by emotional responses – sadness, fear, anger and sometimes great elation. It should not be the aim to provoke emotional reactions but if they should emerge then both mentor and mentoree express intentionality by staying with the process.

  1. Continuity

The final element of intentionality deals with connecting mentoring sessions into an ongoing, coherent conversation. While there may be real benefit in a stand-alone conversation that opens up a fresh understanding in that moment, much more is possible when conversations are linked together over time.

Intentional mentoring sessions will refer back to previous sessions to draw on a range of related insights and weave them into a rich appreciation of the interconnectedness of all that is going on in the life of the mentoree. In addition, an intentional approach will cast forward to the next session, setting up points of accountability that greatly enhance traction for change.

Maintaining continuity in this way will usually involve keeping written notes. Perhaps this is not necessary where both mentor and mentoree have outstanding memories. But that runs the risk of little gems of insight being forgotten and points of accountability drifting or being unintentionally revised.

An important caution

It’s true that lack of intentionality can render a mentoring partnership ineffective and disappointing. But it’s also true that you can drive intentionality too hard.

  • You can make things so clear and defined that it becomes clinical and soulless
  • Structure can be overdone to the point that it becomes inflexible and stifling
  • Mental and emotional intensity taken too far can be frightening and invasive
  • Continuity over-emphasised can descend into fastidious legalism

As a mentor, if you drive intentionality too hard you will cause your mentoree to recoil and either shut down or withdraw from mentoring. To assess the appropriate level of intentionality many factors will need to be considered: the person’s age and maturity, pressures of life they are dealing with at the time, their experience of mentoring, the level of personal security they exhibit and so on.

However, the most important factor in my view is the level of trust between mentor and mentoree. In practice this means that you should take your time to build trust into the relationship before discussing lifting the mentoring partnership to greater levels of intentionality, always be open and transparent about this kind of shift and only move forward with informed agreement from your mentoree.

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