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Irene Mateo Herrero for One Beyond

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Mentor tools I: Safe Space

Have you ever talked to someone and felt it was not the right place to share your real thoughts or feelings?

What if this person thought you were not good enough?

Or that your ideas or feelings were wrong?

If you’ve ever felt like that at any time, continue reading.

In this kind of interaction, we feel that we could somehow be judged or misunderstood. And the consequence is that we could partially or totally hide what we want to express.

For you, as a mentor, this lack of information is a blocker to helping your mentees. In the worst case, if these feelings or ideas not communicated are shared by more people, getting to know them or not can mean the success or failure of any project or goal at company level.

From my experience as a mentor, my suggestion to avoid this situation is to foster the best environment for mentees to speak clearly. And that’s where the safe space concept arises.

A safe space is one where “people show up feeling welcome and encouraged to interact among the team, even if they are different (or have different opinions or ideas) from other members of the workforce.”

In my opinion, that is exactly the environment you need to create for your one-on-ones. As a result, you will:

  • Build trust: mentorship is like a couple: no trust, failure ensured. Your mentees won’t share with you their needs or concerns without trust, so you won’t be able to help them grow.

  • Promote engagement to the team/company: safe spaces promote a positive and inclusive work environment where employees can feel valued and respected. Wouldn’t you stay in a place like this?

  • Foster mental health: Because of everything pointed out before, safe spaces lead to better mental health. Did you know that people who work at high-trust companies experience 74% less stress?

  • Raise job satisfaction, boost productivity, and decrease turnover rates.

So, without being an expert but based on my current knowledge and experience, I will give you some tips that have worked for me to create a safe space in my one on ones.

1. Lead by example

My first tip is related to this feeling I have when I start mentoring someone. I then notice that my mentee is not fully transparent when talking to me. Have you had this intuition too in any one-on-one? Probably, yes.

This is absolutely normal. I’ve also felt like that as a mentee. When I started talking to a new mentor I didn't really know if I would be understood.

So, to solve this blocker as soon as possible, I used to tell my mentees something like: “Feel free to tell me anything you think”. This seemed a good message to open the door to transparency.

But… Did it really work? Maybe sometimes it did but, to be honest… sometimes it didn’t.

What I learned from this experience is that it is more useful to lead by example.

If you want your mentee to tell you “I’m struggling with…”, talk about your struggles sometimes. Lead the way. Be a model of behavior.

I think that is the best way to go. Not 100% effective but really helpful.

Following this idea of leading by example, here are two things I do in my one on ones to create a safe space:

Share things that make you “human” and not a superhero(ine)

We are all imperfect humans. We don’t always do things well and we sometimes need help. How can you encourage your mentee to share their own struggles with you? Let’s see a couple of examples:

  • You perceive yourself as a good professional. You have knowledge and experience in your field. But you still struggle when giving feedback. What can you do about that? Apart from working on it, if you are a mentor, you can share your blocker with your mentee.

“Well, don’t feel bad about… You need to improve on that, but I have some difficulties in… We all have our strong and weak points”.

This behavior will teach your mentee that sharing your weaknesses or blockers is OK.

  • Yesterday you got stuck with a pipeline. What a nightmare. You finally asked a teammate for help. What can this simple anecdote be useful for in a one-on-one with your mentee? Let’s see:

“Bufffff, I was stuck with… and I’ve asked (sb.) for help. Thank God we’ve got to solve it together!”

Yes, you can share these kinds of episodes with your mentee. This behavior will teach that no one knows everything and will promote the idea that asking for help is OK.

These are only two examples. You can apply the same principle of “Lead by example” if you want your mentee to give you feedback (about yourself, the project, the company…) or openly ask questions. Start by doing so!

Share your ideas and feelings

I think that not everything can be shared and also you may not want to share personal information, which is absolutely reasonable. But I’ve proved that by sharing things about yourself it is more likely that your mentee also shares. Here is one example:

  • Today you are feeling sad and tired. You haven’t slept well, and you’ve got a personal concern. You have your one-on-one session, and you know you won’t give your 100%. Then you can start by saying:

“Sorry, I’m not feeling well today. I’m feeling a bit tired and sad (optional: because…). I’ll do my best anyway”.

Those simple sentences will open the door for your mentee to share next time. And you won’t get (as much as you would) the feeling that “something is happening to my mentee, but I don’t know what”. You are teaching that sharing your feelings is OK.

This is one example of how sharing feelings can open the door to more transparent communication. Anyway, you can apply this tip also to personal opinions or ideas: share your point of view first. Probably your mentee will feel more open to giving an opinion after that!

2. Active listening

Apart from the “Lead by example” tip, “Active listening” is another important concept to point out when talking about creating safe spaces. This skill helps build trust and understand other people's thoughts and feelings. I’ll cover this topic in the next article, so keep tuned!

3. Don’t judge

This is another important tip. If your mentee shares any ideas or feelings with you and then feels judged, all your previous efforts will have little or no result. More on this also in my next article. But, for now, keep your mind open in your one-on-ones.

At this point, I must say that not everything is in your hands when talking about creating a safe environment. It is also important that the culture of the company you are working in also fosters a healthy environment where people feel safe enough to express themselves. So, although this is not within the scope of this article, I’ll summarize some measures a company can also put into practice to foster this healthy environment:

  • Establish clear policies and procedures against discrimination and harassment.
  • Foster diversity and inclusion in the company culture
  • Encourage open communication
  • Address incidents promptly

Finally, you’ll need your mentee to be open to sharing. That’s also something that is not in your hand, but if you’ve put into practice these tips and the ones on my previous article “Mentor First Aid Kit”, you’ll have done a great job. Feel proud!

And that's all! I hope these tips help you get your mentorships to the next level. See you in the next one!

Top comments (3)

irenemherrero profile image
Irene Mateo Herrero • Edited

Thanks for your recommendation @aidas! Communication is key in professional and personal life, so I think that making an effort to read and improve on it can make a great difference. Thanks for you comment :)

apetryla profile image
Aidas Petryla

Great tips! Currently I'm reading Crucial conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler. This is an amazing book and if You (or anyone else) are interested at getting better in talking about sensitive topics, I highly recommend. I still haven't finished reading it, but I'm already applying some suggestions from the book and it eases up some of the conversations in my personal life. I like it so much that I think I'll write an article on this book after I finish it. :)

baumannzone profile image
Jorge Baumann

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