How can mentors authentically get to know their mentees? We believe that really getting to know another means to understand their story – which is, as Norris Clarke describes it – “the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges”
Asking Good Questions
Open ended questions oriented around the person telling stories about themselves is the right direction to go for mentors who want to understand their mentees. In this article, though, I’m going to introduce a specific kind of story which is especially powerful for mentees to unfold themselves and for mentors to really grasp essential features of the mentee’s unique personhood.
Let’s consider a scenario where a catechist doing youth ministry is trying to get to know a young woman, Maria, that she has recently met. The catechist asks her, “so tell me about yourself.”
Now, what kinds of responses is she likely to get?
– Family or place of origin (I come from an Irish Catholic background. I’m from Virginia)
– Conversion story, walk from dark to light (recently come clean from drug use and back in Church!)
– Schooling (went to Jefferson and Lee High School where I was in the band)
– Relationships (well, my family and I are very close. I have a steady boyfriend who is really supportive. I’m a dog person and have a little pug named Jasper)
– Major interests (I am a dancer. Love sports. Soccer has been a big part of my life ever since I was 7 years old)
It is certainly true that all of these dimensions of the Maria’s life are important to her. It is certainly true that the catechist is learning about Maria as she shares one or all these aspects of her life. It is also true that the catechist who really wants to learn about Maria will and should learn these features of her life.
But what is the best way for mentors to quickly and deeply get to know their mentees?
The kind of story I want to now introduce provides an excellent way to do that. It helps to unfold the core aspects of the mentee’s personality.
This is the achievement story.
By “achievement” I simply mean an activity that the person enjoyed doing and believe he or she did well. Such an activity could be anything, just so long as it action oriented (not simply a passive experience like soaking up the sun’s rays on a beach or vegging out with a 6 hour movie marathon) and brought the client a sense of fulfillment.
Before I describe the kinds of open-ended questions used for drawing out a story of achievement I want to pause on a key mode of knowing that Aristotelian philosophers identified, a key mode of knowing that we find in St. Thomas Aquinas work:
A being’s action reveals its essence: agere sequitur esse. Action follows being.
This means that when we get clear on a being’s action we can see its essence.
When Aquinas drew on this term he mainly employed it to describe the essence of things at the species level. The action of human beings indicates that our essence is that of embodied rationality. The action of plants indicates plant essence.
But this same principle that action reveals essence applies at the individual level. We can deeply get to know a person by exploring his/her authentic action! We all now that some of our actions are half-hearted and lazy, some of our actions are done out of compulsion, some we have a sense of hating, some we do half-well. But these actions do not reveal us like the action of deeply satisfying engagement. When we recollect stories of such joyful activities and then began to recount the narrative, we express unique essence.
In other words, we recount those things that we had a deep affective longing to do, a love for.
Expressing Unique Essence
Such stories are deeply powerful for shedding light on those key aspects of unique personhood addressed by Paul VI in his encyclical On the Development of Peoples, in which he said that in the design of God “at birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition.”
Now it is of course true that one achievement story told by the mentee to his/her mentor is not some kind of relational magic that always enables the mentor to plumb the depths of the other, but I can tell you in over 20 years of working with persons as a coach, a teacher, and a consultant that drawing out a person’s achievement stories is an incredibly powerful way of getting to know him/her and quickly.
There are three basic questions that can help you quickly and powerful draw out and understand an individual’s uniqueness (these were developed by Arthur Miller, Jr. and described in the book The Power of Uniqueness):
1) “Tell me about an activity, from any time of life, that you really enjoyed doing and believe you did well?”
2) “Describe what you actually did.”
3) “What did you most enjoy about that activity?”