Knowing Mentees Through Achievement Narrative

Mentors who want to get to know their mentees can and should ask a variety of questions which help their mentees to tell their story.

At times, mentors need to ask closed, yes or no, questions. These are often sprinkled throughout our engagement with one another. Have their place, but usually not useful for the objective of facilitating authentic sharing.

Leading questions are more problematic from the standpoint of helping the mentee to authentically share because through them the question asker tends to impute his/her own interpretation or agenda into the person’s story. Avoid them!

For the purpose of really getting to know the mentee and his/her story, open-ended questions are much better. Practice them!

The Best Kind of Open-Ended Question

I’d like to share with you the fruit of a certain kind of open-ended question – those designed to draw out actions that the person loves to do which bring a deep sense of fulfillment. These are called achievement stories using achievement in a broad sense of the word.

My own mission in life as a coach and a consultant and a parent is to help people recognize and develop their unique patterns of motivated gifts so that they can serve others according to them.

When we open up a person’s stories of achievement these unique gifts begin to emerge. Not time for a full-scale treatment of this process but let me share with you some of the many ways that drawing on a mentee’s achievement story enables knowledge of the mentee, blesses the mentee, and enriches the whole mentor relationship.

It engages the person around the memory of action that, ultimately, was full of joy and fulfillment. In recollecting the memory the person in many ways re-presents it and has the opportunity, at least in part, to relive it.

What a gift!

Story, Centered on Deeply Fulfilling Action

Now, the achievement story is deeply personal and subjective, but also is about person being in action where they often forget about themselves. There is often an ecstatic aspect of the action. Thus, the person opens up. Bears his/her soul.

Because the achievement story is about what person did well and enjoyed doing it is often about their unique strengths. So it is incredibly positive and affirming.

This provides insight, incredible insight, into how the person really wants to engage. So, the mentor begins to understand not just the person’s story but how to effectively engage, teach, even manage the person if management is a part of the relationship.

Finally, the very process of people recollecting their activities of joyful action and telling those stories can be hugely revelatory for the person telling the story.

My experience is that actually people seldom are asked to share their achievement stories and that when people respond to the question “tell me about yourself” they don’t often choose to unfold achievement stories.

Thus, many folks have not really taken the time to reflect upon them and what such stories tell about how God has designed them.

A) Think back and tell me about an activity you have deeply enjoyed doing and believe you have done well

B) what exactly did you do?

C) what was so deeply satisfying about it?

When you ask them those simple open ended questions, especially about several different activities, many people experience for the first time a strong sense of a pattern of unique design. As they speak they see the pattern emerge, they feel the contours of their heart oriented in a clear direction, gain a sense of God’s unique design.

Finally, this series of open ended achievement oriented questions, if asked by an attentive and empathic listener is an act of great love for the other, a love oriented toward the flourishing of the person, a love that seeks for the other to be revealed according to God’s design and to fulfill that design.

The Achievement Story

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.

Achievement Stories

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.

achievement-st-george

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?”

 

Asking Good Questions

Mentors, especially when they are in teaching mode, will often ask questions of their mentees for educational purposes. Such questions can catalyze in the mentee thinking about a subject the mentor wants him/her to more deeply understand. Such questions are obviously important in a teaching context but we will be addressing the value of questions for really getting to know the other, especially of their story, their narrative that ties together the key moments or phases of their past.

asking-good-questions

Socrates questioning people in the Areopagus

Three Kinds of Questions

1. Closed Questions

Essence of a closed question is that it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with closed questions. They are useful when targeted information is needed. For example, nurses have got to understand a patient’s health history exactly and so they will often ask a series of closed questions: Have you had diabetes? Have any relatives had cancer? Are you allergic to any drugs?

For mentors, seeking to know their mentees, there are times when closed questions are right and proper. For example: “Have you been baptized? Confirmed? Do you go to Mass on Sundays? Have you been a Catholic all of your life?

Closed questions can also be used to clarify a person’s comments. For example, the mentee might be discussing about how much time she has spent reading catechetical material and the mentor asks: “You have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church then?

The problem with closed questions, from the standpoint, of getting to know the mentee is as follows: seldom reveal the contours and trajectory of a person’s story.

  • They center on fulfilling the question askers desire for particular information but do not result in drawing out the narrative arc of a person’s life, the plot lines.
  • They result in information about the person, but not a depth of interior life.
  • Question asker is in control with such questions, not the one responding. The parameters are tight. Basically, just “yes” or “no.” As such the questions do not provide a context for the respondent to truly open up.

2. Leading Questions

These are questions that suggest or prompt an answer. They are more open ended than closed questions but with them question askers steer the response in directions they believe are valuable or provide a set of answers they believe are correct.

Often leading questions are framed up on the heels of statements the question asker makes about his/her own preferences that suggest the “correct” answer.

“Isn’t the music at Mass wonderful?!”

“I feel such a change of mood in the country after the election, don’t you?”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, portrays such a moral wasteland. I would not let my younger kids read it. Would you?”

Leading questions are also often framed up as options:

“Are you a fan of country music, hard rock, soft rock or classical?”

Journalists do this very frequently frame up options during their interviews:

Interview with a soldier who wrote a memoir about his experiences during the war in Iraq: “Was your decision to enlist as a young man more from a sense of patriotism or more from a sort of boyish desire for adventure?”

These kinds of questions are a serious pet peeve of mine because the answer could be both or neither! It could be that the young man was told by God to go. Could be that he needed the money!

Now, there is a time and a place for leading questions if they are offered with sincere respect for the person, a desire for their good. Parents often need to ask leading questions to guide effectively their children, for example.

But the problem with leading questions is that they reflect the mind and opinions of the question asker and often do not succeed in authentically drawing out the respondent’s own mind, belief, opinions, feelings.

3. Open-ended questions

These are questions that encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings.

“Tell me about yourself.” “What is your background?” “Why did you come here?”

Such questions invite a depth of response. They do not interject the question asker’s own beliefs or opinions into the answer. They don’t frame up options for the respondent to choose from.

Now, open-ended questions that are without context can be too broad at times and thus confusing. For example, a question that comes from Dr. Vincent Hendricks, a professor of logic, to illustrate this point: “what is the world’s most important doctrine?” Doctrine about what? Political, religious, economic? Such a question is too open ended.

So, the best kind of open-ended questions do provide context, a basic orientation. In this sense they do lead, but in a way that invites the person to authentically share. They lay the table of a topic minimally but for the sake of drawing out full response from the other about that topic.

 

 

To Know Another

What do we mean when we talk about knowing the other?

“Hey, do you know Deanna?” “Yeah, she was my sister’s close friend back in high school and was often at our house.” “I’ve known Rod and Tony for about 5 years.” Or, as I’ve sometimes heard since living in Steubenville: a person get’s introduced to another and the other says “Good to know you.”

But what precisely do we know when we really know another person?

Rockwell-Father-Son-Mentee

To Know Another Person

We are not going to deeply explore the meaning of “know” in this context. Books beyond counting have been written about epistemology-the study of knowledge– and we could get hung up very easily here.

I simply mean that to know a person means you have developed a relationship with the person (to some degree or another) and that you perceive the truth or nature of that person.

So, if I have a relationship with the storeowner, who is friendly and shares me all about his wife and kids, and then later I find out that he was actually a foreign spy with no family I would say I did not know him at all. It was a false relationship, false information about him.

Knowledge is in degrees of course. And this is certainly the case in our understanding of other people.

But what is it about a person that is most true of them?

1. The person’s relationships, especially those that are most foundational and enduring, are constitutive of the person. We have no being at all without relationships and are richly, deeply situated within a whole web of relationships not just with concrete persons like parents, siblings, friends, but with culture, nation, etc. With his God especially.

2. The person’s essential characteristics. General traits they share with others. These help us to know person but bluntly.   To say a person is extraverted or friendly doesn’t say much. Those characteristics most authentic to the person – these are much truer than general characteristics.

Every Life is a Vocation

“In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator.” From On the Development of Peoples, Paul VI.

Here we have the Holy Father Paul VI noting how essential characteristics of the person designed by God, given by God are clearly constitutive of his unique nature. Key part of his destiny. He also speaks about how these develop in relationship with “the environment” which obviously includes a whole host of social, cultural, historical factors.

The Human Story

But the place in which the person’s relationships and essential characteristics especially come alive are in what we call the person’s story. In their “story” we see the dynamic between their intrinsic energy to be a certain way in a social, cultural, historical, familial context. We see the dynamic of others acting upon the person and the person in their own self-creative freedom responding to such action and initiating other projects. But the story connects all this dynamic exchange in a holistic fashion.

In common speech we will often say as move to get to know another: “What is your story?”

Much research – much good research – has been done in contemporary psychology about the importance of story for persons to build a strong sense of identity and, of course, a means to share that identity with others.

Much of this work is highly consistent with Catholic anthropology. But I want to close this section not by appeal to a psychologist but one of my favorite teachers in philosophy, Norris Clarke, S.J. Let’s listen:

Paul VI spoke about how we are designed with a set of aptitudes and qualities. Note here that Father Clarke highlights the meaningful pattern of our life revealed by story, a pattern which surely includes the emergence of those latent unique gifts.

Conclusion

Our lives are revealed through story to others, but the very process of formulating story is important, Father Clarke believes, because it also enables us to be fully self-conscious of who we are.

If we as mentors are eager to truly hear the story of our mentees the opportunity here is that they will grow in self-awareness of who they are at the same time as we grow in knowledge of them.

Mentors: The Relationship between Truth and Knowing

The word “mentor” from the Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) in Homer’s Odyssey. The mentor has been down the road before that the mentee is now walking upon. The mentor is one who not only has been down the road, but knows the other who he or she is leading.

Now, what do we mean when we talk about knowing the other?

“Hey, do you know Deanna?” “Yeah, she was my sister’s close friend back in high school and was often at our house.” “I’ve known Rod and Tony for about 5 years.” Or, as I’ve sometimes heard since living in Steubenville: a person get’s introduced to another and the other says “Good to know you.”

But what precisely do we know when we really know another person?

Mentor Virgil Leading Dante

Mentors: Perceiving the Essence of Another

We are not going to deeply explore the meaning of “know” in this context. Books beyond counting have been written about epistemology-the study of knowledge– and we could get hung up very easily here.

I simply mean that to know a person means you have developed a relationship with the person (to some degree or another) and that you perceive the truth or nature of that person.

So, if I have a relationship with the storeowner, who is friendly and shares me all about his wife and kids, and then later I find out that he was actually a foreign spy with no family I would say I did not know him at all. It was a false relationship, false information about him.

Knowledge is in degrees of course. And this is certainly the case in our understanding of other people.

But what is it about a person that is most true of them?

1) The person’s relationships, especially those that are most foundational and enduring, are constitutive of the person. We have no being at all without relationships and are richly, deeply situated within a whole web of relationships not just with concrete persons like parents, siblings, friends, but with culture, nation, etc. With his God especially.

2) The person’s essential characteristics. General traits they share with others. These help us to know person but bluntly.   To say a person is extraverted or friendly doesn’t say much. Those characteristics most authentic to the person – these are much truer than general characteristics.

Every Life Is a Vocation

“In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator.” From On the Development of Peoples, Paul VI.

Here we have the Holy Father Paul VI noting how essential characteristics of the person designed by God, given by God are clearly constitutive of his unique nature. Key part of his destiny. He also speaks about how these develop in relationship with “the environment” which obviously includes a whole host of social, cultural, historical factors.

But the place in which the person’s relationships and essential characteristics especially come alive are in what we call the person’s story. In their “story” we see the dynamic between their intrinsic energy to be a certain way in a social, cultural, historical, familial context. We see the dynamic of others acting upon the person and the person in their own self-creative freedom responding to such action and initiating other projects. But the story connects all this dynamic exchange in a holistic fashion.

The Importance of Story

In common speech we will often say as move to get to know another: “What is your story?”

Much research – much good research – has been done in contemporary psychology about the importance of story for persons to build a strong sense of identity and, of course, a means to share that identity with others.

Much of this work is highly consistent with Catholic anthropology. But I want to close this section not by appeal to a psychologist but one of my favorite teachers in philosophy, Norris Clarke, S.J. Let’s listen:

If we wish to know in full self-consciousness who we are, we must assimilate and integrate—self consciously and deliberately, I think—at least the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges into our own self-consciousness, so that our lives reveal themselves as a meaningful story, and not just a collection of unconnected slides about our past stored up in more or less accurate memory. Norris Clarke, “Medalist’s Address: The Philosophical Importance of Doing One’s own Autobiography,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 54 (1980), p. 18.

Paul VI spoke about how we are designed with a set of aptitudes and qualities. Note here that Father Clarke highlights the meaningful pattern of our life revealed by story, a pattern which surely includes the emergence of those latent unique gifts.

Our lives are revealed through story to others. The very process of formulating story is important, Fr. Clarke believes, because it also enables us to be fully self-conscious of who we are.

If we as mentors are eager to truly hear the story of our mentees, there is  great opportunity. Our mentees will grow in self-awareness of who they are at the same time as we grow in knowledge of them!

Empathy: An Etymology and Introduction

Effective listening is always empathic listening. And it’s critical in awakening the unique personal vocation in another.

First, what do we mean by empathy?

Oxford dictionary provides a clean, clear definition: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” So it’s not a pure intellectual act. You “get” where they are coming from. You see the world from their perspective.

The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word empatheia. The root of that word is pathos or feeling.  The Greek prefix “em” means “in” or “to go into.”   So, in empathy we go into the feelings of the other. More broadly, we go into the experience of the other.

Empathy is not Sympathy

Empathy is not Sympathy

This is not the same thing as sympathy. Two word are often confused. “Sympathy,” as Stephen Covey says “is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.” Sympathy assumes that the other’s position is correct.

The Greek prefix “sym” or its variation “syn” means “with” or “together.” So sympathy means that we feel with the other in the sense of agreement. “I can sympathize with coal miners frustrated with poor working conditions.” I agree with their position.

It can also express common feeling that assumes agreement:  “As we left the funeral the sympathy felt by the parishioners for their beloved priest knit their hearts together.”

Often sympathy is right and proper, but it is not the same as empathy.

Empathy does not entail agreement. This is very critical point. It is very possible and indeed necessary for human relationships that we enter into the feelings of others – stand in their shoes, see the world from their perspective – without simply taking on those feelings.

Empathy Expressed in Listening

Let’s turn now to how empathy is expressed in communication and, in particular, through listening.

“The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone,” Covey writes. “It’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person emotionally as well as intellectually.”

The basic disposition of empathic listening is:

  • Not closed or guarded (create wall with hands) but open (gesture of openness)
  • Does not start out pressing a point, making a case, but waits to see the emerging position from the other.
  • Assumes good will unless proven otherwise.