Mentoring A to Z Series Blog: Managing boundaries

The first in my series of daily blogs leading up to National Mentoring Day on 27th October, today I am focusing on the subject of boundaries. 

What are the boundaries?

The boundaries in a mentoring role are those explicit and implicit ways you make sure you are ethical, safe and appropriate and that enable you to stay within the role of the mentor. Furthermore, boundaries are something you model as a mentor and are therefore more than rules, guidelines and limits you set between yourself and your mentee. They are behavioural as well as procedural.

Boundary management is the mentor’s responsibility

This is really important because it means as a mentor you need to think about this and work out how you will do it and then stay with in them. Here are some pointers for boundary management:

  • Be self aware and know what and where the boundaries are. Practically from the outset of the mentoring relationship you agree what you will do and how with your mentee in relation to the practical side such as confidentiality, your role, ground rules. You then need to manage this onwards.

  • Never break confidentiality unless there is a legal reason to do so.

  • Build and maintain all forms of trust using rapport and active listening.

  • Understand yourself and what you must do to stay present and within the boundaries.

  • Operate within the limits of your own competence and recognise where that competence has the potential to be exceeded. If it is exceeded you refer the mentee on and you stop mentoring them.

  • Be aware of conflicts of interest that could range from a legal, ethical or emotional perspective and deal with them quickly.

  • Recognise when the mentee needs other forms of support – mentoring is not right for everyone for every situation – and refer them on, for example, to a therapist, counsellor, advisor. If someone is not psychologically well for example, don’t go there. You are a mentor, not a qualified psychotherapist or doctor.

How to stay within the boundaries of the mentoring role

In my experience as a practitioner I have found that a combination of training, continued professional development, supervision and reflective practice have all contributed to enabling me to understand how to stay within boundaries. Here are three practice shares:

  1. Understand what your model of mentoring is, in other words, know who you are and what you are doing when you are mentoring. A mentor is not an advisor, nor a therapist, a parent or boss figure. You are not coaching, teaching or instructing. If you start acting like these you have stopped mentoring. You are there as an equal in the relationship and to help your mentee work out decisions and actions for themselves. You do this through active listening, asking questionings, providing supportive challenge and providing skilful feedback. You operate from the mentee’s agenda, not yours. So know your role.

Practice share

Mentees sometimes ask me what I think they should do. This can be when they are stuck or have a challenging dilemma they wish to solve, for example. As human beings we have a tendency to want to help and this is a boundary we can cross if we don’t have any strategies to manage what is happening. It can be about something we know too. Even more tempting to offer advice or say “If I was you I would….” There’s a line (boundary line) between telling someone what I would do, which is my answer for them, and helping them work out how they can come to a decision themselves. In my experience I use responses that are appropriate for the situation that I have learned by experience and study. For example, I might offer feedback on what I have heard, reflect it back word for word; I might ask a question; I might offer feedback that the mentee seems to be stuck and help them drill down into that some more. Sometimes it’s more about collaborating and sharing an experience.

2. Stay in the present when mentoring. This is about making the effort to stay continuously present with the experience as it happens in real time, on purpose and non judgementally. It also means attending to the present in all the dimensions of the interaction – thoughts, emotions, physical – for both yourself and the mentee.

Practice share

Despite being in the right environment for mentoring not all my mentees have always been great at dealing with distractions in the room or what they see out on the street for example. There are also internal distractions, perhaps because things are playing on their mind. So it’s a challenge for my mentee to stay present too. In these situations I help the mentee by drawing attention to the theme or thread of what they are following and help them return their attention without confrontation or coercion. I remain patient and stay focused and can usually bring the mentee’s own focus back by asking a question. It’s no bad thing to give the brain a rest sometimes. Just keep following the mentee.

3. Be skilled at active listening. It’s a critical skill. Active listening is listening with the intent to understand not the intent to reply. It is known as level two listening and a mentor should listen at this level so attention is directed at the mentee. Effective mentoring hinges on making sure we listen at a higher level and are unattached to self. This makes room for the mentor to manage the boundaries and use the mentee’s agenda, thoughts and ideas.

Practice share

I have worked out how to empty my mind (get rid of mind chatter) so that I can listen at a higher level. I understand that I operate in an emotional and mental space with the mentee that I ‘hold’ for them. That means as the neutral, non judgmental mentor I have no need to react to what is said (e.g. my values could be engaged which could lead to an emotionally-led response by me) and the mentee can explore their thinking within the boundaries of trust and respect. When I started out ten years ago the combination of training, studying and learning in practice with supervisory support enabled me to think this through. I have worked out how to banish ‘projecting my own autobiography’ as Stephen Covey would say. Dr Covey wrote ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. Habit 5 is ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

Boundaries are important

Legislation and codes of ethics and conduct provide a framework in which to operate appropriately as a mentor. The European Mentoring and Coaching Council has a good code of ethics which includes boundary management. The IOEE has a good Mentor Code of Conduct too. Boundaries are also more than this. They are a behavioural activity and bring important responsibilities to the role.

To think about

  • If you train mentors, what do you include about boundary management and how do you explore this?

  • If you are a mentor, how do you know when you are operating within the boundaries of your role at any given moment?

Get in touch if you’d like to talk about mentoring or mentor training.