Shubha had had an extremely difficult day at work. She had been told that she would not get her promotion, something that she had hoped for for three years. Her intense disappointment had also left her exhausted. Everything had gone just right. And, now this.

She looked at her calendar. She noticed that she was due for a call with her mentor, Suneetha Rajashekar who lived in another city. Suneetha was several years her senior and had retired as the Vice President (Finance) of a global bank, in Bangalore. She was now consultant to a number of firms. She was also known for her mentoring skills and Shubha had heard of her through her networks. Suneetha had developed a lot of networks which helped her be a better mentor, but what she was exceptional at was her capacity to handle deep emotions with respect and dignity.

So what were the skills that Suneetha used with Shubha, who broke down during the conversation?

First, let us consider if mentors supposed to deal with emotions at all. My answer is: It's completely normal provided they don't fancy themselves as therapists. This is a point for much debate. On the one hand, the question arises whether it is even possible that the mentor-mentee relationship could exist without an intermingling of emotions. On the other hand, one school of thought holds that a relationship could exist without acknowledging and working on the presence of emotions. However, according to the Stanford University School of Medicine, it is wise for a mentor to carry out a professionally guided and confidential professional assessment of the mentor’s own EQ so that the mentor has an understanding of her self-awareness, decision making, self-expression and stress management styles. She can then become more prepared for mentoring. Additionally she needs to know her own triggers for positive behaviors and destructive behaviors. The mentee should be encouraged to do the same.

The sound of silence

Strong emotions don’t go away. Acknowledging them and working through them, at least at the surface level helps the mentee. However, it needs to be clear, as mentioned above that the mentee does not need access to a therapist and this should be a part of the mentoring contract in the first place.

Assuming that these preconditions are in place, the first thing that the mentor needs to do is to listen deeply, attentively and empathetically. Literature documents various kinds of listening. According to the author, the best kind of listening is any kind that stabilises the mentee. For example, the sound of the mentor's silence can stabilize the mentee, even over the phone. Breathing evens out, sobs become less convulsive, voices become quieter. When you think the mind of the mentee is unravelling, they are incoherent, is when it is actually integrating, becoming more condensed, compact and focused. In some cases, practicing what the founder of client-centered psychology, Carl Rogers, called active listening can help the mentee enormously.

It is only then that I suggest the mentor should ask quiet questions as to what happened. The probing however should be gentle, not an interrogation. Simple questions like "Tell me what happened?”, "Would you like to share what happened?”, "How much would you like to share of what happened?" and again, just listen. Ask a question only with permission. "May I know more, in case you don't mind?", “Why does this matter so much?”, "How long has this been troubling you?"

Individual psychology and the analysis of the ego: Letting things pass

What is the role of the mentor's ego? The ego is usually the person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. A mentor with a healthy ego will be able to take remarks that appear to be personal in her or his stride. Remarks like "How would you ever understand?". "This is never something that you have ever experienced?", will be like water off a duck's back for the mentor. She or he won' take it personally and is likely to just let it pass. Not taking something personally is both a matter of temperament and a skill. When it is a learned skill, it usually comes with the mentor who talks back to irrational thoughts and beliefs, or who just takes a deep breath and lets it go.

Creating psychological safety

Creating psychological safety is one of the most critical skills required of both mentors and bosses today. Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990). When speaking about a team or a set of two people, it can be defined as a place safe for risk taking.

Strategies: What is critical here is for a mentor to now be able to discuss practical strategies to implement the situation. I recommend that the mentor go emotion by emotion and strategy by strategy.

For example, if a mentee has fear, worry and anxiety regarding a particular upcoming situation, the mentor can help her imagine it, walk through it, visualise it, and help achieve some closure on an open-ended situation which has a jagged edge. Additionally it would be good if a mentor had a list of resources including movies, cassettes and books that can help a mentee with strong emotions like fear and anxiety

If she is facing anger at a potential betrayal, the mentor can help her write out or talk through her feelings till she feels more functional again.

Sometimes a mentee may be feeling insecure about the success of other co-workers. She may benefit from writing down things she is grateful for as well as make strategies for her ongoing success. On the other hand she may have to deal with jealousy from co-workers. Her emotions here may be of surprise or resentment, but she may then have to remain low key and unapologetic, yet help others and remain in the limelight of decision makers

Many of these solutions and techniques recommended here are from popular literature and may or may not help the trainee.

After a set of action strategies and emotional strategies are worked out the mentee feels safer within and less dependent on the mentor. Though she may feel that her mentor anchors her, she will feel more balanced and integrated inside to be able to take on the next set of challenges.

(Anu Oza is a Director HR with an auto company in Chennai. She is grateful to Ms Sravanthi Challapalli, Independent Writer-editor, for support. All points of view are personal and errors the author’s. It is recommended that mentors undergo formal training in the various techniques. )