Rope being pulled into a knot

Mentoring a new peer supporter requires living with tensions. According to theories of organizational complexity, tensions exist in any complex adaptive system. There’s the maxim, “On the one hand…on the other hand” going on all the time. It makes for some interesting paradoxes.

In this post, I’m going to explore three different tensions that affect the mentoring of new peer supporters; these tensions affect ongoing supervision of peer specialists too. These are probably not the only tensions that a mentor will face, but they have been important to my own mentoring practice and to the practice of others I know. I will then talk about spending time with a mentee, and offer a model of a structured conversation for meeting with one. Finally, I will reflect on the overall standard for measuring the effectiveness of mentoring.

Tension #1: Hiring Well and Mentoring Well.

The first tension is between hiring well and mentoring well. On the one hand, notes a peer support supervisor I know, the best peer supporters are creative, a little resistant to authority, and not always inclined to go with the flow. This set of traits co-occurs with the desire to advocate for the rights of persons served, or as this supervisor puts it, “root for the underdog.” On the other hand, it is precisely this type of person who, once hired, is difficult to supervise, coach, and mentor. Because of course they will be resistant to the supervisor’s or mentor’s authority as well. And they may have a tendency to be creative in a direction with which the supervisor or mentor may not be comfortable. In other words, great peer supporters can be difficult people to supervise during a practicum—as well as later!

Tension #2: Stability and Flexibility

This is related to, although not the same as, the first tension. On the one hand, the mentor must be sure that the standards of the organization are being upheld, that normal employment procedures such as the dress code and being accountable for hours worked are being followed, and that the peer support code of ethics is being honored. On the other hand, there must be room for creativity, for individual differences, and for the unique worldview that the mentee brings. Therefore, some amount of disruption of the existing system is to be expected, especially when the mentee asks, “Do we have to do it this way?” and there is no good reason why we must.

Tension #3: Supervision and Support

Mentors need to practice mentoring in a supportive way, but as the peer support supervisor quoted above said, “If you move away from supervision and toward therapy, it becomes garbage.” Mentoring is not primarily about supporting the mentee. It’s about learning the job so that the mentee meets performance standards. This seemingly commonsense observation can be difficult to navigate in practice. Peer support is, to be blatantly obvious, about support, and we become consummate pros at supporting each other as well as the people we serve. At one point in time, the entire team of which I’m a member moved toward a therapeutic mode with each other. The result was not good. We had to reflect and reset some ground rules to get the focus back on the job.

These tensions shed light on how to mentor potentially great peer supporters during a practicum period. A consultative style is essential with someone who frequently asks “Why?” There must be room for the mentee to challenge beliefs; if peer supporters are expected to sometimes act as system transformers, a certain tolerance for tough questions is essential. At the same time, the mentor must be secure enough to also challenge the belief system of the mentee when it conflicts with the core values and best practices of the peer support profession.

“Mentoring is not primarily about supporting the mentee.
It’s about learning the job so that the mentee meets performance standards.
This seemingly commonsense observation can be difficult to navigate in practice.”

First, good mentoring requires spending time with the mentee. This needs to be structured so that the mentee not only works alongside the mentor to some extent, but also meets regularly with him or her. During the meetings, cell phones need to be laid aside along with anything else that inhibits a focused conversation. The first step in intentional peer support is connection; we can’t do much without that.

Second, evaluation needs to be a self-reflective process. The best teacher is not experience alone; it is experience plus reflection. In a mentoring session, I invite the mentee to share their perspective first, then I give my own. Structured questions can be asked during the conversation. During the initial mentoring session, I would want to know:

  1. What talents and strengths do you want to offer us as a peer supporter that will benefit the persons we serve?
  2. What barriers might get in your way of achieving those goals here?

In ongoing mentoring sessions, I might ask:

  1. What happened this week that you were proud of or happy about?
  2. What happened this week that could have gone better? What would you do differently next time?
  3. What questions do you have for me?

After the mentee has had the opportunity to do self-reflection, I give my own assessment. A conversation that begins with self-reflection honors both the organization’s standards and priorities and the mentee’s perspective. It becomes a time of co-learning. It increases the probability that the tensions inherent in the process will be managed well.

Third, the focus needs to stay always on what is being offered to the persons served. That is the gold standard. How a supervisor or mentor interacts with the novice peer supporter is informed by the benefits to people receiving services.

Everything we do needs to be put to this test. It is like a plumb line or spirit level to a construction worker, keeping things straight. As long as the focus stays on the persons served and what they are receiving from us, we have a sound standard for evaluating the overall effectiveness of mentoring and of all our practices. And in so doing, navigating the tensions inherent in any organization and in the mentoring process is the key to success.