How to discuss sensitive topics with your mentor
Some time back, there were topics and sensitive topics. Fewer were the sensitive topics. Lately, there are hardly any topics that are not sensitive. One has to consider being offensive, insensitive, racist, sexist, politically incorrect, and everything there is, to discuss a subject. When we were kids, when faced with an issue such as this, we were often told to leave the topic alone or something to that effect. What did we do? Did we reach out to other men or women to talk about what bothered us? Doubtful. We most probably would have left the topic alone.
However, work-life is very different from personal affairs. If we have trouble discussing certain topics with our family, friends, or relatives, it is up to us to do whatever we want to do about it. We can take our time, ask for help or sometimes even leave it alone, not that we should. It is highly recommended that the issue is always addressed with the person concerned. But when a situation such as this arises in the workplace, it is not only suggested but also highly expected that it is addressed professionally.
Why you should do it
Failing to address sensitive issues will have a dreaded effect on everyone concerned. Also, if it is to be discussed with a mentor, then all the more reasons not to hesitate. A mentor is someone who is there to help you out, point you in the right direction, and guide you all along. Naturally, it has to be quite easy to do so.
Most common sensitive topics include
- Conflicts with co-workers
- Issues related to health
- Political or Religious views
- Love life or Relationship issues
- Financial issues
- Uncommon insecurities etc.
In order to make the conversation smooth and productive, there are a few factors to be well thought out. Because, no matter how professional your mentor is, he/she is first a human. And no matter how many times we are told that we shouldn’t take things personal, it is only just possible. That is why it is important to take the feelings of your mentor into account before diving right into sensitive issues and speaking your mind out, come what may.
- Manners are never outdated.
You can never go wrong with being polite and good-mannered. If you are itching to ask a question that you are unsure might offend your mentor, then go about it the old-fashioned way. Ask for permission to ask the question. A simple, “Do you mind if I ask you about …” or “Would it be too much to ask for…” question would go a long way. That way, even before going too deep into the subject, you will know what effect it is going to have on your mentor. On a personal note, you do not have to worry too much about it because mentors, most of them, are experienced, highly professional, and are almost always immune to criticism.
- You can do better than assume.
It is common to assume that people will be comfortable answering questions that might look relevant to them on a shallow level. For instance, if your mentor is from a different State, it is reasonable to think that he might be happy to talk about sensitive issues related to his culture or if your mentor is a woman, it is easy to assume that she is open to addressing gender issues or movements. But it may very well not be the case. Living in a diverse country, it is an unwritten rule that these factors are kept in mind before shooting questions and making assumptions. We all know what they say about assuming, right?
- I have asked. Now what?
Now that you have asked, if you do not know it already, listening is a start. Allow them a moment to ponder upon what you have just asked. Try not to make the pauses awkward. Avoiding eye contact for a moment or two sure helps. Finally, when they start answering, listen with the intent of listening and understanding and not with the intent of finding fault or counter-attacking with yet another intellectual question. It is important to understand that the topic is as sensitive to them as it is to you.
- Face it
Like the old saying goes, if you are not ready for the answer, then you’d better not ask at all. Especially if the topic of conversation includes mutual people or issues that involve both of you, be open to receiving disappointing comments. The pills may be hard to swallow, but they are essential. Your mentor might even be so ‘in your face’ about it. But let us not forget that it is only his/her job. A good mentor will tell you all you can handle and much more. If not, then why the heck do you need one for?
- Actions have consequences
After discussing the issues through, you might disagree with certain things that were said. Very rarely, you might end up feeling worse than before. Nevertheless, it is all nothing but necessary. All you can do is show some respect and not feel bad about it. The very initiative that you took to address the issue, rather than hide it under the carpet shows that you are not one to avoid conflict. So, it is imperative that you listen, understand, question, and sleep on it before acting on it. Finally, if you still cannot see eye to eye, then try walking hand in hand.
To conclude, it is always better to face it. No matter how sensitive the topic, if you have accepted someone to be your mentor, it is only right that you bring it up and give them the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of your confidence. But in doing so, do so in a manner that is socially acceptable, taking all of these into consideration. One day, when you become a mentor, expect to get a taste of your own medicine. When your mentee comes to you with tough talks, there is no running away. Instead, be prepared and be willing.
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