Listening Tops The List of Best Mentor Qualities

Listening Tops The List of Best Mentor Qualities

Listening is an essential mentoring skill and, once again, it topped our Wheelhouse Mentoring Survey list as the number one attribute of a good mentor.

Thanks to the responses of our readers (like you!) we also collected the following additional characteristics of good listeners:

  1. Uses active listening.
  2. Provides a safe environment for a mentee to share and take risks.
  3. Demonstrates empathy.
  4. Picks up on all the subtle (or not so subtle) clues to tailor appropriate responses.
  5. Is nonjudgmental and has unconditional positive regard for their mentee.
  6. Keeps an open mind.
  7. Is truly, authentically interested in the development of their mentee.
  8. Encourages mentees to come up with solutions themselves by asking probing questions.
  9. Stays focused on their mentee.
  10. Possesses the humility to accept that they don’t know all the best ways of doing things.
  11. Remains fully present in the conversation.
  12. Listens and learns; doesn’t just share their expertise.

Here’s an example of how listening should work in a mentoring relationship, and why it’s so important:

Kasi wanted someone to listen and understand her concerns and challenges. Jonah, her mentor, got it and got her.

Kasi: “I feel like I’m stuck. I don’t see where I can go and grow in this organization. Maybe I need to go back to school and get an MBA.”


Jonah: “Feeling stuck is no fun. I think everyone feels that way at one time or another in their career. I know I’ve been there. I found, both for me and many others who have shared those feelings, it isn’t always the long range career path. Sometimes it is a short term lull — like what you are doing now doesn’t interest you anymore. Does that make sense?”


Kasi: “Yes it does, I don’t feel like I am working on interesting projects anymore. All the new projects seem to be going to others. I feel like I am being left behind.”


Jonah: “That, I know, is not a good feeling. When you see others get what appears to be the latest and greatest project, it can easily make you second guess yourself. I just want to remind you of what you told me before in our earlier conversations. And that is your supervisor values your work, and you are well-respected. So I don’t believe it has to do with your contribution. Have you talked to your supervisor about these feelings of yours and about a new assignment?”


Kasi: “I haven’t. I guess I had hoped I would be the natural go-to person when something new came up.”


Jonah: “Well, I am sure that might have been your hope, but I can tell you, as a supervisor, that, number one, I am not a mind reader. I don’t always know that someone wants a new assignment, and two, I do tend to rely on people like you who are responsible and can get the job done. I give them free reign to do their work and appreciate that I don’t have to watch over them. I guess this is a reminder for me, too. Not to take their contribution for granted.”


Kasi: “So you think I need to be speaking up more about what I need, not just put my head down and get the job done?”


Jonah: “I do. Let’s give it a try.”

Seems pretty straightforward, right? As you can see, Jonah is a mentor who listens. He refers back to previous conversations, showing he’s invested in Kasi. He also acknowledges what she’s feeling, listens to the words she’s using, and digs deeper into why she’s feeling the way she does.

What’s great about this example, too? It showcases several other top qualities listed in our survey — empathy, focus, nonjudgmental, etc. A truly great mentor combines these top qualities into an unforgettable experience for their mentees!

Key Takeaway: How well are you listening? Use the top 12 qualities in this post to help you benchmark your listening skills.

Do You Know Where You Stand?

A leader told us, “I wish my people would ask me how they are doing or what they need to do to improve.  It would make it so much easier to give them the feedback they need and I would have more confidence that they are going to do something with it.”

Feedback is critical to success. It is the foundation for self-awareness and openness.

  • When was the last time you asked someone for feedback about your personal effectiveness or your communication style?
  • When you get feedback, what do you do with it?  Do you defend, or do you reflect?

A GenY sat down in her performance review and got a very blunt, somewhat harsh, critique from her senior manager.  Since her own supervisor had been giving her glowing recommendations, it took her aback.  She was upset and initially hurt by what she believed was a focus on only what she wasn’t doing right, with little regard for what was working well.

When she reflected about what he was telling her, she realized that the kind words and encouragement she had been getting from her supervisor, while making her feel good, it did little to help her improve.  She saw that his inability to tell it like it was had hindered her growth.  Her senior manager was frustrated with her for not making the kind of progress he had expected her to.  Once she realized that this senior manager was helping her see where she stood, she focused on what she needed to do.  She wrote him an email thanking him for his blunt but helpful feedback and that she was going to work on the issues he addressed.  He was impressed with her response to the session and even more impressed with how quickly she turned herself around.

Do you know where you stand?

  • Are people telling you what you want to hear or what needs to be said?
  • Are you sending signals to be kind and gentle or are you asking for the truth?
  • And, as Jack Nicholson asks in A Few Good Men, “can you handle the truth?”