A Conversation In Listening and Mentoring

My intention with this writing is to develop a series of exercises for Mentor Training. The exercises are meant to broaden the mentor’s ability and awareness of Selfless listening. So let’s start by having an open dialog about the act of listening.

Most listening is filtered through our personal experiences, perceived standing in a given situation with a person or people. Listening is influenced by external circumstances, state of mind, desire to maintain or advance one’s status or position, feeling safe, or gain an advantage. Listening can also help determine whether the listener and speaker are compatible or ambivalent toward one another. Listening can be used for the listener’s own advantage or as a gift to the one being listened to. Selfless listening can benefit both the listener and the one listened to.

Selfless Listening rather than self absorbed listening not only influences the conversation it creates it. Selfless Listening creates the space for connection to occur. Selfless Listening encourages relatedness, trust, connection, acceptance and the opportunity for healing. Selfless Listening gives the person being listened to the opportunity to tell the whole truth. Meaning,,, get told what there is to tell so that healing and wholeness can be realized. Selfless Listening isn’t driven by an agenda. It’s generated through context and intention.

When a young man and a mentor can listen to one another from Selfless Listening they will come to the realization that they are not different from one another. They have the same fears, joys, emotions, feelings, and the connection between them is REAL. Nothing fake or false or diluted. This is where trust resides, this is where healing occurs, this is where love is present. We will delve into Trust a bit further in this conversation.


As mentors we often feel the need to give sound advice, we want to guide the mentee toward what we consider to be success. We want to impart our knowledge, wisdom and the experiences of our lives so the mentee will not make the same mistakes we made. At some level we need them to appear successful in their lives to validate our influence as a good mentor. If they do not follow the advice we give we often change tactics from advising to convincing. And if that does not work then many times our standard line is “ he’ll have to learn it the hard way.” For those of us who are fathers notice the similarities.

In order to impart this knowledge, wisdom and advice it requires the mentor to do most of the talking. Most of us love to hear ourselves talk, it is the easiest thing to do but not always the most effective or the most disciplined. In our attempt to help the mentee through this method of imparting knowledge, we are hopeful the message is getting through. We hope that which we have passed on will make a difference in the mentee’s life. And if he doesn’t get it, it’s on him not us. “ Hey I told him everything and how to do it but he just wouldn’t listen!” This may have been how you were taught when you were of teen age years. This may have been how your father, mother or mentor passed on to you his or her knowledge, wisdom and advice. I am willing to bet there were other experiences which proved far more effective when you learned something from these people. A time when someone in your life actually listened to you. Actually sat down and heard what you had to say. When you spoke what needed to be said and you were afforded the opportunity to speak it out one on one, you had a newfound respect for yourself and the person listening to you. Your relationship changed somehow. You saw things in a different light. Your father or mother, uncle or grandfather or mentor didn’t say much of anything. They may have encouraged you to explain your thoughts, how you felt at the time, or not to be afraid. They offered you the opportunity to say what you needed to say without judgement or agenda. They were willing to sit with your pain, your confusion. They were willing to sit with all the voices in there head and still offer you selfless listening. They were willing to sit with the silence. That’s the listening we are talking about. That is Selfless Listening.

It’s important to acknowledge the value of Advice, wisdom and experience. After all we can not speak with authority without speaking from our personal experiences. Advice is often given as a solution to a problem or the right path to take. It may have worked for you and so it will work for others as well. This may be true. It’s not so much the advice that is flawed as it is the assumption that it will be received and followed by the mentee. Very seldom do humans take guidance at face value. Until we have the opportunity to experience things for ourselves does the guidance become trusted or real. Many times we can reflect back and recall a piece of advice someone gave us when we were younger. We look at that and realize how true it seems today and that it made a difference in our lives. In fact we often claim it as our own and pass it on to others in need of advice. What we forgot was the time it took to implement that advice, try it out and determine it’s validity. In other words we needed to experience our own real life situation before that advice became reliable. The misstep many of us make is the assumption that the advice we give formulated from our life experiences is directly applicable to the young men we mentor. Furthermore, the advice we give should be accepted as the solution to the problem or the right path. If we as mentor’s allow the mentee to “take what he needs” trust that he knows what works for him in his life, that he can and will figure it out, then we as mentor’s don’t need to advise in the traditional sense. We speak from our personal experiences, share what we learned and the outcome we experienced. If the mentor is willing to speak from his personal truth, real experience, the mentee will trust what is being given and will use the experience as he needs to apply it in his own life. How he uses it is not up to you the mentor. He may go out and really screw up, do exactly the opposite of what it was that you shared. It doesn’t mean anything. He might reflect upon what he did compared to what you the mentor spoke about through your experience and realize the value of what you shared. Or he may not. All we can do as mentors is provide listening for him so he can speak it out, tell his truth and move on.

By now you may be asking yourself the question, If I can’t offer advice from my experiences then how can I be expected to mentor? I’m glad you asked that. The reason we focus on the topic of Advice is because our mentor program demands more from our mentors than rehearsed responses based on an old adage or something that was told to you when you were young and it seems to apply to a given situation. The real difference is the context in which you hold your role as a mentor. Lets look at a few examples of using advice compared to speaking from personal experience.

As a father I often find myself vacillating between mentor and father. What determines the approach I take with my son in particular is the context I am coming from. When I come from the father figure I tend to do all the talking, I am focused on fixing the problem, I tend to be less aware of what it is my son needs and more focused on resolving the issue. I can come across with such authority that it leaves no room for any further discussion. Many times I am completely blind to what it is my son really needs, all I am focused on is identify the problem, fix it, require his agreement and check it off the list. Fixing the problem or situation and telling him what he should do or what he did wrong is taking the easy way out. Giving him instruction or advice and make sure he follows accordingly does nothing for his ability to resolve issues or take responsibility for his actions. In this context of father figure my measure of success is when he achieves the desired result I expect. This way my ego is satisfied based on the evidence I can point to given the outcome I was expecting. This context of father figure is all about what I want and expect as a father from my son. It has very little to do with his needs or development as a young man. All it teaches him is to follow orders, do what he is told and respect me as the authority figure. Now there is a place and time for this way of fathering. But make no mistake it’s not the only way.

The other me is the mentor. When my son is dealing with something or he has made a mistake in life I find that my mentor role is more about listening to him and genuinely caring about what he is going through or dealing with. Me mentor role comes from a place of compassion and understanding rather than Authority or frustration or disappointment. I can empathise with him because I get in touch with my love for him. Also I often will recall a similar experience I had when I was his age. In doing this I have less of a reason to harshly judge him. After all I did the same thing when I was his age. This mentor energy or context offers my son the opportunity to feel safe, feel that he is not being threatened or judged and that he can open up and say what he needs to say. Often it may take longer to arrive at the solution, lesson or result but the difference is he gets there with my listening and encouragement instead of being lead there on my terms and authority.

In these two examples the only difference is the context I hold and who I am serving. The father energy or context I describe is more about serving me, the mentor energy or context is serving my son. Now you may say there are times that require the father context and being the authority figure and I would agree. The difference is being clear on your context. A father can be the authority and direct his son to a desired outcome as long as he holds the context of serving his son. Either way the first step is to have the awareness and notice the difference. From there I can intentionally choose “Who am I” in a given situation.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Viktor Frankl an Austrian Psychotherapist.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In the space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

In other words when you feel your buttons pushed and you are about to react, notice the space, take a breath and choose your response.

Distinctions of listening

When we talk about listening what is it we are listening to? Breaking it down to levels of awareness I think of listening like there are two speakers, one is generating the conversation and the other is commentating. You introduce yourself to me and as you are speaking your introduction I am paying attention to the speaking in me head simultaneously. Making observations, as to who you are and how you fit into my world. What do I have in common with you? Who do I know that is similar to you? Are you friendly? Are you a threat? Do I agree with what you are saying? And on and on and on. So the question is, who am I listening to? Mostly to the conversation in my head. In fact I am actually more invested in the conversation in my head than I am in listening to you. Once I have you categorized then I make assumptions based on my story about you. Not based on who you say you are.

As you are speaking to me and you happen to trigger certain feelings or emotions from something that I experienced in the past then I am listening to my experience not yours. I react to you in a certain way from these past influences. My conversation with you and my listening of you is totally informed by my experience not yours.

Have you ever been introduced to a person and immediately forgot their name? It happens to me all the time unless I intend to remember their name. Intend or intention in listening is a very powerful distinction. In my personal experience the listening I extend to another is either based on intention or it is generated from what I refer to as self absorbed listening. In other words if I am more concerned with your perception of me, the conversation in my head becomes louder than your speaking. I am more invested in my self conscience rather than receiving you. I am particularly susceptible to self absorbed listening when introduced to an attractive women. I’ll spare you the details of my mother issues but my point is, I am very aware that a pretty lady triggers a conversation in my head that overrides my listening for her. The conversation in my head looks something like this. How is my appearance? Is she available? Oh my God I forgot her name already! Wow she has a beautiful figure, I’ll keep this PG-13. I have to make a good first impression. I wonder if she is in a relationship? I hope she doesn’t notice the stain on my shirt. I must think of something clever to say. Damn I’d like to play motorboat with those…..What was it you were saying? That’s just the first five seconds. All the while I’m trying to get her to say her name again without being conspicuous. How much of what she is saying do you think I am listening to? Fortunate for me and those around me I have developed an awareness to the conversation in my head so I can notice it and choose to listen with intention or not. I can choose selfless listening both as a way of listening and a way of being, or I can choose self absorbed listening. Without the awareness and the intention I am not consciously choosing or being I am responding from stimulus rather than intention. Now do you see the distinction between selfless listening and self absorbed listening? It’s not about me, and it’s all about me! I could define self absorbed listening as a self absorbed conversation about how I am feeling in relationship to another and in this self generated conversation my listening becomes absorbed to the point of distraction and distortion.

We all have some version of self absorbed listening. It may not look like my insecurity conversation I just described. The key is to notice when it is running. If you can learn to notice the conversation that is absorbing your listening then you have a choice.

As a mentor we are responsible for our listening both selfless or self absorbed. As a mentor no matter which listening you choose to exercise isn’t the point. The opportunity exists in being honest about it with the boys. We all get distracted, we all have other things on our mind that distracts us from being present or engaged. That’s not to say we can’t use the experience of self absorbed listening as a teaching moment. Everything is an opportunity for sharing the lesson. Imagine you as a mentor offering a young man the distinction between self absorbed listening and selfless listening through your personal experience? Just as I offered you the example of being introduced to an attractive woman in order to explain the difference between self absorbed and selfless listening you offer the mentee your personal experience. It’s through the connection of personal experience that creates trust and relatedness. This is a basic tenant of our program. Otherwise all we are doing is asking young men to believe what we say at face value without a deeper understanding. By teaching or mentoring through personal experience you have revealed your truth. You will find the common ground between you and the young men and that will open your heart and mind to him.

Recently I had lunch with a group of mentors. We started to discuss listening and how it occurs for each of us. One of the mentors described his need to listen to others as a relief from his own internal voice in his head. He felt by listening to the group and focusing on their sharing he was able to quiet the voices in his head. He described this as relief and that he didn’t want to disturb the relief by talking about what he was thinking. As if sharing his thoughts would rob him of this moment of relief. I found this interesting and I don’t know if this is the norm. I do know we are much more likely to focus our energy and thoughts away from ourselves when we are engaged and connected with others in our lives. When we have the opportunity to contribute to others our personal problems and internal voices are diminished. This is one of the gifts of being a mentor.

Another mentor described listening to music as a form of therapy and the study of music as therapy used in healing. As I listened to him I realized the art of listening is similar to the art of music. It offers both the listener and the vocalist or musician the opportunity to connect and experience one another.

As we shared our views about the mentor program I noticed I was reminding myself of the context I was holding around my listening. From time to time I would wander off into my thoughts. One of our mentors is an amazing 87 yrs old and I noticed when he would share something that I may have heard a number of times before I reminded myself of the admiration I have for this man. I let the nagging voice in my head complain about the redundancy of his story and move from there to acceptance and compassion. This is the act of noticing. It’s not about being or doing right listening, it’s about noticing and from the notice, choice.

I have a number of friends that hold very different political views than I do. Recently I was engaged in a tense disagreement with my friend. It actually got personal, infact I was the one that took the conversation to a personal level. As we walked and talked I could feel my blood pressure and heart rate rise. I was not in the space of listening or mentoring. I was in the space of proving him wrong. I would not accept his quote unquote biases that went against everything I stand for. We have always agreed to disagree when it comes to politics and for years that has worked. THis time it didn’t. In fact I was prepared to have this battle. I knew based on the events of the past week he was going to speak his view and I was going to counter. Looking at it now I came into this conversation with a default context. Default meaning I didn’t intentionally create a powerful context. I did intentionally create a context, one of making him wrong and that is the context I reacted from. In the context of making him wrong my listening was completely self serving. I listened to what he had to say, every word! But my reason for listening to every word was to build a case against him not to try and understand what he was saying or feeling. To convince him he was wrong and to show him the errors of his ways. Literally to the point of accusation. I was completely self absorbed and therefore my listening was completely self absorbed. I could also describe this as self righteous listening. It doesn’t really matter the adjective you use, listening to SELF says it all.

Setting a context for listening

As I described the interchange between my friend and myself, the context determined how I listened and whether I connected with the other person. Or should I say to what degree. I was not interested in understanding or even acknowledging my friends point of view. I was interested in my point of view. It later occurred to me this same lack of listening is precisely the divide that keeps our nation and our world from understanding one another. We are not willing to listen in a way that fosters connection, understanding and empathy for the other side’s point of view or personal experiences. We (I) limit our interpretation based on what we are familiar with and most comfortable hearing. If what we hear does not conform to these norms then our listening is turned inward. Inward results in closed, judgement, stereotypical, generalization, divided, defensive, separate, conditional, condescending and fearful. In the space of inward there is little to no room for possibility. I was in an inward context. The opposite of inward is of course outward. In the outward or open context we (I) are receiving, accepting, conciliatory, empathetic, respectful, acknowledgement, connected, commonality, community, greater cause, together and possibility. In the simplest form one context is rooted in fear and the other context is rooted in love. It’s that simple. Once we see the distinction between the two context we then can choose. The power to choose is our greatest responsibility. Beyond choice is the awareness to choose in the face of our feelings and emotions. In the face of our self absorbed (inward) listening. For me self absorbed Inward listening is what I call my default context. It’s where I go when I feel threatened, defensive or afraid. If I can notice what I am stimulated by then I can make a choice how I want to respond. Of course I am not the first to profess this theory. I credit the Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankle and I quote;

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The word stimulus is an interesting word and one I liken to Stimuli or Trigger as in “I was triggered” We also use the term buttons as in “they pushed my buttons.” Or perhaps you have heard yourself say this? “They pissed me off”, “Look what they did to me”, “I couldn’t help myself”, “This happened to me before”, “I’ll never let that happen to me again”, “I was taken advantage of”, and so on. These are all feelings and emotions that can influence our response to a certain situation or a certain person. This is the stimulus or trigger that we tend to react or respond from unless we are mindful of the space. The space between stimulus/trigger and response/react. Our power, our greatness, our freedom, how we define ourselves and how the world experiences us lies in the space.

Define Context

It’s important to set the definition or agreement on what context means. The formal definition of context ; The circumstances written, held or spoken that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

In the context of this conversation I am using the word context to mean a way of being or an intention that influences the thoughts, behavior, and energy of one’s intended relationship to a situation, circumstance or person.. Holding a strong context is choosing powerfully how you show up in the face of a situation, circumstance or relationship. Context with intention alters your way of being and your relationship with that situation, circumstance or person. Holding your context influences your reaction, thoughts, emotions and your ability to be with the situation, circumstance or person. Now context can be intentional or it can be default. Default is mostly influenced by feelings and emotions or conditions and triggers. Default context is expressed through reaction based on habit, past experience and our cognitive wiring. We always come from context and we always have an opportunity to choose our context once we are aware of the distinction. Intentional context is generated from a choice to define “who you say you are in the face of” a particular situation, circumstance or relationship. Your choice will have you be a certain way and if held-to in connection with your purpose the context can be the mooring no matter the situation or circumstance.

I’ll share with you a personal experience that speaks to context. My son around the age of 15 was inventing ways of getting himself mixed up with the wrong crowd. One day I received a call that he had been arrested along with a car full of friends and they had been smoking pot. I was asked to come down to the police station and pick him up since he was a minor. I recall my initial reaction was feeling anger, upset with him since he was warned that hanging around the other boys would lead to trouble. I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t raise him better. I remember feeling pissed off that he now had an arrest record and we as a family would have to go through the court process. My initial reaction was to blame, demean and set him straight. As I was driving I realized that my default context which always comes from fear was running my reactions and feelings. I took a few breaths and thought about how I wanted to handle this situation. What will I say to him and the police? How will I respond once I walk into that police station? what context do I want to hold in the face of this situation. I thought about what was it he needed from me as his father. I thought about who do I say I am as his father. I got in touch with my commitment as a father and as a man. Those few moments and that intention allowed me to create the context that influenced my words, my actions, my energy and my relationship to the situation. I walked into the police station a much different man than I would have under the influence of my default context. The first contextual shift was “this isn’t about me” I didn’t

need to come from embarrassment or shame. This wasn’t about my failure as his father or blaming myself for his choices. This was about my son and where to go from here. How can I support him in getting through this and learning from it. That is both of us learning from it and getting through the situation. I got in touch with my love for him. I got in touch with those many times when I was in his shoes. Because of the context I chose and the way I held that context through the entire ordeal which took months. My son and I came out the other end with a stronger relationship. We had gone through adversity together and he knew I was in his corner even when he had to face the consequences. I knew I would be there for him no matter what. We held a respect for each other that would not have happened without the adversity and more importantly an intentional context. So you can see the distinction between in this case my default context and my intentional context. It can change the world. It’s that big.

The example I share is a lesson in our ability to choose intentionally. My choice was not the right choice or the best choice. It was the choice I determined would be the one I wanted to come to the party with. Bring to the situation, one that would sustain me through the duration. Would outlast any adverse circumstances that I might face in relationship to the situation my son and I would experience together or individually. Choosing the context is not about getting it right. It’s about choosing with intention. Having the awareness and presents of mind to recognize you have a choice. From your context you will be and act the man you say you are. You own your response and your reaction to any given situation, circumstance or relationship with others in your life. Ownership is not determined on whether you choose or react. Reacting from a default context or choosing from intentional context,,,,,,, You own it either way.



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