Some subjects are just hard to talk about. Whether with colleagues, friends or family, some subjects make us uneasy, which can lead us to avoid them altogether. But mentoring relationships are about the uncomfortable, just as much as the comfortable. Committing to mentorship means allowing yourself to be open to difficult discussions, just as often as you dive into easy ones. While we can’t say sensitive topics will ever be easy to broach, we can help you navigate the waters with preparation and intention.

It has never been reasonable to expect people to separate their emotions from their professional and educational pursuits, but the current state of the world has made it absolutely impossible. From a global pandemic to the killing of yet another Black person at the hands of police (George Floyd) and the protests that resulted, people are scared and angry and grief-stricken and exhausted.

As a mentor or mentee, it’s important to check in on your partner to see how they’re doing against the backdrop of these often overwhelming events. But it’s also vital to approach these matters with care and intention. Here are several tips for how to tackle sensitive topics with your mentor or mentee.

Don’t Assume

If you’re not sure about whether you should discuss a topic with your mentor or mentee, ask permission to ask. Just because someone is Black doesn’t mean they’ll want to discuss issues of race (e.g. police violence against the Black community). Just because someone is a woman doesn’t mean they’ll want to discuss issues of gender (e.g. #MeToo movement). Be considerate when opening the door for conversations that may be triggering or too difficult to discuss in the context of your relationship by offering the person the chance to opt out if they’d prefer. Authors David Smith and Brad Johnson offer the following tactics to broach the subject of concern:

  • Would it be okay with you if I asked how you’re doing just on a personal level?
  • I’ve been talking to other people who are experiencing (insert emotion) about (insert topic), and I don’t know if that’s something that you’re wrestling with, too?

From here you can gauge the person’s reaction and whether or not they’d like to discuss the topic further. However they’re feeling, respect this and proceed accordingly. Allow your mentor or mentee to share how they’re feeling or how they’re not, whether it be personal or professional. You can help create room for these discussions and demonstrate a needed evolution in professional environments—the dropping of an expectation that you leave your emotions at the door. Shenequa Golding stated this so well, saying, “I don’t know who decided that being professional was loosely defined as being divorced of total humanity, but whoever did they’ve aided, unintentionally maybe, in a unique form of suffocation.”

Educate Yourself

Just like any other mentoring meetup, come prepared having done your homework and research. Don’t rely on your mentor or mentee, especially if they are a person of color, to educate you. There is plenty of content and research on matters of racial inequality, gender adversity, religious freedom and more in the world. Take the time to dig into the sensitive issues you think your mentor or mentee might be dealing with, and make sure you’re aware of the current happenings, as well as historic ones. There are many levels of diversity in our world.

  • Cultural
  • Racial
  • Religious
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Neurodiversity

As a mentor or mentee, be open to learning about experiences and walks of life outside of your own. It will enable you to be a more empathetic and helpful mentoring partner.

Listen

Being a continuous learner with a growth mindset will allow your perspective and worldview to continue to develop as you hear other people’s opinions and experiences. As a mentor or mentee, it is important to ask questions and listen to the responses of your mentoring partner.

Don’t rush to add your experience or commentary to the conversation. Allow them to share their interactions and reactions with you without interruption. Refrain from adopting a ‘devil’s advocate’ persona in these conversations. Make space for your mentor or mentee to simply share their feelings and perspectives without making them explain every detail of reaction.

Ask questions and be humble when interacting in these discussions. Listen from a place of curiosity. Your mentor or mentee is sharing deeply personal thoughts and experiences with you. Internalize these things and proceed from a place of equal vulnerability.

Be a Safe Space

Nothing about these subjects is easy or simple. Often, these sensitive topics come with their own level of difficulty, internal scars or sadness. Let your mentor or mentee know that you are a confidant, and the things said within your relationship of trust are confidential and sacred. Allow the person to share their authentic feelings, even if they may be uncomfortable for you to hear or may challenge your own beliefs.

Be an ally to them, not just in mentorship, but in the workplace and the world beyond. Continue the conversation beyond one-time check in, if preferred. And allow them to speak or be silent on the topics when they choose. Your allyship and willingness to listen can be a great comfort to your mentor or mentee in a time where they feel unsure of what to do, what to say or how to proceed.

Mentoring is an opportunity for genuine connection between people. While it is often thought to be in connection with skill development and career growth, make room for issues of personal concern and vulnerability. Allowing these things to share the floor, alongside professional goals will strengthen the connection between mentor and mentee, and bring a greater understanding between colleagues, peers and those who walk miles in different shoes, experiences and perspectives.