Helping Writers Help Themselves

This piece has been more of a voyage of discovery for me, and for my own mentoring development, but it may be of use to others, so I have blogged it.

While I believe in the power of asking questions in sessions, I have also realised that this is a technique for, and not a goal of, mentoring.  In fact, following a lively team meeting, I found one underlying topic point worth exploring in greater detail: the difference between ‘what’ and ‘how’.  As in, concentrating on how students can improve their skills in sessions, rather than focusing on what those skills are, the details of the skills, and implementation of them.

While I am certain we could quibble over the semantics, the point I am trying to make is that as a mentor (rather than as a teacher, study guide, or friend), I am beginning to wonder if I should be giving other students information.  I don’t even have the right to, where that information covers the content of someone’s essay, hence the Centre’s ‘no editing/proofreading’ policy.  But dare I say, this duty to refrain may also cover dispensing advice on study techniques: from the format references should take, to how to manage one’s time effectively.  Before you gasp in horror, please let me explain!

While we would all acknowledge our requirement as mentors to:

  • allow the mentees to lead the session in terms of the needs they wish to discuss,
  • facilitate the session with helpful activities and by asking questions,
  • as well as to encourage the writers to share their own ideas and practices,

and we do this in a blend with sharing information, proposing certain activities, deciding which questions to ask, evaluating the writer’s practices, and so forth.

While, to a degree, these are natural and integral aspects to our work, I am starting to see that I could be operating at an even deeper level as well: helping writers to help themselves.  It sounds obvious, perhaps, but it means needing to obviate traditional teaching methods that are ingrained in our society.

To clarify, and to offer tangible examples for sessions, I have created the following table of possible approaches that could be taken in sessions (bearing in mind that it is impossible to create an exhaustive list, and that each session is different and we work with a variety of individuals, so none of this is set in stone!):

Help the mentees to: Not by (for example): But instead by (for instance):
Know about resources available, such as workshops, the counselling service, or Elcos Suggesting the writer tries X,Y,Z Ask what resources the writer might like to have/use.

What would the writer like to learn as a result of using these resources?

Ask what resources the writer knows about/has tried.

Ask if the writer knows about X,Y,Z.

Use the right tools, including: Mendeley, Microsoft Office, subject-specific dictionaries, mind maps, free writing, and the Study Skills webpage on essay terms Explain that there are tools available such as X,Y,Z.

Show them how to use X,Y,Z.

Ask what tools the writer might need.

Ask what tools the writer knows about/has tried.

Ask if the writer knows about X,Y,Z.

Offer to explore the tool together in the session.

Know what matters for an assignment, such as plagiarism, the need for evidence, or assessment criteria List all the requirements, such as the need to cite and check assessment criteria. Ask how the writer thinks the work will be marked.

Do they know about plagiarism and referencing?

Have they found a referencing style guide?

Do they know where to look for it?

Have they found their assessment criteria?

Explore this together, asking them what they think it means for their assignment.

Distinguish between different types of assignment from reflection to essay to report to creative writing Explain the assignment type and what is required. Ask the writer to clarify the assignment criteria.

Ask how this piece of work differs from other assignments they may have had.

Ask if they have considered looking at study guides on different assignment forms.

Look at some of these formats together, to find patterns between the types.

Unpack questions Help the writer to analyse and understand the question set. Ask the writer what the question means to them.

How would they explain it to someone else?

What do they think is not being asked?

What are the important words in the question?

Have they looked at the essay terms section of the Study Skills website?

Find information Show them the library catalogue and useful websites. Ask what they have done to find information.

Ask if there are other ways they haven’t tried yet, perhaps things a tutor has suggested or a friend does.

Suggest a range of options and ask if they’d like to explore one together to get a feel for it: e.g. finding relevant keywords.

Choose a good source of information over questionable websites Explain what is needed for a source to be useful and reliable. Ask them how they would know if a source was not reliable or useful.

Ask them what they need from a source of information, and how many sources they should have.

Ask them if they have been set a reading list, and how this relates to the searches they have carried out – are they purposefully looking for different sources, and why?

Know about and use study handbooks Suggest a range of study guides, and helpful chapters. Ask them if they have tried study guides, and which ones.

Ask them if they have heard of X,Y,Z.

Explore the library catalogue together for relevant examples.

Ask the right questions about aspects like gaps in others’ arguments, robustness of others’ evidence, and accessibility of various writing styles Tell them what to think about when reading or engaging in critical writing. Ask the writer if they think all works are equal, or if there might be differences in style or reliability, and can they find any.  Maybe even looking at a few texts as examples.

Ask the writer what kind of sources would be the most helpful for their work: what do they need from their sources?

And ask right people Suggest they speak to their tutor for example. Ask them who else they could ask about this matter.

List a range of people that they have in their support network from personal tutors, to module tutors, to friends in other disciplines, to counsellors (if appropriate – we don’t want to give people complexes!).  Ask if any of these people could help.

Get ideas down onto paper Propose that they take notes. Give them the notepad to take notes of the session, which can be analysed in the session.
Create a basic structure for an essay Explain the main structure: introduction, main section, and conclusion, along with the intricacies, like what one will and won’t discuss, and how one can propose future research. Ask about what they know of essay structure.

Ask them what they think the reader should know about what they will or will not be discussing, and what they need to explicitly state.

What is their main point in the essay?

How are they planning the essay?

Have they tried mind mapping, and would they like to now?

How will they adjust the plan as they go along?


Plan their time Tell them to create a timetable, considering all the best times of day for different kinds of work, and to work backwards from a deadline when planning  how long they have for reading, writing and editing etc. Ask what their current timetable is like now.

Ask if they can sketch it out.

Discuss any ways they can cut things out or reduce them.

Can anything be moved around?

What is their best time of day for serious thinking and for creativity, which may help specific tasks?

Can they sketch out a new timetable?

How will they know if the timetable is or isn’t working?

Edit Point out the faults.

Suggest helpful grammar websites and ELCOS.


Ask them if they have had any specific feedback.

Ask them if they have struggled to write particular phrases or essay sections.

Explore if the problems are language or idea related.

Ask them to find faults in a section of writing and see any patterns emerging.

Ask them if they have tried grammar books and websites, or ELCOS.

How will they know if the essay isn’t hanging together well?

Avoid panic Give a few tips on how to manage time, or how to revise etc Ask them why they are worried.

Ask them what specifically bothers them about this particular situation.

Ask them how they keep calm in other situations.

Is there anything different they could try?

What do friends do, that they may try also?

What is the worst case scenario, and how likely is it?  How can they prevent that from happening?


These study skills that we help to build in others may seem obvious to all of us now, following our training and a lot of life experience.  But I remember painful times when I did not have this information to hand, and certainly not everyone has this basic toolkit, or anyone to ask about it until they come to our sessions.  Plus, mostly I have found that mentees do not have issues with content, having an opinion, or self-motivation; but instead struggle with how to structure said content, or add weight to an opinion, or how to read a lot of the right kind of sources.

Yet a key thing here, I believe, is that even when I am discussing the bigger picture study skills, rather than the actual module content and essay argument detail, perhaps I need to acknowledge that the mentees have their own training and experience, and again some level of content knowledge, as well as their own opinions, and self-motivation.  Therefore, even when they come to the Centre to build their skills rather than elaborate on their essay conclusion and so on, I need to ask myself if it is my duty – or indeed my right – to dispense information and offer hints and tips that:

  • may/may not work for the mentee,
  • the mentee may have already tried to no avail,
  • suggest there are only a handful of correct ways to solve a problem,
  • seem to demarcate authority in the session, especially if used with language such as ‘you should’, while I am genuinely just trying to be helpful,
  • restrict the opportunity for those less confident to make their own suggestions,
  • and that crucially stop the mentee from looking for and coming up with their own solutions.

I may instead:

  • Fall silent, which can seem daunting, but I have seen can be used to great effect by more experienced mentors!
  • Simply throw the question back to the writer.
  • Look the answer up together, which has an air of camaraderie about it.
  • Offer a clear range of possible options to show that there is a distinct flexibility in approach.
  • Use anecdotes without pointing out the message so that this is open to interpretation.
  • Ask them how they would handle this problem if they had no Study Skills Centre, or ask them to advise a hypothetical friend asking this question.
  • Ask them why their concern is a concern in the first place, which may find the underlying cause of the problem, and their own solution.
  • And if I do offer tips, clarify that these are very much based on my opinion and experience, and ask if the suggestions would fit the writer’s given situation, as well as inviting them to offer their own alternatives.

We have all heard the saying: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’  Well, in short, this blog is proposing that we not just teach him what to do, but how to do it, to build transferable skills – all essays not being equal.  Plus, it then takes away our fear (or maybe just my own) that we might not be as helpful as we could in sessions, because we are not trying to share a huge amount of information, but point the mentees in the right direction of the right information.

Hence, maybe the approach should be something more along the lines of: how about we just show the man the rivers where the fish live and where to find the tools he may need, let him work out how to build a rod and how to fish for himself (like Tom Hanks did!), and we’ll feed his soul as well.


The Magic of Empowerment


We’ve all had (or will have) at least one ‘light bulb’ session.  One exciting moment when – perhaps after complex discussion – the writer’s face suddenly glows as information becomes clear, or an elusive plan of action becomes tangible, and they feel able to take on the assignment.  And I think it would be fair to say that, for most of us, this is the very reason we mentor.

Facilitating these encounters with enlightenment and independence is more than just the magical side of mentoring however.  It is also about more than just respecting the mentees we meet, though this is a very important and ethical part of our practice.  Helping to create ‘a-ha’ moments is actually crucial to empowering writers to become even better writers (North, 1984: 438), as well as better learners.  Indeed: Learning ‘is done by people – not to them’ (Race, 2015: 27).

But while the theory seems fairly obvious and uncontentious, the practice is always a bit trickier.  Therefore, I thought it might be useful to start a blog on concrete ways in which we can make more magic in our sessions.  I have found some information from the web and come up with examples from past sessions, below, but I would love it if others could comment on this blog with their own ideas too.  We all have a variety of experiences to draw from and, as we know well, each person and each session is different, so it’s useful to have a variety of tools at the ready!

  • Reassure writers that academia is hard work and that learning is a process. As my parents used to say: If you already knew everything, why would you bother going to University?  Acknowledge that there are key skills mentees can learn, such as how to reference, essay structure, and what sources to read – all of which we can help with – but also be clear that no one is somehow devoid of information that everyone else seems to have been born with.
  • Moreover, show the writer how exciting and challenging academia can be by openly discussing the voyage of discovery they are on, moving them away from any thinking about their foray into the unknown as a negative experience (Schwartz, 2008).
  • Ask the writers for help. This is not simply an arbitrary exercise in throwing their questions back to them, but it gives them licence to explore the wealth of their own ideas that perhaps they were too afraid to try out otherwise.  If they ask for guidance on a skill, ask them what they have tried, and also if there is anything they’d like to try but haven’t yet.  If they ask you what you think about an assignment question or draft, ask them how would they answer that question.  Given that the writers are genuinely the experts in the room, not just in the discipline, or just topic if we share the same subject, but also in how that particular person thinks, it is critical to ask them what they think about their own work.
  • Further to this point, it can be helpful to reinforce the writer’s expertise, as a confidence boost, by asking simple questions about the surrounding topic literature, to encourage the writer to start talking about the topic and develop their own ideas in relation to it.
  • Focus on active learning with activities that can be tried in the session or by handing over the computer to the writer. Concentrate on relevance to the writer’s subject, needs, and real-world analogies to make information more accessible and memorable.  Constructively challenge their ideas by asking questions about how and why they do or think certain things to stimulate more active and independent thought.  Also specify, alongside the writer, their developmental goals, as per the space at the bottom of our record forms (characteristic concepts taken from research by Bovill, Bulley, and Morss, 2011).
  • Concentrate on the four key dimensions of empowerment:
    • Impact –The more impact you believe you will have, the more motivation you feel to work hard. You are empowered if you believe you’re doing work that makes a difference—work that matters and is important.
    • Competence –Here’s the confidence piece. Empowerment derives from feeling qualified and capable of performing the work. You can handle what you’re being asked to do.
    • Meaningfulness –This describes the value of the task in relation to individual beliefs, ideals, and standards. If the work you need to do doesn’t have much or any meaning to you, doesn’t seem to hold much or any importance, then there isn’t much or any motivation to work hard and produce quality work.
    • Choice –This dimension relates to whether you get to determine the task goals and how you will accomplish them. The more choice you have, the more empowered you feel.

(Weimer’s helpful summary, 2014, of work produced by Thomas and Velthouse, 1990)

Now I’d like to hear your thoughts!


Bovill, C., Bulley, C.J., and Morss, K. (2011). Engaging and empowering first-year students through curriculum design: perspectives from the literature. Teaching in Higher Education 16:2, 197-209. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2010.515024

North, S. (1984). The Idea of a Writing Center. College English 46 (5), 433-446.

Race, P. (2015). The Lecturer’s Toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schwartz, M.A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science 121: 1771. DOI: 10.1242/jcs.033340

Thomas, K., and Velthouse, B. (1990). Cognitive elements of empowerment: An “interpretive” mode of intrinsic task motivation. Academy of Management Review 15, 666-681.

Weimer, M. (2014). What’s an Empowered Student? Faculty Focus. Accessed 20 November 2018.

How to Write Faster…

On my travels, I came across the following post which I found to be somewhat startling, and amusing, yet full of great ideas you might be interested in:

‘How to Write Faster: 12 Unusual Productivity Hacks’

  • Write while sleepy, edit while wide awake.  This is to be more creative and less critical while getting things down on paper.
  • Set a timer, and deadlines, to prevent procrastination.  Something on the page, after all, is better than nothing.
  • Saying ‘I want to write’ vs ‘I have to write’ helps motivation.
  • Have mini goals for every day, so as not to get overwhelmed, or feel low after postponing work.
  • Think too.  Writing is not just about shoving words onto paper, but expressing and organising ideas.
  • Mood and environment, as well as avoiding distractions, are key to getting the writing written.
  • Prepare tomorrow’s job list while it’s fresh in your head, so you’ll be able to just get started again without wasting time.
  • Try to rescue good work from what you have produced before.
  • Practice makes perfect!

For more on this, and a lovely simplified cartoon version, please see:

Understanding Motivation

Hoskins, S.L., and Newstead, S.E. (2009).  Encouraging student motivation. In: Fry, H. et al (eds). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice. 3rd edn. Abingdon: Routledge, specifically pp 27-29.


I have previously wondered about how to deal with a lack of writer motivation in sessions, and in reading general pedagogical research, lately, I came across this great breakdown of different types of motivation, which can enable understanding of how and why it works.

Researchers Hoskins and Newstead were struck, themselves, back in 1996, by how little research there was into student motivation.  They therefore carried out a study, asking students to offer a single reason for why they came to university.  The researchers then classified the answers into three groups, which seemed to fit the other literature well:

Means to an end constituting 66% of answers: relating to the desire for qualifications, and career advancement.

Personal development as 24% of all answers: a genuine interest in the subject, and wishing to realise their potential.

Stopgap as just 10% of responses: those who could not think of anything else to do, deferring career decisions, wanting to enjoy themselves, or laziness.

The researchers then explore how these categories fit the classification of motivation by other researchers:

Extrinsic motivation: desiring external rewards and/or notoriety.

Intrinsic motivation: wanting to master a subject, curiosity, and enjoyment of challenges.

And the concept of amotivation, which arises when speaking to those who don’t know why they’re at university, feel little control over their future, feel incompetent, and generally show an absence of motivation in other words.

Hoskins and Newstead point out that ‘This highlights that motivation has strength as well as direction’.  So, as supporters of learning, we need to be aware not only of the variety of motivational goals people have, but we also need to identify the strength of people’s motivations.  They may share the same goal as others, the researchers note, but not to the same degree, and so end up being less motivated to achieve said goals.  Thus, there appear to be three types of motivation in all:

Intrinsic, extrinsic, and also achievement motivation (to which amotivation [a lack of motivation] is at the opposite end of the spectrum).

I believe it is worth knowing about this, and why people feel the way they do, in order to best accommodate their learning.  We could, for instance, relate academic work to real world situations for extrinsic motivation, focus on problem-solving more for those intrinsically motivated, or work on boosting morale for those guided by achievement motivation.  And I guess the way to find out which kind of motivation we might be dealing with, is just to ask the writer.

What’s in a Question?

If you’ve read my posts, you’ll have probably realised that an important feature of my mentoring style is the centrality of questions.  However, in reading for the HEA Associate Fellowship application, I have discovered there is much more to the question than first appears.

Most people will have come across the difference between open questions (‘What do you think about X?) and closed questions (Do you like X?).  But did you know that questions, and the listening process as a whole, can be further categorised into ‘diagnostic’ or ‘active’?

According to Connor and Pokora (2012), it is important to distinguish between the two, and to implement the latter, for mentoring.  They point out that diagnostic listening and related questions are selective and are essentially about problem-solving, about ready ‘suggestions framed as questions’, or asking questions the mentee already knows the answer to, and they tend to be closed.  In short, they seem to benefit the mentor more than the mentee.

I think it’s worth acknowledging that these kinds of questions may work well at the start of the mentoring session, in which we need to know certain facts in order for the session to run smoothly: What’s the topic? Is this a draft or finished piece?  Have you considered the Tutor feedback?  But we need to progress to more active listening for the mentee to really benefit in the main part of the session.

According to the literature, we can achieve active listening by focusing on the mentee as a whole rather than a specific issue, and by:

  • using questions that paraphrase the mentee, in order to show we have heard and understood them without filtering or evaluating, as well as allowing them to hear their own words aloud to allow for reflection on their own meaning;
  • asking genuine questions to explore all avenues of information and interpretations;
  • asking no questions at all, but instead falling silent, to allow for reflection and to create a space for the mentee to elaborate on their ideas;
  • utilising non-verbal cues to see how the mentee is feeling, and also how their body language might say something different to their words;
  • raising discrepancies we might hear between what the mentee says and what is on the page they present;
  • repeating key words that the mentee uses in order to query/challenge the usage;
  • and making any suggestions in a tentative way, to allow the mentee time to consider them as options only.

So what’s in a question?  Apparently a lot, if it’s the right type of question!


Connor, M., and Pokora, J. (2012). Coaching and Mentoring at Work: Developing Effective Practice. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Managing Dissatisfaction

I recently attended a training course at Bangor University, with Dr Fay Short, on how to manage dissatisfaction, which I found to be surprisingly illuminating and useful for a number of settings.  One of which, of course, was mentoring.  So I’ll provide a brief summary of what I learned that could help us in our sessions.

Modern life promotes dissatisfaction, even within ourselves

Fay explained how evaluation forms are everywhere.  Cute and fun selfies abound on social media.  Gossip bubbles up in every classroom and office.  Lifestyles of the rich and famous are shown constantly on TV.  TripAdvisor reviews skim over the great parts to really shout about the few tiny ‘disasters’ that happened on every holiday.  And we are almost conditioned now, not just to compare people and events, but also to look for negatives rather than positives; which, as academics, you know goes hand in hand with a balanced criticality.  In fact, at times, we also focus too much on looking to have our expectations not only met, but surpassed.  But, again, in academia, provided that an argument is strong, with evidence to back it up, there is really no need to seek a Nobel Prize for every essay or article written.  Graduation and publication should suffice.

Dissatisfaction in the mentoring context

Therefore, it’s possible that the way might be paved for dissatisfaction to creep into our mentoring sessions, perhaps in sneaky ways.

How many sessions have we had in which:

  • a mentee hands their essay over for you to check (could this writer simply want a proof reading service?),
  • or comes in looking desperate and saying that they didn’t know where else to turn (could they want this hour to change their entire academic career?),
  • or says that they want to know everything about referencing so they don’t get into trouble again (is this possible in an hour, especially when paraphrasing takes time to practice?),
  • or that they want to write English fluently (sometimes this cannot – and should not – be achieved in a lifetime?)?

Perhaps being more aware that these kind of expectations lead to potential dissatisfaction can help us to approach the session with more proactive questions and firmer boundaries: we cannot do that, but we can offer you this service instead; that’s a lot to achieve in an hour, so what would you like to start with?

We also need to be aware of our own potential expectations of a session.  How open minded are we before a session?  Has our preparation beforehand set up too many expectations of how a session will go, only to find that it takes a completely different turn?  How often do we hope that writers don’t ask us about certain topics, or wish that the writer had brought their essay or assignment details, even if they can tell us everything we need to know?  Again, maybe we need to learn to recognise our thinking, and learn how to wipe the slate clean, so that we can come to each session fresh and ready for anything.

But how can we deal with the dissatisfaction that we, and others, feel?

Ways to alleviate or avoid dissatisfaction

We can change our expectations.  Fay is right: how can we enjoy a gruelling essay, for instance, which is usually how we rate satisfaction?  But it pushes us, and we feel great afterwards, having learned a lot, improved our skills, and boosted our employability.

Breaking a habit, such a negative thinking, can be achieved more easily by relearning a new more positive one.  So, instead of allowing a writer to complain about things, we can reflect with them on how smoothly a session activity is going, or focus on what they have already achieved, and what they learned from this session that they didn’t know at the start.  We can ask them – and ourselves – to think of three positives about an otherwise negative situation or problem, and we can turn ‘what if’ statements from worries into hope: what if I get an A?  What if it’s a really fun session?

And a really great message from the training was that managing dissatisfaction is not about ignoring or avoiding the negatives in life, but an attempt to stop looking for them, and look for positives instead.

In the School of Psychology, they’ve also come up with a great structured model for dealing with dissatisfaction too (along the same lines as the skills you pick up if you work in customer service for long enough!).  As this is a public blog, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the more background to a problem you can get, and the more questions you ask someone with a complaint, the better you are both able to move forward to resolve whatever the issue is.

A mentoring example

So, to put this advice into practice, let’s take a possible example in the mentoring context.

A writer comes to a session to complain about the grade and feedback they got for an essay recently.  First of all, is the dissatisfaction really about the grade and feedback?  Is the feedback, for instance, when you read it yourself, way too vague and lacking in examples, or too personal, maybe too negative?  Or is the writer’s problem based more on how the feedback makes them feel guilty about staying out late the night before the essay deadline, or that they simply disagreed with a tutor about an interpretation of the material, or perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed by other things and this grade just isn’t helping?

Asking questions – as with everything in mentoring 😉 – helps a lot here.  We need to establish, for example, what the situation is, what the mentee knows already, if they have already spoken to the tutor about the feedback, and whether they have re-read the essay in light of the feedback, to check if it makes sense?  Is there any background to the situation that the writer might not even know?  If a tutor is suddenly curt, for instance, have they had their own crisis to deal with recently?

Once you know what the writer’s issue is, then you can start discussing with the mentee how to resolve it.  But it’s important that they come up with some possible solutions of their own here, especially if it appears that the writer simply wishes to complain about everything and dismisses all of your suggestions, because maybe they just wanted to vent.  Asking the writer to come up with ideas of their own can shift the onus of resolving the problem to the dissatisfied person, while allowing them a feeling of empowerment, helping them to narrow down the session topic, and it can show a person how difficult it is to change a situation sometimes.  Maybe, for instance, the marking criteria is fixed for a reason, and they just didn’t meet it in a particular area.  But this is something they can learn to do for next time.  Or maybe they’d like a chance to resubmit on a different topic, and this is something they can discuss with their School?  Alternatively, the writer decides they want to learn how to better structure an argument, and then they’ve definitely come to the right place.

Following this discussion, it’s worth making an action plan, as we do on each of our Appointment Record Forms, for how the writer can take the matter forward, positively, such discussing the feedback with the tutor, or by analysing the feedback and choosing two major things to work on for the next essay.


Thus, a lot of what we do already reflects this training.  But I think what I really learned the other day was both why these actions are so important, and also how to recognise our deep-seated perceptions and feelings that can lead to dissatisfaction and complaining.  Also, how to approach these impressions and expectations head on with focussed questions, to see that ‘in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’ – Albert Einstein.



Cain, Susan (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. London: Penguin Books.

Out of a desire to understand myself, and others, better, I recently read a popular psychology text on personalities: specifically introversion and its role in society, as compared with extraversion.  Relevant, well-researched, and highly engaging, I found this book to be a revelation on some deep-seated behaviours which people exhibit and on contemporary beliefs about how people ‘ought’ to be.

Not only has this given me greater clarity on my own personality, to see more of my strengths as well as my weaknesses, but I also feel I can use this information in mentoring.  This is partly because of an improved awareness of the variety of people I’m in contact with, but partly also because I can now see in what ways I can adapt to get the best out of everyone, students’ needs not being equal.

This reading works well alongside knowledge of different learning methods, for instance kinaesthetic activities as opposed to visual aids, and also alongside more specific discussions we may have in sessions covering, for example, giving presentations, working on group assignments, or even how best to take notes.  I would definitely recommend reading this work, especially to those working in a pedagogical setting.

Here are a few of the things I learned which pertains to our mentoring work:

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there is a spectrum of introversion and extraversion, and that there is bound to be some situational variation, while everyone is unique and has a different upbringing.  Yet, personality type is a topic worth exploring and acknowledging, enabling people to collaborate more successfully.  For instance, it appears from this reading that there is cultural variation, with more introversion in the East than in the West, which could explain why some students find it harder to criticise published work or tend to struggle with paraphrasing out of respect for the experts and hesitancy to voice their own ideas.

At the beginning of the book, Cain explains some of this background, specifically the cultural trend in the West: how, in North America, public speaking moved from the arena of lawyers, politicians, and clergy, to the business world almost overnight.  Dale Carnegie best harnessed this change in need and ethos in the early 20th century, a change from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality, an equally recent concept.  So the self-help book we know so well today evolved from something like seventeenth century John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’ Progress, foregrounding the importance of morality, integrity, and duty, to promoting charisma, energy, and social dominance as in Carnegie’s world famous How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This vastly changed the landscape for people’s aspirations and models of success, pushing introverts into the corner of a growing party, in which one’s social CV has come to mean as much – if not more – than a person’s skills, knowledge, and interests.  So Harvard Business School, for instance, bases its education around the notion that leaders need to think on their feet and appear consistently self-assured, so as not to lose the confidence of investors.  Though this means they can make swift decisions without the necessary facts, and can be prone to goal and reward-driven behaviour akin to gambling addictions.  Hollywood stars have become idolised, and fast talkers are frequently given job opportunities and promotions over steadier but quieter workers.  In addition, multitaskers may be heralded as the height of efficiency, though it has been shown in scientific studies that multitasking is actually just ‘switching back and forth between multiple tasks’, reducing productivity and accuracy by up to 50%.

However, the introverts who leave a party early, are lodged in the library on a Saturday night, delay their response to a question that others might answer immediately, or share a conversation after which you find you know very little about them but feel like you’ve been heard and understood for the first time in a long while, offer a vast array of talents which may be overlooked by today’s society.  For instance:

  • Great at listening, they excel in sales roles because they empathise with customers and their needs, and can solve their problem, not just push a product;
  • They have a fondness for in-depth conversation, so make great counsellors, instead of jumping in with their own life story at every turn;
  • They engage in better preparation for events like a presentation or interview;
  • Persistence, like Gandhi’s, is an introvert trait too, and when it comes to solving problems, they often stick with an issue for much longer than extraverts;
  • Better at avoiding pitfalls due to greater forethought, reflection, and threat sensitivity, they are not as reward sensitive, so take fewer risks and have less ambition than extraverts. Extraverts might win big, but they also might lose more often too;
  • And although introverts might be more likely to blush when feeling embarrassed, one study shows that people who blush are judged more positively by other, as it ‘signified concern for others’.

The book also includes advice throughout on how to cope in the world as an introvert.  For example:

  • Introverts can read social cues as well as, if not better than, extraverts, but they are not necessarily able to do this at the same time as having the conversation and concentrating on the content, hence they may prefer to people-watch more, or try one-to-ones, in which there is less incoming information;
  • If, however, an introvert is attending a party, or giving a talk for example, they should arrive at the venue early so that when other people come, they join a space the introvert has grown comfortable in;
  • When public speaking, it is perfectly normal to feel nervous with hundreds of eyes on us, as from an evolutionary perspective, it often meant that we were going to be dinner for something, so we all need to accept this feeling. But it can help to concentrate on subjects we’re passionate about, while paying attention to how our body feels when we’re relaxed and confident, to be able to emulate this when feeling nervous;
  • Introverts can also try breathing exercises to increase muscle usage, and thus volume and power when speaking;
  • As introversion often correlates with high sensitivity – that is a strong biological reception to incoming information with almost no filter, they need more quiet time, less coffee, and to approach new experiences slowly and gradually, like a child at the ocean’s edge dipping their toes into the water before going swimming. Even excitement needs to be regulated, so that the introvert does not become overwhelmed and end up experiencing an emotional crash;
  • And it is crucial to take time at the end of the day, between meetings, and so on, to recharge with a hobby, pets, a walk in the park, writing in a diary, or yoga. Where extraverts crave company to boost their energy, introverts may have to cancel a social event before a big meeting, or catch a breath of fresh air after a seminar.  While this behaviour may be occurring already, it’s important to recognise this as perfectly healthy, and it should also become more socially acceptable as any other equal rights issue.

What I love most about this book is that its main message is not that introversion is better than extraversion, or vice versa; but that both complement one another perfectly in a ‘healthy mix’.  Therefore, we should seek not only to discover who we are and what we can offer, but also to recognise the value others bring to the table, and how we can best work together.

So, for instance, one study looked at how extraverted and introverted leaders best suit different types of employees.  With proactive employees, who work hard and want to generate ideas, an introverted leader allows them the most freedom to try things, and boosts this productivity in a successive cycle.  Whereas, with passive employees, an extravert leader will best inspire them to achieve more.

And in other studies, it is shown that by trying to be someone you’re not – the opposite personality type – the body suffers from illnesses like stress and cardiovascular disease, while this behaviour colours our perception and even lexical choices: we are more likely to opt for negative words after repressing ourselves, than if allowed to feel how we need to at any given time.

Moreover, the book points out how solitude can actually be ‘magical’ in its own right, regardless of personality type.  Its benefits include:

  • ‘Deliberate Practice’, identified as key to exceptional achievement, as it allows the individual to identify their particular needs, to strive for improvement, monitor progress, and prevents distraction;
  • Perhaps surprisingly, compared to individual separate offices, open-plan offices (or libraries I guess) have a higher staff turn-over, less social cohesion, while they are also associated with greater sickness levels, less productivity, and impaired memory, on account of the lack of privacy and increased distraction raising heart rates and cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone) more often. Plus, there is obviously less quiet time for intense work with frequent interruptions of all kinds;
  • Email and other online collaboration (take Wikipedia, for instance) can be much more productive and effective than face-to-face meetings, or Alex Osborn’s concept of group brainstorming. This was born in the 1940s and 1950s to encourage people to share their ideas more, though a later, unbiased study actually showed that a larger volume of ideas, which were of equal or higher quality, were actually contributed by individuals and not groups.  This is because not everyone feels comfortable shouting out in a group, some will sit back and let everyone else do the work, and some people take more time to generate the ideas in the first place.  Scarily, even brain activity is affected by being in a group, so that conforming isn’t just a conscious attempt to fit in, but a biological inevitability.

That’s a lot to ponder, and to adapt to in our sessions.  If you’re intrigued to learn more, I’d definitely recommend you read Cain’s book for more anecdotes, research, and tricks and tips on navigating everyday situations whichever end of the spectrum you may be on.

And if you’re wondering if you could share the personality of a host of famous introverts like Peter Pan’s author, J.M. Barrie, Frédéric Chopin, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak, you can try Cain’s quiz on p13.

Happy reading; and I wish you all a quiet evening – at least once in a while.



A Mentor’s Journey

How did I not know this, as someone who studied Classics?!  The word mentor actually comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and has had a bit of a journey itself:

The story of Mentor comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, fights in the Trojan War and entrusts the care of his household to Mentor, who serves as teacher and overseer of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

After the war, Odysseus is condemned to wander vainly for ten years in his attempt to return home. In time, Telemachus, now grown, ventures in search of his father. Athena, Goddess of War and patroness of the arts and industry, assumes the form of Mentor and accompanies Telemachus on his quest. Father and son reunite and cast down would-be usurpers of Odysseus’ throne and Telemachus’s birthright.

The word Mentor evolved to mean trusted advisor, friend, teacher and wise person. History offers many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Jung. Mentoring is a fundamental form of human development where one person invests time, energy and personal know-how in assisting the growth and ability of another person.

History and legend record the deeds of princes and kings, but each of us has a birthright to actualize our potential. Through their deeds and work, mentors help us to move toward that actualization.

*From Shea, Gordon F. (1997) Mentoring (Rev. Ed.). Menlo Park, CA: Crisp Publications

In Homer’s Odyssey, the character, Mentor, first appears in Book 2, and the goddess Athena even ends the entire epic poem in Mentor’s guise.  She does this to bring peace to the local warring households that have tried to seize Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s hand in marriage and Odysseus’ estate in Ithaca in his twenty years away: at the Trojan War and on his voyage back home.

A bit more on the word itself:

mentor (n.)

“wise adviser,” 1750, from Greek Mentor, friend of Odysseus and adviser of Telemachus (but often actually Athene in disguise) in the “Odyssey,” perhaps ultimately meaning “adviser,” because the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos “intent, purpose, spirit, passion” from PIE *mon-eyo- (source also of Sanskrit man-tar- “one who thinks,” Latin mon-i-tor “one who admonishes”), causative form of root *men- (1) “to think.” The general use of the word probably is via later popular romances, in which Mentor played a larger part than he does in Homer.

mentor (v.)

1888, from mentor (n.). Related: Mentored; mentoring.

I love learning something every day!  Including, that we have a lot of history to live up to; so I guess it’s back to the library to prepare for our next round of sessions!