Editors Note: From their new book Mentor’s Field Guide, Gail Manza and Susan Patrick present a series of 67 answers to the most common questions that arise in youth mentoring.
Question 24. How do I handle it if my mentee doesn’t talk much to me . . . or at all?
Not all young people are talkative by nature; others can take a long time before they feel comfortable enough to talk to an adult they have recently met. Stop and think about it for a moment: how comfortable would you have been at your mentee’s age talking to an adult you barely knew? This is why we recommend focusing more on activities you both enjoy doing rather than on talking for the sake of talking. It can be helpful to do activities that don’t rely on talking but might be conducive to conversation afterward, such as seeing a movie or sports event together, reading a book together, or playing a board or computer game. Another strategy mentors use is to go for a walk or a drive with their mentees; something about being together in this nonthreatening way is conducive to conversation. Ask open-ended questions related to what you are doing together. Once again, we strongly recommend a look at Michael Karcher’s tools for solving the “I dunno, what do you want to do?” problem. Also bear in mind that another reason for the silence may be that your mentee just doesn’t know what to talk about. One nonthreatening way to get young people talking is to ask what they and their friends or siblings like to do together and what they talk about. If you have access to other kids around your mentee’s age, you can observe or interact with them to see what they do or talk about.
Sometimes mentees don’t talk much because they have things going on in their lives that they are embarrassed about, and they may believe adults would think less of them if they were aware of them. You can frequently mention to your mentee that you are there for him if anything is ever bothering him, and remind him again that you will not share what he tells you with other people unless you feel that he is in danger. Express how much you care about him, and explain that it is up to him whether he talks to you.
Meanwhile, avoid pushing your mentee to talk, and try to avoid filling the silence yourself. If you can learn to be comfortable with silence, you are giving your mentee the space he needs to think on his own. Keep the focus on having fun together rather than talking.
For more information, please see the The Mentor’s Field Guide. The book is published by Search Institute and available as a book or ebook at amazon.com. See the table of contents for full range of questions and answers.
(illustration by David Small)