Mentors’ Corner: How much should a mentor disclose?

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 2.52.49 PMEditors Note:  In this  feature Gail Manza and Susan Patrick draw from their new book Mentor’s Field Guide, which is framed as a series of 67 answers to the most common questions that arise in youth mentoring. We hope that you will share these links with the mentors in your program. 

Question 25. Will talking about my own life or beliefs help my mentee open up to me? If so, how much should I share? 

The answer to this question depends on the stage of your mentoring relationship and whether your mentee has expressed an interest in knowing more about you. In general, if you believe sharing certain information about yourself will strengthen the relationship, then it is probably appropriate to do so. Keep in mind, however, that the mentor should be more listener than talker. Talking about yourself just to get your mentee to open up may have the opposite effect—you are filling the silent spaces so she doesn’t need to try. In general, wait for your mentee to initiate conversations in which you talk about yourself.

If your mentee initiates a conversation about your life or beliefs, a good first response is to ask why she is interested. Try to see whether the question is simply a way for your mentee to bring up a topic about her own life or beliefs. Remember, you want to keep the relationship focused on your mentee, so continue to encourage her to talk about her perspectives. Each mentor must decide how open he or she wants to be in sharing information with a mentee. You have as much of a right to privacy as your mentee, so you should not feel obligated to talk about any personal issues if it is not your style or makes you uncomfortable.

It is also particularly important to avoid sharing details that might unintentionally have a negative influence on your mentee, such as your former drug use or other illegal activities. While it may seem at first that sharing such information can be an opening to warn your mentee away from such behaviors, in reality the mentee can walk away with the sense that his mentor did it and is fine, so what can be so bad about it? The mentee’s family also might not be comfortable with you sharing such information. If asked, try to redirect the conversation back to the mentee by saying, for example, “Why are you interested in knowing this?” Or, “What would you think of me if I did—or didn’t?”

One thing mentees always seem to enjoy hearing is stories—especially funny stories—about your childhood. They can be a gateway to talking about embarrassments and challenges you faced and how you handled them. Keep it light and humorous to avoid sounding like you are preaching. At least until you are well into a relationship, stay away from sensitive topics such as your religious or political beliefs. But if you have a mentee in his late teens, he may raise these topics, especially in the context of current events. If your mentee brings up such issues, encourage him to explore what he thinks, and wait for him to ask what you think. Remember once again, your role is to help the mentee develop critical thinking skills, which will happen most effectively by exploring his beliefs, not yours. You also should be aware of and sensitive to the cultural, religious, or political views of the mentee’s family if you enter into these discussions. Asking your mentee about his family’s beliefs may also lead him to discuss whether he agrees or disagrees and help him to examine how he feels about any differences that may exist (see also Question 42 about discussing various sensitive issues).


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 See the table of contents for full range of questions and answers.