Tactful mentors: A mentor is often someone older, but must she also be wiser?  

Michael J. Karcher, Ed.D., Ph.D.When I train mentors, especially those with considerable life and work experience, or when I discuss training with mentoring professionals who provide training to such mentors in their programs, I try to make clear my belief that mentors need to know that a youth mentor’s job is not to “talk at” or “inform” the mentee about what they should do in life. Nor is it to get the mentee “on the right path” by teaching them what to do and not do. (We all know most kids referred for mentoring programs already get this information from [too] many other adults in their lives, whether they want it or not.)

The mentor’s primary job is to sit with the youth, show interest in the youth, respect who the youth is, and try to really, deeply, and respectfully understand the worlds in which the youth lives (family, community, etc.). A mentor’s primary goal, I think, should be to validate the mentee’s worth by conveying an interest in and respect for the mentee and all aspects of the mentee’s world and experience.

This, I believe, can awaken some kids to the idea that there are other, similar adults in the world, outside their family and community, who will take an interest in them and support them. A mentor of mine, Mike Nakkula, once shared with me this view—that what a mentor does is help the child or youth learn how to receive and ultimately solicit mentoring from others in the future.

There is the parable that says if you give a person a fish, you feed the person for the day; if you help the person learn to fish, you help that person feed himself or herself for a lifetime. Similarly, rather than try to solve the youth’s problems (as if you could!), help the youth learn that others will value, listen to, and care for him or her and you have done the best job of pointing a child down “the right path” by your actions, your compassion, your interest, your love. You’ve pointed them in the direction of openness to others.

Don’t misunderstand my analogy. Teaching the person to fish is not what we typically consider to be imparting “wisdom” to the child or telling him or her “what to do” in life. Rather, this mentor teaches the youth that he or she can be successful at fishing for other mentors. This sort of “teaching” happens when the youth experiences being received by the mentor.

This older and wiser mentor does not impart wisdom. This mentor is wise to the extent to which she operates from a place of tact, from a place of integrity that respects and honors the depth of the youth’s personhood and life, and acknowledges the vastness of what the mentor knows she knows nothing about.

To underscore this point, I suggest having mentors view a video about the final virtue in the Eriksons’ developmental model. It is about wisdom. Joan Erikson describes what achieving integrity, as the last developmental milestone, looks like in real life. In this video, Joan Erikson revisits and revises their 8th stage. Joan is the wife of Erik Erikson, who is usually given full credit for identifying and detailing the 8 stages of development. (Yet Joan was in fact instrumental in its development—no mentoring pun intended.)

In that video, Joan says she wanted to make this video (at age 90) because she realized “We were wrong. We had not been there,” and she and Erik did not know what we were talking about. We should all be so “wise.”

Parts of the video usually seen—not about wisdom:


A more focused clip for mentors to watch about the nature of “wisdom” as tact:


In the video, she suggests it is not wisdom but tact that reflects the developmental achievement of integrity in the 8th stage of life. I just thought you might find her “correction” interesting and useful when helping orient mentors, especially experienced ones, to their true task.

For those who might have mentors read and discuss Joan’s video during training, I’ve tried my best to transcribe the video so you have a text source for what she says in case video is not available during training. Below, at the end of this entry, I pasted what I view as the best parts of this interview.

But let me excerpt my favorite part of the interview. In the first 20 minutes of interview she says she wanted to know how “wisdom” is defined. And, because wisdom is, as she and Erik defined it, the product of successfully achieving the developmental task of integrity, she looked that word up. And there, this artist and theorist found a definition of integrity that she (from my perspective) would like us to view as a replacement for the notion of what it means to be wise.

Tactful. And that seems to me to be really the word that describes how you relate to other people, to other things also, but particularly to other people, because if you are tactful then you have taken into consideration who they are, where they are, what they are and give them full credit and somehow manage to make a contact with them that makes you empathic and interested and open to their friendship or their acquaintance and their understanding.

Indeed, I found in my Mac’s dictionary the following definition of tact, that seems so much was a mentor should prioritize in her dealings with a mentee: “adroitness and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues. For example, ‘the inspector broke the news to me with tact and consideration.’ ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (denoting the sense of touch): via French from Latin tactus ‘touch, sense of touch,’ from tangere ‘to touch.’ ”

The goal of the mentor is to emotionally, spiritually, and interpersonally touch the child, to consider who they are, in their totality and with deep respect, and do to so with the intention of receiving the child, not the child receiving the world of the mentor. A mentor’s tact, as realized by the child or y outh feeling valued, understood, important and unique, may open a youth, who might otherwise be closed and guarded, up to a real friendship.

Perhaps being and older and “wiser” in this way, a mentor may help that youth come to more deeply trust that there are other people, even those who might seem very foreign to the youth, who will care about him or her. Tactful mentors may affirm for youth, in a new or deeper way, that both familiar others in expectable future worlds (high school, workplace, etc.) as well as unfamiliar others in foreign future worlds (e.g., higher education, etc.), there will be mentors there for them, to value, care for, listen to, and tactfully interact with them.

Mentoring program staff, thank you for bringing tactful mentors to the youth who need them most.


My transcript of the interview, for folks who want to share or cite Joan Erikson’s interview.

Joan Erikson, On Old Age I: A Conversation with Joan Erikson at 90 (Davidson films ©  1995)


Final stage is integrity versus despair, with the final virtue “wisdom”

“The thing that I had on my mind and felt responsible for was when I looked at the eight stages, I realized all of a sudden that what we had decided was a good way to put the final stage, the 8th stage, that that was not necessarily right—that it was just plain wrong—because all of the other parts of the life cycle, as you experience them, you experience them and you are in contact with them and you know what is going on in them to a certain extent, not entirely, but by the end of the stage you know you have been coping with the problems that are in the very naming of the stages.

Generativity, which is the next to the last one, you are feeling very strongly about that, and particularly when you think, “Well what have I done?” And you get to be 90, and when you get to be 90, and you say well, what do I feel about the last stage and think about it, you realize you don’t feel very great about it, because you don’t feel wise. And you don’t feel as it were that you have conquered integrity or really come to terms with it actively enough to say you “got it” which you never do. So wisdom and integrity are things that, something other people might see in old person, but it is not something older person is feeling, and that’s what kind of roused me to want to see what old people feel and what they have to face as far as life is concerned.

What you feel is when someone turns to you and says now you are in the 8th stage, and that’s wisdom and integrity, and you think, well how do I feel standing up there about wisdom and integrity, and you feel like the Emperor in the story, when he did not have any clothes on at all and you have faced reality, that you come up very bare, that you have nothing to offer, that think touches on those things, and it makes you thoughtful. It does not mean that you don’t have them in mind, but that you question them, you question the fact of whether you are ever going to have, what we use to think, which was that a lot of knowledge made for wisdom, but suddenly you realize that having a lot of knowledge is not going to help anybody, there is so much you don’t have and are never going to have that it is a pittance…but what you do have is a sense that nobody is going to have wisdom in the way we thought about it. They may have some very good ideas in some elements of their life; but a wise person is very hard to find, and that is interesting for you to consider when you think about who the wise person in world have been.

And I think the dictionary itself gives you the clue, if you look it up, that really being wise is know “how to”—not “know” something—because if you know “how to” then you are resilient, you can move from this to that and so on; and to know how to is the epitome of wisdom, really, and you have had a lot of it, in sprinkles all through your life, but you don’t suddenly feel blessed with it in quantity just because you are older. So that’s off the beat {?}”

The word we discussed, integrity, is just as problematic if not more so. …What I thought to do about trying to figure out what it was, was to look it up in small dictionaries but they never gave enough…So finally, I looked it up in the Oxford, great big dictionary, that you can barely hold on your lap, and I found it in there, and it was amazing to me to see how much of a page it took up, one whole half of one big sheet was showing the word and then all of the little bits of it that…go all the way down to the bottom of the page…and way down on the bottom of the page you come to the word, and you wouldn’t believe what it is, and it’s tact. And if that isn’t an amazing soul. You think, what in the world does that mean, and you see it means contact, impact and, what I like, it includes tactful. And that seems to me to be really the word that describes how you relate to other people, to other things also, but particularly to other people, because if you are tactful then you have taken into consideration who they are, where they are, what they are and give them full credit and somehow manage to make a contact with them that makes you empathic and interested and open to their friendship or their acquaintance and their understanding. And that I liked that so much thought to saying “Hallelujah” that I finally found something that really means something to me because touching and doing and making and the contact that you have with all materials and everything in the world is so important to what life for me has been that to find out that that is the source of integrity or at least the beginning source of it that seemed to answer many, many questions for me and to make it come alive in a wonderful way.