Mentoring is an activity based around relationships. It’s built upon trust and integrity, upon shared understanding and the belief that two heads can build a different perspective than one. It’s an intensely personal relationship, requiring elements of disclosure and trust, where introspection delivers new frameworks and motivation to enact change.
It’s a type of relationship that is hard enough to build in person, but what are the impacts when we try to do it remotely? How does technology impact on the mentoring experience? What’s the difference in remote relationships, especially those that cross the world, in virtual mentoring, where people are separated by distance and, perhaps, culture and attitudes to sexuality and gender.
Conversations are synchronous: we react to what the other person says, intertwining our lines of thought and responding to the other person. Conversations flicker and burn like a crackling fire: spontaneous, ever changing, transient and immediate. The conversations we have online, by email, in chat rooms, the types of conversations run in virtual mentoring conversations can be different. They are asynchronous, more reflective, committed to paper (or keyboard), accountable, permanent.
Mentoring over distance can include phone calls and Skype, but often involves the written word, running across multiple channels. The asynchronous nature of this dialogue fundamentally changes the nature of mentoring. The move from the immediacy of conversation to a relationship that includes the permanence and reflection of a virtual one changes how we speak and how those conversations are run.
I’d imagine that this change delivers both benefits and challenge: benefits through greater opportunities for reflection, but challenges in that too much reflection may not be what need in a mentoring relationship. It may be that the immediacy of the fire helps to generate the momentum for change. The relatively considered and self moderated messages of asynchronous channels may be too considered to be effective.
The messages that we broadcast to the world are always moderated to some extent, by our internal guardians of time and place. We moderate and modify what we say dependent upon where we say it and to whom it is said. This self censorship is, of course, the foundation of civilised conversation, but it can also limit us, especially in cultures that are less liberal, or who have different attitudes to the relative rights of individuals to express their beliefs of aspirations because of their gender or sexuality. To put it bluntly, not everyone is equal in every society, and this can impact on the ability to find a mentor and have a constructive relationship. Opportunities for virtual mentoring can help escape these shackles.
Using a virtual mentoring approach, where mentors and mentees can come together in the relative anonymity of the online world, can help us circumnavigate some of the cultural challenges that impact on mentoring. Different cultures have different views on the relationships and equality of men and women and simply having a male mentor may be difficult for women in certain parts of the world. Virtual mentoring can help us get around some of these cultural constraints, opening up opportunities for people to forge productive mentoring relationships with different people of both sexes across the globe.
The types of conversations and disclosure that people exhibit through the written word and through social media channels is quantifiably different from that expressed through the straight spoken word. People tend to be more willing to disclose personal information. This can be beneficial in sharing our realities, in building common understanding of challenges and establishing rapport.
The nature of the virtual mentoring relationship therefore delivers both benefits and challenges. The inclusion of asynchronous elements in the mentoring relationship is, in my view, undoubtedly beneficial, although keeping it aligned with the heat and immediacy of real conversations is valuable too. The benefits of virtual mentoring to overcome cultural barriers as well as geographic ones is being explored by organisations like the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which provides opportunities for mentees to be matched with suitable mentors regardless of their gender, in the belief that mentoring is a process that helps deliver change, and that this opportunity should be open to all.