Mentor teacher/To talk about the conversation in mentoring
- 1 What does it mean to metacommunicate?
- 2 Different types of strategic metacommunication
- 3 Empirical research on the value of metacommunication
- 4 Sources
What does it mean to metacommunicate?
Verbal metacommunication is a form of communication where we talk about and analyze an ongoing conversation by taking a step out of it. In this article we discuss different ways to metacommunicate in professional mentorship conversations.
At first, metacommunication resembles an ordinary conversation in that it has a content, a dialogue form and a time frame. Baltzersen (2008) argues that we can start out by asking the following three questions:
- What do we metacommunicate about?
- How do we metacommunicate?
- When do we metacommunicate?
With regard to the “what-dimension”, Baltzersen (2008) argues that the metacommunicative content can be divided into three subcategories. Firstly, we can talk about the conversational content. This is not the same as the fact that all conversations have a content; we don't always make the content of conversation into a subject of conversation. For instance, the mentee might say: "We have talked so much about the structure of my thesis, perhaps we could proceed to discuss my choice of theory?” The focus is not on subject matters, but rather on conversation subjects to discuss during mentoring.
Secondly, we can talk about the conversational relationship. How well does the conversation work? Some examples: “I think we should talk more openly” (nearness/distance), “You don't have to tell me what to do!” (symmetry/asymmetry). We can also comment on other people's behavioural communication: “Why do you need to be so harsh when talking to me? (evaluation of the other), “I guess I seem a little uncertain when I talk to you” (evaluation of oneself).
Thirdly, we can talk about the use of conversational time. This can be done in different ways, for instance by discussing how often the conversations should take place: “Perhaps we could meet more often?”, speaking order: “I would like to speak first this time,” length of conversation: “I'm running out of time, can we make this conversation as short as possible?” or speed: “I have another meeting to go to, you will need to get to the point.” Below is a chart showing how we can categorize various metacommunicative statements and questions based on Baltzersen's (2008) definition.
|Example||What can we metacommunicate about||How can we metacommunicate||When can we metacommunicate|
|“How would you sum up the conversation; what did we agree on?”||To talk about the conversational content||Dialogical||The past conversation|
|“Do you constantly have to tell me what to do?”||To talk about the conversational relationship (symmetry-asymmetry)||Monological||The past conversation|
|“Yes, Per, if I understand you right, you would like advice on how to handle some of the more difficult students in your class. You are disappointed that they are so disruptive.”||To talk about the conversational content (paraphrase)||Monological||The “here-and-now” conversation|
|“What do you mean by saying that?”||To talk about the conversational content||Monological||The "here-and-now" conversation|
|“There are many questions that are difficult to put into words. You simply feel uneasy. Remember that you don't need a well formulated question in order to come talk to me (...)”||To talk about the use of conversational time (degree of accessibility)||Monological||The future conversation|
Furthermore, writing can be used as a tool when talking about the conversation. We can for instance make an appointment, write a summary or write an individual strategy document.
In the literature on mentoring it is commonly recommended that the mentor and mentee enter into a written cooperation agreement early on in the mentoring process (see for instance Nilssen 2010). Such agreements can be of varied content, form and length. Some institutions that offer mentoring have also created a general template with suggested topics to include in the agreement.
The advantage of this kind of agreement is that both parties get a chance to present their expectations. If the agreement is specific, one is more likely to avoid misunderstandings later on. Furthermore, the agreement makes it easier to stay professional when faced with sensitive subjects. By making an agreement, the collaboration will likely feel more binding. Besides, by putting more in writing the systematic reflection in the mentorship conversation is strengthened.
Different types of strategic metacommunication
In professional mentoring there are different ways to metacommunicate. Some of them are:
To talk about the professional form of communication
In mentoring, an interesting question of principle is who should decide the topics of discussion. Carson and Birkeland (2009) argue the importance of talking about the mentoring pedagogy that will guide the mentoring. A reason for this is that almost all mentees want to get advice (ibid: 37). Many would like the mentor to make choices for them, and they get frustrated when she does not immediately want to do this. By talking about mentoring pedagogy, it is easier to avoid the frustration that emerges because of this.
Carson and Birkeland (2009: 126) are also of the opinion that the choice of mentoring method should build on an informed consent from the mentee. If the mentee decides against a specific mentoring approach, this decision should be taken into account. In this context one could imagine a dilemma if the mentee asks the mentor to use other mentoring methods than the one that the mentor prefers. Nilssen (2010) also argues that it is beneficial to decide on a common understanding of the mentoring early on.
Traditionally, the mentee has been able to choose the conversation topics, while the mentor has chosen the form of mentoring. Carson and Birkeland (2009) question whether this is the best way to achieve the desired results. Empirical research shows that students who want a particular form of communication in mentoring not necessarily ask for it. A survey conducted by Baltzersen (2008) shows that among students who find metacommunicating in mentoring important, only around half of the students in fact use this kind of communication. The reason is likely that the students see it as the mentor's responsibility to take the initiative in talking about mentoring. A survey by Lauvås and Handal (1998) provides an example of this:
To talk about the mentoring relationship
According to Nilssen (2010) feelings will always determine how we relate to each other. This is also the case in mentoring. It can sometimes be appropriate to talk about the mentorship relation. A mentor explains: “In my group of mentees there was a person taking the lead, who was very keen on speaking during the mentoring sessions. Another student would speak only when asked to. We discussed this. Was this how we wanted our sessions to be? Should everyone contribute? What did we want? The quiet student said that she would like to speak more, but that she didn't feel good at expressing herself orally. We agreed that everyone should speak with the skills we had.” (Nilssen 2010:82)
We can also talk about a potential disparity between conversational content and communication behaviour. For instance: “You say that you are happy, but to me you look upset.” It is sometimes necessary to metacommunicate when the mentee is showing discontent with the use of body language.
To ask questions that will clarify a conversation
As mentors we ask ourselves questions in the midst of the mentorship conversation: “am I challenging her too much?”, “are we going in circles?”, “are we moving forward with the conversation?”, “what do we avoid discussing?” This kind of thinking often takes place solely inside the mentor's head, but it influences the direction the conversation is taking and the questions that are being asked. Sometimes we can discuss such topics (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 81). By throwing light on a conversation, these questions can contribute to clarify ambiguities and clear up misunderstandings in the mentorship conversation. Below are some examples:
To sum up the mentorship conversation
It is usually recommended to sum up the mentorship conversation by agreeing on the main points that have been discussed. The summary should not be too extensive. It can also be beneficial to start every conversation by summarizing the last conversation. The summary can give both parties some time to reflect on the status of the situation and the way ahead (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 83-84).
The summary can be done in writing. Carson and Birkeland (2009: 127) refer to what they call an “experience memo”, which focuses on the mentee's experience of an incident. Through writing, the mentee may become aware of thoughts and feelings she was not previously aware of. If a mentor asks a mentee to write an experience memo, the memo can be used as a basis for the next mentoring session. The experience memo can also be used as a basis for a dialogue around a specific situation. We sometimes wonder how two people can give such different descriptions of the situation. Here are two experience memos written by students in early childhood education during practicum (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 100):
To talk about what not to talk about
As part of the talk about the conversation, we should talk about what we should not talk about. Here is an example: "(...) In the subsequent metaconversation we discuss that the student could perhaps seek help in clearing up the relationship to her mother. I tell her that the processing of the relationship to her mother should not be a topic in this mentoring. But the way this relationship affects her today is a topic that we can discuss during mentoring" (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 99).
Empirical research on the value of metacommunication
There is little empirical research on the existence of verbal metacommuncation in mentorship conversations. One exception is Baltzersen (2008) who has analyzed data from a 1999 survey of master students writing a master thesis (the mentor-mentee relationship usually lasts a minimum of one year). The results showed that few students spoke regularly with their mentor about mentoring. Approximately one third did it only in the beginning of mentoring, while more than half never did it at all. Furthermore, the survey shows a strong positive statistical correlation between the degree of metacommunication and the perception that the communication is good. Regular conversations about the conversation conflicts appear to prevent conflicts. In another interview survey Lauvås and Handal (1998) conclude that a greater degree of metacommunication in research mentoring (individual mentoring of students) is central to improving the quality of mentoring. Agreeing on the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship can prevent an unnecessary complicated situation where both parties have to interpret the other person's signals directly.
- Baltzersen, Rolf K. (2008): Å samtale om samtalen. Veiledning og metakommunikasjon. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.
- Carson, Nina og Åsta Birkeland (2009). Veiledning for førskolelærere. Kristiansand: Høgskoleforlaget.
- Nilssen, Vivi (2010). Praksislæreren. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
- Lauvås, Per og Gunnar Handal (1998): Hovedfagsveiledning ved Universitetet i Oslo. Oslo: Pedagogisk forskningsinstitutt, Universitetet i Oslo. (Rapport nr.1)