Learner-Centered Mentoring as an Antidote to the Guru Trap

As a coach/mentor and lifelong learner, I feel the need to keep current on what’s out there in the world of self-help and coaching, both for personal renewal and community building. So it happened that I attended another lecture last week, in my region. It is not important to know all the particulars of this event, except that it was all women entrepreneurs or would-be ones. The lecture was geared at promoting a new course on self-development with success/ happiness as one of the main tenets.  It promised to be very rich, as the women attending, introducing themselves, shared their expectations for the present lecture. However as the lecture proceeded, it would have been the usual cant for me, about the pursuit of happiness and success*, if a 30 something year old woman wouldn’t have been there. Let’s call her E., of course not her real name.

* two (coaching) themes strongly related and interchangeable maybe due to the Latin etymology of ‘success’. For example, in Italian:

succedere happen, occur, succeed, follow, befall, follow one another


Happiness Drawing Exercise

This post is dedicated to E. and all the special women like her, I did not seize the opportunity to encourage on their rightful path. But, through this post, the opportunity is not lost: a consolation.

We were some 30 women, +/-, attending this lecture on personal growth and empowerment. E. arrived some 20 minutes late, at her young entrepreneur friend’s invite who was in the know of her plight. E. came all the way from a faraway town to listen to this lecture and eventually sign up for the course it promoted. She seemed very expectant of this class. For our first practical exercise, we were asked to draw with color crayons how each of us viewed our journey in the direction of happiness, how we imagined we’d get there; with the lecturer emphasizing that there were no correct answers: “it’s not an exam”. So far so good. However, when it was time to get feedback from the lecturer on our “masterpieces”, we were all made wrong. No flowers, no spirals, no joyful faces or splashes of colors, no meandering paths, no labyrinths, please. The right answer, dixit the lecturer, was the drawing bellow (without the guy, at the blackboard, with the weird look).

Is the shortest route to happiness the straight one?

shortest route_happiness.jpeg

We were supposed to have a eureka (happy heuristics) moment from this picture: but of course! It’s the straight line that we should have drawn. ‘Why none of you has drawn a straight line?’, rhetorically asked the happiness expert.  E. dared to share her present process, by asking if happiness wasn’t somewhat one result of asking herself what to do with her life and learn what she was meant to become.  E., who made herself vulnerable by sharing her own experience through asking a question, was met with a straight, categorical ‘no’ to her legitimate question, by the happiness high priestess, followed by a sneaky “don’t even think about it”.  The ‘expert’ had to have the last word: we all pursue happiness and we have to learn the rules to get there. Now, E., this young woman who seemed quite confused about her life, the non-expert, was echoing some aspect of one famous quote by Victor Frankl and the know-it-all coach would not acknowledge that !:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

Beyond the labyrinth 

640px-'The_Fall_of_Icarus',_17th_century,_Musée_Antoine_VivenelHow many books, happiness!, have been written lately in your name, for or against you (though far less the latter)! Happiness religion of the individualist era! Frankl doesn’t take any side; he puts you, happiness/success, in your rightful success-ion. My experience is that it is the “moments” when I go beyond the labyrinth (a metaphor), when I get a broader perspective, experience a peak experience, as Maslow calls it,  and my life may be  transformed as a result, that I experience joy, bliss, and even, shall I dare: ecstasy. That’s not happiness but I can say at least that happy happens. This goes far beyond any happiness/success brainwashing a la Brave New World…and this post. Frankl’s quote, to be meditated upon, is typical of the happy heuristics attitude. No straight line, no pre-established rules that you don’t discover as you go, as you take your journey: happiness is meant to be experienced not pursued.

Self-directed adult learning paradigm

The rebel in me was titillated to argue and it was hard for me to control its urge to do so. I was less annoyed by the content of the coach’s discourse than by the form of delivery by the mentor coach. I knew this coach meant well and what she had to say will appeal to many people. It’s all heuristics, right. As content goes, I believe everyone is entitled to her own worldview. We can agree or disagree with everything and everyone or we may choose to agree to disagree (a heuristics), given that so much is left to interpretation. However someone in a position of leadership, like a mentor /coach, needs to be aware of some basic mentoring elements, like those listed below, lest s/he appears as a bully, especially in a group setting: she asked people to share their experience with the happiness drawing exercise; the least she could have done was to listen to what this women, this true seeker, had to say.

Elements in the Learner-Centered Mentoring Paradigm

  • Adults learn best when they are involved in diagnosing, planning, implementing, and evaluating their own learning.

  • The role of the facilitator is to create and maintain a supportive climate that promotes conditions necessary for learning to take place.

  • Adult learners have a need to be self-directed.

  • Readiness for learning increases when there is a specific need to know.

  • Life’s reservoir of experience is a primary resource; the life experiences of others enrich the learning process.

  • Adult learners have an inherent need for immediacy of application.

  • Adults respond best to learning when they are internally motivated to learn.

Zachary, L.J. The Mentor’s Guide. Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships. San      Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000. pp.4-5.

Elements in the Learner_Centered Mentoring Paradigm

The guru trap

These last 3 years, as a student, more than ever before, I’ve been personally acquainted with some teachers, mentors, coaches falling prey to the guru trap: bullying people to conform to their worldview, in a subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle and even downright malevolent manner, in total contradiction with the guidelines listed above, when contradicted. As a coach, I’ve become very sensitive to this type of coercive discourse, and no one in the helping professions is immune to it, it must be emphasized. Must the ‘purported’ expert make someone else wrong to ascertain her own authority, in order not to lose face? Can’t the so-called ‘expert’ be both humane, open-minded to other’s people point of view and still have ‘authority’ without being wishy-washy? Should ‘the Mentor’, at all, present herself as an authority? An authority in what exactly? What are the limits and responsibilities of an authority figure? What is true authority?  This type of questions and other reflections on one aspect of my profession (mentoring), keep me on my toes, so that I may express my best self as I mentor/coach. I would have thought that the field of adult self-directed learning were fairly established in today’s adult education, and yet I cannot count how many classes I had refused to enroll into or had to give up because I felt I was going to be brainwashed, patronized or even bullied because I dared bringing my own point of view on an issue.

Once you have experienced teaching/mentoring with the learner centered mentoring paradigm, any other way of teaching, departing from its respectful ways, will make you cringe. I’ve been introduced to self-directed adult learning by ICA (International Coach Academy). This way of teaching/mentoring pervades all the training of this coaching school, as a skill set and a mindset, both for the mentors and the mentees . When you are given mentoring standards of such high quality it is really a challenge to settle for less: your well-being and transformation depend on it.

Today’s Fool’s message for E. and courageous souls like her:

That you choose to participate in this course or not, or any other course for that matter, don’t let ‘expert’ people with so-called authority, make you feel, small, inadequate. Don’t let yourself be dragged down by the voice of the masses. Don’t accept tyranny, the power trips, the ego trips of so-called masters. You are on the right track, even if it feels uncomfortable right now. Remember that “There is only one journey … and that is going inside yourself.” ( Rainer Maria Rilke), especially if you feel that the outside world does not offer much light at present. I wish that this transition, this wilderness you are experiencing right now, will be for you an opportunity for growth, and, when the light will return in your life, and I know it will, you’ll be able to recognize it. Don’t forget to listen to your inner knowing,-you have plenty my friend, believe me. I wish you to encounter the just right guide for you and to receive guidance from on high. You have much to offer to the world, E.

Happy Heuristics.

One thought on “Learner-Centered Mentoring as an Antidote to the Guru Trap

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s