Working with a mentee who is not talkative

What can a mentor do when a mentee doesn’t say much?

As a mentoring professional, it’s not uncommon for me to hear from mentors about a mentee who will not open up or who has nothing to say. This can be disappointing and frustrating for mentors who understand relationships require two-way communication. Many mentors suggest ending the relationship when this issue arises, but that is usually the worst thing you can do. So how can you build a strong relationship when there seems to be a communication barrier?

First, it’s important to remember young people are often referred to mentoring programs because they lack positive, non-familial relationships with adults. This is new for them. Try to think back to when you were a child or teen—talking to adults could be really intimidating! It becomes even more difficult if the child has had negative encounters with adults in the past. Time and consistency are needed to work through this issue. It’s important for mentors to show up regularly and be positive. Most likely, your mentee is not trying to drive you crazy or rebelling against social norms. It is more likely that your mentee is still learning about relationships and you are one of their teachers.

Michigan State University Extension suggests you avoid putting the focus on the lack of conversation or the young person might begin to feel self-conscious. As difficult as it may be, don’t push the young person to open up too quickly. Allow time to share space together—play a sport, complete a puzzle, make a craft or watch a movie. Being there is what matters, not what you talk about. While I would usually recommend asking open-ended questions, you might start with simple questions that require shorter answers to build a comfort level.

Often times, the issue isn’t that the mentee will not talk, it’s that the mentor doesn’t feel like the topic of conversation is important. In movies and on TV, youth have deep conversations with their mentors about adult topics. In real life, young people often talk about friends, sports, hobbies or other similar topics. This is developmentally appropriate.

I once received a call from a mentor who thought his mentee needed a new mentor—the issue being the mentee never talked. I called the mentee hoping to help resolve the issue. I asked him how the match was going. He replied, “I can tell him anything!” When pressed further, he explained that he hasn’t had to tell him anything yet, but he knows he can. The mentee felt a deep connection, he just didn’t show it in the same way an adult probably would. The lesson here is to be the person who a young person can tell anything, and know that it’s OK if they aren’t choosing to say much.

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