Every day we are bombarded with noise. We are told which products to buy in order to address fears and insecurities often created by the same advertisement. We are constantly told who we are and who we should be. This is not always malicious, as a vital part of our development from child to adult is driven by authoritative voices.
We are told not to touch the stove because it will burn us. Sometimes we listen and it is enough that a trustworthy source told us something for our benefit. Sometimes we don’t listen, and must experience the “why” behind the command. We question the authority that told us the stove was hot, so we touch it and get burned. We grow that day. We grow to recognize that sometimes a command is for our benefit. We recognize that other things may be dangerous and may now trust that if someone tells us to stay away, we should stay away. This is the power of personal experience.
As a mentor, I find this difficult. Sometimes I want to grab a mentee by the shoulders, shake them and yell, “Getting off your medication is a horrible thing! I’ve done it! Trust me; you do not want to experience what I have experienced! The stove is really hot!” But it feels like my commands fall on deaf ears.
Then I remembered a premise in one of my favorite movies, Inception. Not so different from mentoring or raising children, the theme of Inception is the attempted implantation of an idea into a person’s mind. The great difficulty is that a person can always trace the origin of a foreign idea. If someone tells you something, you will always be able to trace that idea back to that person. If I tell my mentee that they need to continue taking their medication, the best response I can get is, “Stephen thinks I should take my meds.” This statement then can easily fall into the background of noise we all hear, often buried under all the other “someone thinks I should…” statements. The idea can be traced back to me. While I hope rapport and trust will give my statements greater voice than a billboard, it is not often the case.
For an idea to take root and lead to change it cannot be traceable to someone else. It must come from within. Personal experience is excellent at generating internal ideas, but this same knowledge can be cultivated by someone else. By asking good questions and really listening to a person, a mentor or coach can guide them to the right thought. I could ask my mentee why he wants to stop his medication, what happened last time he did this, or have him describe how he felt before. He will naturally have to think of the instability, severe depression, and host of other reasons to stay on his meds. The answers will come from him, and can only be traced back to him, since I only asked him to describe personal events.
The hardest thing for a mentor or parent to realize is that even with the best questions and internal ideas, sometimes a person must go through suffering. They have to touch the stove. It is painful but sometimes it is the only way for a person to generate the idea within themselves that hot things cause pain. Our experience and instruction can only go as far as a person will let it, but may we be there to comfort them and help them heal when they get burned.