Written by Professor Bob Garvey
There are only a few human stories and the problem is that we have a habit of repeating them as if we have learned nothing the first time around. One way to deal with this is to understand our past. Our pasts are in our present, but we are not often aware of this - we simply get on with our lives. There are times when the past confronts our present, and this tends to happen in moments of awareness or significance. These points can be clarified in the following three propositions about how people relate to their past.
We may choose to live in the past and function on the basis of traditionalism, using expressions such as, “We have always done it this way”. This has the effect of making people resistant to change as their basic reference point for action in the present is their traditionalism and their perspectives on how actions are taken and decisions were made come from their particular perspective on their own history. It is often the case that the tacit assumptions that frame everything people do so in an uncritical celebration of the past, which acts as guide to everything that is done in the present and the future.
We may choose to reject our past or re-write our history. This has the potential effects of devaluing our past and making it worthless or we may apportion blame, attach guilt or have a ‘rose-tinted’ perspective on our history. This attitude often prevents people from learning from the past or encourages them to suppress its continuing influence on their present-day actions.
A third option attempts to build on our past by understanding it profoundly. We do this through adequate reflection on our past and through critical awareness of our past. This requires openness, a willingness to be critical, to learn and to change. It invites people to take risks with their reputations, status and careers. For some it will be a painful realisation that cherished beliefs were misplaced, that attitudes were unhelpful. It is not easy, though it is necessary to confront the past in this way. Otherwise it becomes our prison. One way of thinking about this is to consider the idea of the significant moments of change in our lives. Of course, these can often be understood only in retrospect and, as time changes, perceptions of moments and significant turning points may alter. How people talk about and analyse critical moments in their history is often a real clue about their defining character.
Defining moments happen. We cannot control the moments, only our responses to them. In an increasing complex working world the opportunities which present themselves are unknowable, complex and often happen quickly. People respond to these moments by referencing their past. As we cannot predict from where or when these moments will happen, we can only prepare for our response by understanding our past. Proposition 3 offers the most potential for people to realise a positive future that does not repeat the failings of the past, and a mentor can help the mentee to explore their past in order to face the future positively.
Storytelling is a fact of life! We come to understand, learn and know through stories. Stories develop our sense of self. The writer Salman Rushdie says:
“…those who do not have the power of the story that dominates their lives – power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change – truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.”
So, stories help us to think new thoughts! In mentoring there are many stories. The original use of the word ‘Mentor’ is found in an Ancient Greek story by Homer and a more modern version was written by Fénelon in 18th Century France. Coming to today, mentors know that mentees tell stories and it is through these stories that there is potential to help the mentee grow.
As mentors we could help our mentees to think about what kind of story they are telling – a happy one, a challenging one, an eventful one or one that is about success or failure or even triumph in difficult circumstances. We could help our mentees think about the characters in their story, what their function is and how the mentee places themselves in the story. We could focus on the use of language and explore the meanings of the metaphors used or if the mentee is exaggerating, embellishing or down-playing. By drawing attention to these things, learning and understanding will occur.
As mentors we could explore the meanings in the mentee’s story and examine the cultural influences on their story. If their story is retold, we could listen for differences and variations in the story as the mentee rethinks things. With a storytelling approach to mentoring, it is not about ‘the truth’ or ‘lies’, instead it’s about authenticity, genuineness and trustworthiness, persuasion and coherence. A good starting point could be based on the following quotation:
“Try to think of what happened to you which was important and led to your sitting, sitting here in this chair, on this very day, among these people. What happened? What brought you here? You’ve got to know this. That’s the starting point……” (K.Kieslowski, 1993:35-6)