The Successful Mentor – Reacting Constructively

By Rushka Mahadeo, Regional HR Manager, Pioneer Foods (South Africa).


As mentors our expectations of our mentees, associates and colleagues include transparency and honesty. We advise all to speak out and be brave in airing their views, giving feedback and providing those wonderful buzz words, “constructive criticism”. We have learnt as mentors that in order for this to happen that it is incumbent on us to provide a safe and conducive environment for these interactions and behaviours. To enable and support such verbal, written or implied interactions and conversations. The challenge however often comes when those in our sphere direct these sentiments towards us. This is often through candid feedback, outspoken disagreement or even outright challenge of your point of view, topic of discussion or even a tried and tested method of operation.

We are taught as mentors to graciously accept such reactions and feedback and that practise makes perfect in employing a range of coping mechanisms to ensure that these interactions are seen as opportunities for strengthening relationships, encouraging communication and building confidence in our mentees. The truth however is that reacting defensively to such candid input and feedback is at times natural and unavoidable. The key however lies in how we constructively respond instead of becoming defensive.


It is human nature to put up your guard and become defensive when someone tells you something you’d rather not hear. Especially when one considers the approach by younger generations, who no longer adhere to the once socially acceptable norms of expressing themselves to the elder generations. Once praised behaviours such as lowering ones voice, avoiding eye contact and chivalrously allowing the elder to lead conversation and speak, reserving ones opinion for banter with their colleagues and friends, are no longer encouraged or seen as progressive or necessary in organizations today. Acting defensively is then often seen as weakening ones stance and lessens credibility of ones point of view as it prevents us from addressing the issues at hand.


So what should a mentor keep in mind when reacting constructively as opposed to defensively? Here are 5 pointers for consideration:

  1. Consider what is being said and ensure that you emotions haven’t blurred what was actually being said. Ask for clarity if necessary to ensure that what was said is understood and clarified in the correct context.

  2. If there is a misunderstanding of what is being said explain it from your perspective or ask for further examples or explanations.

  3. Acknowledge their point of view vs your point of view and confirm with them that you hadn’t seen it that way.

  4. If there is truth or credibility to what is being said or expressed thank the person for raising their position and pursue the line of thought further.

  5. Should the person express themselves in way that is rude, abrupt, discourteous or lacking empathy and kindness, let them know your feelings about being addressed in that way and explain what is acceptable and how you would prefer being addressed. Instead of responding emotionally rather delay reacting by asking for time to respond and feedback later.


Acting defensively unfortunately destroys the positives and negatives of the situation and prevents any progressive outcomes from what could be highly rewarding interactions. Rather react constructively with a view to building relationships, finding solutions and encouraging an environment of continuous learning and improvement.

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