Mentoring the Mentor to Learn Through Feedback

Kay Peterson

As you mentor your employees to develop their skills or improve their performance, you can set them up for success by motivating the learning process with feedback.   Feedback is an essential driver of experiential learning and development. We are constantly receiving feedback from the environment as we test out our judgments and conclusions, then refine them.

Why, then, is feedback often difficult to swallow?  Why do most of us have so little practice giving feedback to others? Remember that deep learning requires experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting – the entire learning cycle.  We must repeat this ideal process again and again to continue to improve. To motivate learning and start a new cycle, we rely on getting feedback about the impact of our actions. Yet, the fear associated with giving and receiving feedback can paralyze the flow of information needed for learning to occur. 

Try to reframe the issue by remembering that feedback is something that you need to learn how to give, and mentees may need to learn how to receive.  It may provide a mental model for practicing, an essential part of deliberate learning. Here are some tips that guide you around the entire learning cycle.  


Experiencing Giving and receiving feedback can trigger an emotional reaction and a stress response, resulting in fight, flight or freeze, and can even trigger a response similar to the four stages of grief:  denial, anger, withdrawal and acceptance.  

  • Before offering feedback, create a trusting relationship with your mentee.  When trust is present and feedback is fair, the mentee can typically skip the anger and withdrawal stages and jump to the acceptance stage much more quickly.
  • Consider the environment in which you offer feedback. Engage directly with your mentee in a face-to-face (or virtual) conversation rather than via email or text.
  • Do not make feedback personal or threaten the identity or worth of the person receiving the feedback.  

Prompts to Guide You in Experiencing:

      • Am I fully present without distractions during a feedback conversation?
      • Am I connecting emotionally and building trust? 
      • Is my intent to help and support the mentee’s development? 

Reflecting As you consider what feedback to provide, take many perspectives.

  • Allow time to let your biases reveal themselves before you provide feedback.  Consider your message carefully.
  • Consider the mentee’s perspective (her/him), your perspective (me), and the perspective of both of you in the relationship (us).
  • Adopt a stance of inquiry even as you provide information to the mentee.  You may help to facilitate meaning and awareness that will trigger new judgments and behavior change. 
  • Co-create a process for providing feedback with your mentee.  Is there a regular time that works best?  What type of feedback will be helpful for her/his development?  Is the mentee seasoned in receiving feedback?  If so, what has worked well in the past for the mentee’s learning and development?  

Prompts to Guide You in Reflecting:

      • Have I considered other points of view?
      • Am I inquiring about the situation and intent?
      • Am I allowing time for the mentee to “struggle” and find answers?

Thinking Consider using a mental model for providing feedback so that you have a process guide for your conversation. Here is one that follows the learning process:  

  • Create a learning environment that includes conversation, exploration and discovery, not a one-way directive.  Create a trusting relationship.
  • Clarify what happened by asking questions, then share your intention to help the mentee improve.
  • Focus feedback on one important topic rather than adding information more than can be absorbed.  Factually describe the specific behaviors or situation that you observed.  Notice that this is about behaviors — not about personality, traits or personal qualities. Include only what the evidence shows; do not include gossip, rumor or innuendo.
  • Describe the impact that the behavior had on you or others.
  • Create a plan in which the mentee can test out your feedback and agree to next steps together.
  • Follow up on the mentee’s progress. 

Prompts to Guide You in Thinking:

      • What does the evidence show?
      • Have I been objective and logical, setting aside my emotions and self-interest?
      • What is the larger plan for development or improvement?

Acting Practice, practice, practice!  Give feedback often, not just at the end of a project.  This will allow the mentee an opportunity to course-correct and improve while working with you.  After offering feedback, create an action plan with your mentee that will allow you to circle back to follow her/his development over time.   As you provide feedback to mentees, consider seeking feedback from them, too.  By honing your ability to help to develop others, you will be developing yourself in the process.   Prompts to Guide You in Acting:

        • How will I be accountable to follow up with the mentee?
        • Am I encouraging my mentee to take risks?
        • What activities will support the mentee’s learning and help her or him apply it?

Zoom Out to Provide Feedback to Yourself When providing feedback to mentees, consider your own strengths and challenges as you practice this process. Are you more comfortable in certain areas than others?  As you build your feedback-giving capabilities, you may become more curious about getting feedback yourself.  Accepting feedback is one thing; asking for feedback is a leap in accelerating your own development and maturity.  

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If you are mentoring employees in their development, you can learn more about our new Experiential Learning Mentor Certificate Program at