The following are basic groundrules for mentors as they shape how the groups should carry on conversation. Also included are some tips on what has worked well for mentors in facilitating these conversations.
Mentors play a key role in the group, especially early on, in keeping the group on track. It takes several meetings, sometimes the whole first year, for participants to ease into trusting one another and feeling comfortable sharing personal things. Have patience, and don’t push the group. Remember that they have several years together and they are just getting started.
Pay attention to dominant personalities. Checking in with the other mentor of the group for impressions and perspective really helps keep a pulse on how the group is forming. If one or several participants tends to dominate or distract conversation repeatedly, you could take several approaches:
--Offer one or two reminders publicly at the start of each meeting about the groundrules mentioned above and the general pattern conversation should take. You could also mention that we should be attentive to the balance of personalities in the group and allow some of the more quiet guys to have space to speak as well.
--If distraction persists, it is not out of place for a mentor to check in with a member to get their impressions of how the group is going and how their participation is going. In a gentle way, mentors could offer some feedback as to how their comments are impacting the group.
--Send frequent reminders for meetings, especially early on. Email reminders are good, but consider gathering cell phone numbers and sending a text reminder the day of the meeting. Students check email infrequently, but are always connected with texting and cell phones. Using the technology that students use is a good way to go.
--If at all possible, do all you can to get guys to at least the first meeting. Some in your group might be ambivalent about the program and it is easy for them to just not show up to the first meeting. After that, however, it becomes nearly impossible for a freshman guy to step into the group when it has already formed. If we can get guys to the first meeting, even if it is a casual orientation meeting, they have a much better chance of connecting with the group. Getting email confirmations that guys will attend is a good way to go, then you can track down anyone you did not hear from to make sure they’ll be there.
--Find a comfortable “living room” space for meetings—this helps create a comfortable atmosphere. It seems to be important that the space be private. Some groups have met in pubs or other public spaces, but these spaces don’t allow for the same depth of sharing. Providing a snack seems to also go a long way in providing a comfortable, casual atmosphere. Gathering around food to share stories is a deep human need—groups have had success with food creating a good atmosphere for sharing. Groups could establish the expectation that the leader for the meeting provides the snack—this allows for the possibility that the food the leader brings ties into his story (ethnic food or some kind of snack that is traditional in his family, for example).
--Don’t expect eye contact with the guys at first. 18-19 year old men listen differently than most of us, but they are still engaged.
--Strong modeling, especially at the beginning of the group, goes a long way. Mentors should express thanks and gratitude for the sharing guys offer—this creates a non-judgmental, accepting appreciative, safe environment for intimate sharing. Members will pick up on this.
--Strong leadership in asking clarifying questions and follow up comments from mentors is also important—it teaches the students how to do this, which is essential for carrying on simple conversation. But it is also important because it teaches students how to read into each others’ stories and make connections, which will help them draw meaning from their own experience.
--The way mentors carry out their mentorship should help undergraduates understand (especially early on) that the mentors are there to help the group stay on track and to lend a mature presence to the conversation, but that they are mostly there to participate with the guys, not to lead the group for them.
General conversation flow:
Each conversation should last about an hour. Below is a structure we’ve adopted for our conversations. During the first year, as meetings start, it is helpful for a mentor to remind the group that in general, the group is trying to get conversation to flow in the following manner. It doesn’t need to be a rigid process where the group needs to be sure that they touch every item, but it is a trajectory for the discussion.
--Check in—each member offers a high and low for the past week.
--Leader shares his story using the guide.
--Clarifying questions from the group to the leader based on his story.
--Leader offers one or two themes from his story that will provide room for conversation for the group. For example, if my story touched on growing up in the country and mountains, I might offer the following question for the group to start to discuss: My experience of nature allows me to get in touch with myself and who I am—does anyone else have that experience? Why do you think that is? What is it about being in the woods that makes me feel right with myself?
--Extraordinary action: The group may decide to close each meeting with each member choosing one extraordinary action they will take on in the weeks until the next meeting. Each person can state the extraordinary action they will do before the group meets next. It would be ideal if the action each person chooses reflects something of the theme or conclusion of that particular group meeting. The check-ins for the next meeting, then, can be an opportunity for everyone to say how they did in accomplishing their extraordinary action.