OPINION23 September 2020

A bit of space

Opinion UK

In the first of a series from MRS mentors, Chloë Fowler reflects on how mentoring can offer some much-needed space – for both parties.

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My career as a qual researcher exists because of the mentors I found along the way. They weren’t official mentors (the MRS scheme didn’t exist back in the dark ages) but they were people who took the time to listen, to ask, to challenge, sometimes to chide. Some were invaluable for the short periods I needed them and some are still on my Phone a Professional Friend list. All of them made a difference.

They were the reason that I signed up to be an MRS mentor and I’m lucky enough to have worked with (and still work with) four brilliant individuals. I figured that if I could play any small part in making someone’s challenges feel heard and understood – then I would be giving a little something back.

The MRS mentoring scheme has provided me with training and guidance on how to approach those relationships. Each one has taken a different path and I have adapted my style to suit their individual needs and personalities. Some have had particular issues they’ve wanted to tackle, others have wanted more general support and time to talk and some have fluctuated between the two. 

I see our time together as, quite simply, a bit of space. 

Space is a much-needed commodity. Our work-life shuttles from project to project, management meeting to company issues, one rung of the ladder to the next. It can feel quite dizzying and the lack of time to reflect can force some issues to feel insurmountable and others to creep up without noticing. My mentees don’t lack support structures at work, but they might lack the confidence to ask for space to truly talk and be heard. Or at least, as often as they’d like. 

Line managers and bosses always seem like they’re running from pillar to post and have ‘bigger things to worry about’. I know that because I was a boss and a line manager. In a day of fending off requests from clients, juggling focus groups, writing debriefs, making time to just ask ‘so what’s up’ can feel like something we might just put off until tomorrow, or next week, or next month. It’s easy to assume that if there aren’t visible signs of stress or anxiety, people are coping just fine. It’s also easy to assume that if someone is doing great at their job, nailing their tasks and forging ahead, that there’s anything they want to do better or feel reassured about.

Mentoring is not about fixing. We’re not superheroes disguised as market researchers (no-one’s going to making a blockbuster movie out of that, more’s the pity). It would be irresponsible to get involved in complex issues we're not qualified to mess with. We just hear one side of the story and this is too small an industry to risk overstepping the mark. Listening is not fixing. More often than not, people know exactly what they want to do or will do, they just need to verbalise it.

Being a mentor is not a purely selfless act; I’m not that nice. My conversations with my mentees, not all of whom are new into their careers, help me reflect on my career. I still balls things up, panic, and need reassurance. I hear what we talk about and it reminds me to put my thoughts in perspective, too. It’s not just space for them, it’s space for me too.

I hope I’ve been of some value to the people I’ve worked with. They impress me, they challenge me. I don’t think we have the hardest job in the world – I’ll leave that kudos for the NHS and teachers. But we don’t have the easiest job in the world either. Our industry can be perplexing, changeable, and exhausting. I do it because I love it and anything I can do to help remind others why they might love it too feels like a service in itself. Find the space, pause, breathe, reflect. And then carry on.

Chloë Fowler is founder of The Nest Research

For more information on mentoring, visit the MRS website.