Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Setting and Agreeing ‘Ground Rules’ for Mentoring

Following on from our last article on how to get your mentoring relationship off to a good start, this month we are going to look at another important step in in this process and that is how to set and agree the ground rules that will apply throughout your mentoring journey. This will provide a solid structure for developing your mentoring relationship.

Why do you need Ground Rules?

It is important that at the start of a mentoring relationship that both parties appreciate each other’s understanding of what they expect from the relationship and how they anticipate it will move forward.

It is also important that each other’s roles and relationships are known and understood from the outset.

If a successful rapport is to be established, both mentor and mentee must understand how the relationship is to be conducted and what can be expected from each other. This is the time to discuss the boundaries that you wish to set around your mentoring and to agree the scope of your discussions. For example, if a mentee is hoping for assistance in career progression the mentor needs to clarify what they are willing to contribute, is it to help the mentee put together a plan of skills and experience that they need to develop in order to progress, or are they willing to help with introductions and networking.

Setting Boundaries

The boundaries set in a relationship will be governed to some extent by the type of mentoring being undertaken. For example, mentoring for a specific task such as gaining a qualification will have narrower boundaries than more general mentoring.

Boundaries that should always apply:

  • Keep it professional – ensure that you never get personally involved.
  • Don’t make promises that can’t be fulfilled – this just raises false hope.
  • Respect each other’s personal lives – this is a professional relationship so you must learn where the line should be drawn
  • Understand that a mentor can’t be an expert in everything and sometimes it is necessary for a mentee to be referred to additional support, with their consent.
  • Clarify any issues of confidentiality within the mentoring relationship.

Agree Contact Strategies

Regular contact is important to develop a good relationship. Serious problems can often be prevented from occurring if they are discussed at the outset when they look to be just a small issue.

It is important to agree at the outset what communication methods are acceptable to both parties, some people prefer face-to-face or virtual chats, whilst others are happy with telephone calls or emails. Whatever the chosen method it must be one that both parties are comfortable with.

Whilst meetings should be regular and informal to encourage a good rapport being developed, care must be exercised to avoid over-familiarity and over-stepping the agreed boundaries.

Missed or cancelled meetings should be rearranged as soon as possible to avoid damaging the relationship.

Maintain regular contact, even when things appear to be going well, this will prevent the relationship from stalling.

Review your contact strategy on a regular basis to check it is still meeting your needs.

Matching mentoring and learning styles

There are two main styles of mentoring:

  • Active mentoring – in this style the mentor is someone who challenges, questions, and pushes as appropriate.
  • Passive mentoring – in this style the mentor acts more as a sounding board for ideas and is able to lead the mentee into making their own decisions, encouraging them and perhaps bolstering their confidence from time to time.

It is important that as part of your initial conversations a mentee identifies if they are looking for an active or passive mentor. In turn if the mentor’s approach is different, the mentor needs to consider if they can adapt their approach to suit the mentee.

Not everyone has the same style of working and learning. Sometimes there may be a clash of styles in a mentoring relationship. This is not a failure. It just means you need to modify your style, but if this is not possible it may be necessary to withdraw from the relationship. If you do intend to do this it is important to let the other person in the relationship know you are doing this, thank them for their time and end the relationship on a positive note.


Mentoring relationships only work effectively if they meet the needs of both parties. There must be mutual respect, trust, openness, a willingness to share stories, insights, wisdom etc. so, both parties are happy with the relationship. If, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work out it’s best to have an opt-out agreement which either mentor or mentee can use to suspend meetings.