I recently took on a new client, a family business going strong in the fourth generation. At our first meeting I asked the family (mom, dad, brother and sister) to tell me their story – always interesting. As they dug into the various perspectives they each held about the history of the family and the business, and there are always a variety of perspectives, the patriarch described his father and grandfather, both long gone.

“I was looking for mentors but got tormentors.”

We all got a laugh. I had never heard this twist on the two words. Then we dug in. What makes the difference between mentor and tormentor?

The daughter suggested we look at a recent conflict that got pretty heated. An employee had given an ultimatum and dad was extremely upset at how it was handled. In particular, he was angry with the daughter and felt she was impulsive and showed poor judgment. Daughter shared texts between her and dad and it had gotten hot real quick with dad using intense (I’m being polite) language.

I helped them calm down and slowly walk through the elements of what happened. Turned out, the daughter had reached out to her brother about how to handle it. One of the parents’ greatest desires with the generational transition was to see the siblings work together, rely on one another, and collaborate. Dad was surprised and comforted to know this. They also conferred with a trusted, long-time non-family team member who supported their decision. This was another area where mom and dad wanted to see progress. Now dad calmly asked a few good strategic questions and the siblings responded calmly and intelligently.

A calm quiet hung for a moment and then I asked dad how he was feeling. He sat up and belted out, “Ecstatic!” Mom smiled ear-to-ear. The siblings looked relieved and gratified – proud.

I suggested there is a fine line between mentor and tormentor and that each of us has the potential for both elements; this is human nature I posited. We decided to come up with some simple guidelines that they can keep top of mind to try to bend toward mentor and away from tormentor. Here is what we came up with:

*Take a deep breath and try to remain calm when feeling stressed about an issue.

*Lean into a sense of curiosity, do not assume the worst.

*Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers with a spirit of learning more and helping the mentee describe the situation and their thinking.

Simple and powerful. And certainly not easy to pull off especially when emotions run high. Guidelines like these are most potent, in my experience, when they develop organically from families themselves.

Reach out to me with your ideas on enhancing Mentor and minimizing Tormentor!