Beginning Mentoring: Building Friendly Bonds of Trust with New Contact
Conversations with experienced converts to Islam and with many who support people who become Muslim reveal how that ‘friend in need’ was one of the most important people in the life journey after one has taken their Shahada. Sometimes, that importance was not fully realised until later. What we also learn, is that all-important person may not have had an official role or been a religious teacher; more often, that friend was an ‘everyday Muslim’ (and in some cases they were not Muslim). As someone working to support another, building bonds of trust is a skill as important as any other.
Befriending describes engaging with another person to act as or become a friend, especially when they are in need of help or support. Because befriending is applied across a wide range of support services, often with complete strangers, the term can often be confused with being some kind of a “pretend friend”. That is not how befriending should be approached when it comes to supporting someone who has recently converted. It is, however, important to make a distinction between friendship and befriending, where you may find yourself becoming a person to offer support or guidance to someone you may never have known before. Whilst it is beautiful to see lasting friendships blossom through supporting another at a delicate stage of life (and that often happens), it is quite possible to be sincere, genuine and supportive without feeling you need to build close personal friendships.
There are a few important considerations when providing support. Supporters come with good and sincere intentions and thinking about some of these aspects of support can help turn good intentions into good practice.
A person who has recently become Muslim should not be seen as a project, as someone to align with a set of ideas or to otherwise ‘mould’. This, many have said, is implicitly felt by converts, and yet a mentor may not even be aware they are making another person feel that way.
Many converts speak of being warmly welcomed into the arms of a new family and having the opportunity to make new friendships. Some have commented on the intensity of this friendliness in ways where it does not suit their personality or preferences. Others have said they were not necessarily seeking friendships that connected with every aspect of their life, so quickly. Not everyone wants friendships to be so personal as to feel intrusive. It can sometimes feel too much.
Along with different life paths that lead to conversion, and differing backgrounds, personality types can also differ, and should be considered. Some people are naturally outwardly confident and extrovert, others more introverted. When building relationships with people to offer support, this works both ways. A mentor who may have a reserved personality may read the ‘outward’ extrovert energy expressed in another as being eager and ready when, in reality, that person may not be feeling confident and ready at all. Being aware of different personalities is useful, though not deigned to box people into categories. It’s just a way of recognising that people are different and may react in different ways to the same situation.
It is also important for mentors to have a sense of boundaries regarding their engagement with another person they are supporting. From a Muslim perspective, supporting someone ‘new’ to Islam is considered a rewarding act, and it may not feel right to set limits. That is understandable, but against the advice of many experienced in this area, who have spoken of the need to balance the support one can offer along with self-care. In relation to this, it is often useful to find others one can share experiences with in order to sound out ideas, check in and ask advice, or just talk about something challenging that happened while mentoring. We all need support, even while we provide support to others.
There are many other tips for beginning the mentoring process, but perhaps a good one to finish on for now is that you can’t be an expert in everything. Your role as a mentor is to support, it is not always to provide answers. Being aware of the most common areas for signposting (in case of domestic abuse, mental health concerns, extremism, addiction, etc.) or referring someone for further support is important.