The Mentor in the Wheelchair

As soon as Cody Everson hit the ground he knew something really bad had happened. And he was right. A crunching rugby tackle had just transformed him from a physically strapping young man into a tetraplegic, paralysed from the chest down. I’ve just watched a moving documentary on Cody’s journey of recovery. But there is another hero in this inspiring story, Sholto Taylor, who is Cody’s independent living coach.

Sholto looks a bit like a young Bruce Springsteen except, instead of a guitar, he is permanently accompanied by his wheelchair, thanks to a car accident a few years earlier. Despite his own disability, or perhaps because of it, Sholto expertly mentors Cody through the rehabiltation process. Anyone who mentors others could learn a lot from Sholto’s approach. Here are five things that particularly impressed me:

  1. He has a quiet attentiveness about him. You can see him observing Cody in each situation before he says or does anything. It made me reflect on how often we blunder into situations with our mind already set on what we are going to say or do, rather than weighing up what’s going on and then thoughtfully deciding on a suitable response.
  2. He is economical with his words. He says what is needed to add value to a situation, and no more, often in response to Cody’s questions. His focus is on what Cody needs to hear, not on what he wants to say. This reminded me of the WAIT acronym I sometimes recommend to people who talk too much. It stands for “Why Am I Talking?”
  3. He simultaneously stretches and supports. While Sholto encourages Cody to take on new challenges, he is also there to support him — and he never makes him dependent. For instance when he sets Cody the task of literally pushing himself up a hill for the first time, Sholto is in his own wheelchair right behind Cody to stop him rolling back. But he doesn’t do any of the pushing. “You’re doing good mate” he says. “Keep the momentum up!”
  4. He is genuine with his praise, but he doesn’t overdo it. Some coaches and mentors are like Terence Fletcher, the bully teacher in the movie, Whiplash, who thinks the two most damaging words in the English language are “Good Job”. Others are overly cheesy with their feedback, treating their charges like children who need to be continually praised. Sholto gets the balance right, making his praise specific and more focused on effort than results.
  5. He listens deeply without interrupting. This creates a safe space for Cody to talk about personal issues which are clearly worrying him. When Cody asks how he should best cope when he has a “down day”, Sholto speaks plainly from his own experience, but emphasises that Cody will need to work out what’s best for himself. When Cody asks what girls are likely to think about him now that he is in a wheelchair, instead of giving sugar-coated advice, Sholto turns the question back onto Cody. “How do you feel about the chicks? What do you think they’re thinking about you?” This enables Cody to reflect on the approach he’d like to take. He decides he wants to just be himself and not look for sympathy.

The coaching, mentoring and managing most of us do each day may not be as life changing as what Sholto did with Cody, but we can still make a difference by practising these five skills:

  • Being attentive to the need of the situation;
  • Speaking to add value rather than to fill in space;
  • Challenging others while providing suitable support;
  • Being genuine and appropriate with praise; and
  • Listening carefully without interruption.
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