Sounding boards

Another lesson that has been highlighted in recent coaching sessions: the eternal importance of sounding boards.

Having a mentor or buddy who creates a safe space for innovation and experimentation between you is actually a rare and precious thing, and that is a relationship worth pursuing, nurturing and protecting once you’ve found someone who is a good fit for you. Not everyone will function for you in this way, and that’s OK: if your family members or significant others do not turn out to be the right fit for this role, it is not necessarily a red flag for the rest of the relationship. This is a very specific thing, and may be better found in a colleague or mentor who believes in you, understands what you’re aiming for, and will be honest with you in a constructive way.

A sounding board relationship may or may not be reciprocal, but it should always be full of respect and should be mutually beneficial in some way.

Whether it’s someone who reviews your work, brainstorms with you, checks your spelling/grammar/facts, or someone who just listens to what’s on your mind and responds, a good sounding board IS:

  • an active listener,
  • someone who generally supports you and is on your side.
  • is honest, but not judgmental.
  • familiar enough with your work and your field so that minimal explanation is necessary.
  • Someone who believe in your potential and knows what you’re capable of.
  • someone who can raise and discuss potential limitations,, without judgment or unnecessary negativity.

A sounding board is more than

  • a cheerleader.
  • a proofreader.
  • a fan.
  • a fixer. (Not their job, although they may share solutions)

These other roles can be important at various stages of career and project development, but they are inherently limited. Yout SB relationship should enable you to lok past the surface of your work and go deeper. It shouldn’t just validate — it should elevate.


A few thought on making sure this arrangement is mutually beneficial, lest you wear out your SB by simply using them by allowing a one-sided relationship to fester and rot. This is a valuable and essential service your SB is providing. If you’re not providing monetary compensation in some way, there are myriad ways you can thank a mentor, depending on the nature of your relationship:

  • Lunch or coffe.
  • Bring food or supplies.
  • Send a gift card.
  • Offer tickets or a copy of your work.
  • Acknowledgement or dedication.
  • Practical help, e.g. windows, gardening, pet card, errands.

There are lots of ways to make this work, but it must work on both sides. Be open and talk about it, and check in once in awhile to make sure it’s still working. MAKE IT REAL, not just trivial. If in doubt, ASK what you an do. Even if they say “nothing”, do something. Send a note. Even better, pay attention, and the right gesture will come to you.


You may find that some people are great help with specific things. Others may be no hep at all.

Don’t be afraid to seek feedback from multiple sources, and to approach new SB candidates when it feels right. Be prepared to accept “no graciously if it’s not the right time or a good fit for them, and don’t question that response any more than absolutely necessary — it may not have anything to do with you.

In the end, you don’t need to actually overthink this relationship too much. The basic principles are simple:

  1. Be open.
  2. Be grateful.
  3. Cherish the right fit.
  4. But in the end, your work is your responsibility. You make the final decisions.
  5. Own that.

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