Monday, April 4, 2016

#expbio ASPET Blogging: Mentoring Your Mentor: Key Skills for Effective Mentoring Relationships with Shared Responsibility

Communication style inventory results for a Thinker
(I swear this isn't mine)
At some point, all trainees find themselves frustrated with aspects of their experience. For some, this frustration is due to feeling as if their mentor is not providing the help they expect to receive. Dr. Rick McGee’s session on Mentoring Your Mentor showed how important it is for trainees to communicate their needs to their mentor. He guided trainees through exercises and discussions to learn how to do just that.

One of Dr. McGee’s key statements was, “This is YOUR life!”, meaning that trainees are able to have some control over getting what they need from their mentor. He emphasized throughout the session that mentoring is a two-way street: trainees have equal responsibility in the mentor-mentee relationship. However, both parties often believe it is a “have it or you don’t” skill and are rarely explicitly shown how to mentor. The good news is that mentoring is a learnable, teachable - albeit complex - skill.

Identifying communication styles is a principal tenet in learning how to mentor both up (mentoring your mentor) and down (mentoring your own trainees, such as undergraduate students). The audience used the Effective Communication Styles Inventory to assess which of the four communication style patterns or domains they naturally and best matched with: Thinkers, Doers, Connectors, or Influencers. Keep in mind, none of the categories are better or worse, just different, and effective communicators learn to adjust their style for different situations!

Knowing the communication style used by yourself and your mentors can guide the way you approach interactions. For example, a Thinker focuses on details and likes to take time making decisions and preparing for conversations, whereas an Influencer focuses on the big picture and loves to think aloud with others. It is easy to see how this match-up might lead to difficulties so understanding and learning how to communicate with other styles is imperative to mentoring. In this example, the following advice was given in the handout, “When communicating with an Influencer, don’t deal with a lot of details (put them in writing) and ask “feeling” questions to draw their opinions and comments”. Information such as this, provided in the resources linked at the end of the post, can really improve the mentoring skills on both sides. 

There are times though when a mentor and mentee have contradictory approaches. One example is a trainee who feels as if they are not receiving enough hands-on training in experimental design. It is important to determine whether this is an unconscious or conscious design on the part of the mentor. A conscious design – the belief that a hands-off approach is the best way for trainees to learn – is unlikely to be changed by the trainee. In that case, Dr. McGee suggested finding additional mentors to provide assistance in the area needed. When meeting with a prospective mentor, the trainee should schedule a time to meet and arrive prepared. In this example, they could bring ideas for several potential experimental designs, explain which they think is best, and then ask for feedback. This may even work with the hands-off mentor who would see that the trainee did the legwork to plan the experiment and just needs confirmation of which direction would be most efficient.

Ultimately, Dr. McGee would like trainees to understand that they can and should communicate what they need from their mentors. He provided many resources, linked below, to help trainees and mentors alike learn how to effectively mentor each other.


“Entering Mentoring” A Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) program. Originally this was a series facilitated workshops for graduate students who would be mentoring undergraduate students. It became so popular that the information is now available for free. 

Revised versions of Entering Mentoring and other resources can be found at these sites.

Evidence-based research on effective mentoring relationships by Christine Pfund and Michael Fleming 


  1. Having trouble with the mentoring resources link. Help!

    1. They work for me on my desktop. Are you using a phone to access them? Several are PDFs so that might be blocked on your browser?