The power of listening in mentor-mentee relationships


I recently switched my son to a small Montessori daycare; I made the decision when the teacher said “I will meet him where he is.”  Although research labs are not daycares, meeting mentees where they are, listening what they say, and setting up a prepared environment seem to be the keys to have a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.

In the How to be an effective mentor Plantae Webinar, panelists talked about various resources and their personal experiences. Here are my takes from the webinar and some of my own experience.

1. Before committing to becoming a mentor, a trial meeting is useful.

Trial meeting is a good time talking about expectations for each other.  For example, asking mentees what they want to achieve via this mentor-mentee relationship. For myself, it was scary to start mentoring undergraduate students.  Doubts like don’t want to ruin other people’s lives and not feeling qualified almost stopped me from mentoring.  I am really glad that I tried mentoring!  I like to talk about differences between teaching labs and research labs; failure and mistakes are normal, but we need to learn something from the mistakes.

2. Show up and be there for your mentees.

It is time-consuming to train people, especially we all schedule 200% worth of experiments for ourselves (I wish I had Hermione’s Time-Turner).  However, when you schedule meetings with mentees, be there for them.  If you are really busy at the moment, encourage mentees to talk to other people in the lab.  The video Three Wavelengths shows the importance of being there for mentees. 

3. Define specific goals.

“We pick our paths because we think it is the best, but the path doesn’t fit everyone.”  This was one of the most memorable things for me.  Keep the path open for people; we are not trying to clone ourselves.  I think the goals can be as small as how an experiment is conducted and as big as career trajectory.  Set the goals and revisit them frequently to keep everyone on board.

4. Seek helps.

There might be unexpected incidences during the mentoring period.  As mentors, we should be aware of personal distress and help mentees within our scope.  It is helpful to evaluate our own ability and explore campus resources in advance.

5. Listen.

During the webinar, the power of listening came up over and over.  We often are focus on teaching, so we talk and talk, and we forget to listen.  Take a step back and listen.  Use open-ended questions to explore problem space; for example, start with “tell me about……” or use wh- questions.  We don’t need to answer everything, in fact, we don’t know everything.  Saying “I don’t know” wouldn’t decrease mentee’s respect for you.  Normalizing the struggle to show mentees how you face failures teaches them not only the problem-solving ability but also the attitude and mental strength.  When mentees seek answers, tell them possible options for them to choose rather than telling them what to do.

Thanks to Plantae and the Women in Plant Biology Committee to organize this webinar.  If you are thinking about being a mentor, try it!  There is not a perfect mentoring style to fit all.  Find your own mentoring style, and be genuine.  Treat mentees with trust and respect.  Acknowledge negative mentoring experience exists.  This doesn’t mean to hate the one mentor you really don’t like.  We modify our mentoring style along the way; identify your previous mentors’ strengths and weaknesses.  Many resources like the CIMER and NRMN are worth checking for early-stage mentors!  Also, highly recommend this podcast episode of The Story Collider; the power of a good mentor-mentee relationship can teach us how to catch an alligator!

I am really grateful that my son found the loving teacher in the new daycare, and I hope you can meet your mentees where they are!

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