“It seemed rather incongruous that in a society of super sophisticated communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners.”—Erma Bombeck
Lizabeth, a postdoctoral researcher in a molecular biology lab, was tasked with mentoring Susan, an undergraduate student, through her honors research project. Laboratory procedures where the two worked included a mixture of ready-made kits from industry suppliers and old-fashioned methods adapted over the years from classical protocols from the literature. It was not uncommon to see a research bench covered with home-made reagents in old bottles amidst new, pre-made mixtures from manufacturers. To keep methods straight, protocols had to be neatly documented in research notebooks.
A month into her research project, Susan began having difficulties with what should have been an easy, straightforward DNA extraction method. She would often stop at Lizabeth’s bench for help with trouble shooting. Lizabeth would ask the same questions each time—did you follow the steps of the protocol; did you add Reagent A first; did you wash the cell pellet; are you sure? These conversations often took place while Lizabeth continued working at her bench. The last time, Lizabeth finally put down her pipet, stopped work, and followed Susan to her bench so she could walk her through the procedures. It quickly became apparent from Susan’s notes that she had combined two protocols in the hopes that she could obtain greater yields. As a novice, she did not realize incompatible reagents rendered the whole method ineffective. After three weeks of unsuccessful attempts at repeating the initial procedure, Susan started from scratch, following the correct protocol. This time, her efforts yielded the DNA she needed for the next experiment and she was able to move her project forward.
Lizabeth and Susan could have averted hitting this roadblock if they had only practiced a fundamental skill of mentoring—effective communication.
As the mentor, Lizabeth failed by not actively listening to her mentee. Rather than stop work or schedule a better time to talk, she kept working while Susan recounted her issues with her experiments. While it is possible to multitask in some situations, mentoring discussions require the full attention of both the mentor and mentee. When you are distracted, you send the message that your mentee’s issues are not a priority and you risk missing important nonverbal cues that might otherwise prompt further questions to get at the heart of the matter.
It is impossible to actively listen if you are actively doing something else. If the time is not right for a discussion, explain this to your mentee and schedule a better time. Reassure your mentee that their issues are important and you want to make sure you can give them the attention they deserve.
As the mentee, Susan failed by not being honest from the outset with her mentor. Only after walking through her experiment with Lizabeth did it become apparent she had combined two incompatible protocols. There is no way Lizabeth could help her trouble shoot the experiment without the whole story. On the contrary, having only part of the story may lead to wrong assumptions and poor advice.
A good mentor has many qualities, but reading minds is not one of them. For a mentoring discussion to have value, mentees should communicate their needs clearly. This is especially important if the goal of the discussion is to seek advice from the mentor on a specific situation. Both the mentor and mentee should be prepared to listen, consider the information being communicated and give and receive feedback.
Mentoring involves a dialogue between the mentor and mentee and a dialogue is a two-way street by definition. For mentoring to be effective, both parties must learn to maintain effective communication. Below are a few resources to get you started on assessing and developing communication skills in a mentoring relationship.
National Postdoctoral Association Beyond Mentoring Toolkit:
NOTE—you must log in as an NPA member. Argonne National Laboratory is a sustaining member of the NPA, which means our staff and postdocs can establish a free, affiliate membership that will allow access to member resources.
University of Wisconsin Research Mentor Training Mentoring Resources:
NOTE—mentoring basics apply to any mentoring relationship. While these resources are geared towards mentoring in a research setting, the skills required are the same in any professional setting.