Mentoring Skills Tune-Up—Assessing Understanding

When I was a Postdoctoral Appointee I had the opportunity to mentor a summer student. My supervisor had cautioned that taking on a student could be a lot of work, but if I was up to it, she’d support me. Seeing it as an opportunity to build my own mentoring skills and add a spark of life to our lab, I accepted the challenge. My student mentee was eager to learn and asked a lot of questions that forced me to go back to the basics and make sure I understood fundamental concepts behind the techniques we used. In turn, I asked her a lot of questions to assess her understanding of what we were doing to make sure she got the “big picture” and was comfortable performing experiments. It was a fun and educational experience for both of us!

There are different techniques you can use to assess understanding of procedures and techniques. Being a visual learner, drawing diagrams is one of my favorites. When it comes to mentoring conversations that are not centered on a process or procedure though, assessing understanding can present unique challenges.

Recently, we explored how to plan mentoring conversations and the use of questions and curiosity to keep conversations going. But what happens if you sense that you and your mentee are no longer on the same wavelength? What can you do if you feel the conversation has drifted off track? How will you respond if your mentee expresses frustration that you are not understanding?

While not as straightforward as drawing diagrams—which could help, by the way—there are tools to assess and affirm understanding in conversations. Two such tools that are used in the mediation field are summarizing and reframing. These dovetail nicely with active listening and asking open-ended questions and can help get over hurdles that are impeding progress in your mentoring relationship.


Summarizing is different than simply repeating back what you heard. When you summarize, you are providing an abbreviated version of what your mentee articulated. It captures the salient points, so listen for key words and those points conveyed with greater emotion. When you summarize your mentee’s message, you provide a chance for clarification and affirm that you are listening. You can ask, “Did I get that right?” This is a good technique to reuse throughout your mentoring conversations to make sure you and your mentee are making progress towards your goals. Summarizing can lead to new questions and set up the next step in your mentoring journey.


Reframing is a technique that can be used to assess and affirm understanding, acknowledge emotions and help move from a state of negativity towards one focused on moving forward. Reframing statements might begin with, “What I am hearing from you is…” or “It sounds to me like you…” This recognizes your role in building understanding and again, provides a chance for the mentee to make clarifications. Reframing is a way to take a complaint or negative position and state it in such a way that the goal now becomes one of problem solving.

For example, consider the following scenario, adapted from the Beyond Mentoring toolkit developed for the National Postdoctoral Association.

John, your mentee, has been having trouble understanding his manager’s expectations for his work deliverables. John is very talkative and sees himself as someone who can get along with anyone. He is having a hard time understanding why his manager “doesn’t like him.”  They have weekly meetings where he goes into great detail of all that he’s done, including things that worked and didn’t work.  His manager is not as talkative and doesn’t say much in the meetings. When she does, she gives John the impression that he’s not working on the right things or is on the wrong track. John starts off your mentor meeting telling you about the latest pitfalls. It is clear from his body language that he is frustrated. He is slouching, shaking his head and rolling his eyes at times. “No matter what I do, it never seems to be right!” he says. “We meet every week and it’s always something new. And to make it worse, I’m never quite sure what I’m doing wrong. I’m working hard and doing a lot, but getting nowhere with my boss. I just can’t seem to win.”

As the conversation goes on, John keeps returning to this state of frustration. You begin to suspect there is a lack of understanding between John and his manager. Your reframing response might be something like: “It sounds like having clear expectations from your boss is important to you and that you would like more feedback. Let’s think of some ways of how you might communicate this to your boss…”

In the reframed response, you captured the main issues (unclear expectations and feedback) and shifted the mindset from a cycle of frustration (“I can’t win”) to one of problem solving (“Let’s think of some ways…”). This puts your mentee in a position to learn and grow, while at the same time, communicates that you understand not only the issue, but also how he feels about it.

Assessing understanding is key to cultivating mentoring relationships. It is part of maintaining effective communication, which is a pillar of effective mentoring. For this and more on cultivating relationships, the University of Wisconsin Institute for Clinical Translational Research offers a good starting point for further reading. The information and linked resources are applicable to any mentoring scenario—not just research mentoring. Check it out!

About Kristene Henne

Kristene “Tina” Henne is Argonne’s Postdoctoral Program Lead for the Argonne Leadership Institute. In this role, she facilitates the postdoc appointment process, postdoc career development, mentoring, advises the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne and serves as a navigator for postdoctoral issues.
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