November 16, 2014

#SfN14 Day 1: Tackling Difficult Mentor/Mentee Discussions

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

Wearing lots of hats—er, ribbons—at this meeting.
Greetings from D.C.! It’s nearly midnight on Saturday and my stomach is exploding from this chocolate torte I decided would be a good idea after a giant plate full of ravioli.

It wasn’t a good idea, though. It was a GREAT idea.

This afternoon, I attended life coach Dr. Samantha Sutton’s interactive talk called "Mentor-Mentee Interaction: How to Have a Difficult Conversation." In the past, Dr. Sutton has presented this as a 10-week, 4-credit course at Stanford. I was pleasantly surprised to see what I believe were an equal number of students, postdocs, and professors in attendance.

When I typically think of preparing for a tough talk, a student approaching a professor comes to mind. My preparation strategy for things like this is usually: 1. Prepare what you’ll say; 2. Be disappointed by mentor’s response; and 3. Not know how to respond because I didn’t prepare for this response, and because I lack tact and self-confidence. Knowing I’m not alone, and that PIs struggle with this too, was reassuring to me.

Kudos to everyone for realizing that relationships in the workplace—and especially among extremely competitive and career-driven scientists—are really, really complex.

Sutton’s overarching message was simple: when it comes to relationships, “be an engineer, not a scientist.” Okay, my hypothesis is that when I do X, my mentor is going to respond by doing Y. But we can’t simply observe and calculate our relationships in this way. We have to design solutions.

And instead of thinking of it as a “difficult” conservation, Sutton prefers the term “renovation conversation.” “Have the courage to pull out the splinter,” she says. Don’t tell yourself you’ll tolerate it for weeks, months, and years if it’s stressing you or deterring you from doing your best work.

Sutton outlined four steps to cultivating healthy communication in all relationships. Although shared in the context of mentor/mentee relationships (and I do believe that such a context is especially important when such a power dynamic is at play), I really think these could be applied to any interactions in your life, including family and friends.

1. Envision your relationship. What do you want? Sutton thinks your “vision statement” should include three thinks: what you want from your mentor/mentee, what they can offer to you, and how the two of you should be working together on your common goals.

2. Troubleshoot. If something’s broke, fix it. Sutton had us write a “gripe list.” (That was freeing). You know what’s funny? Regardless of the countless good things our mentor or mentee does, we’re still most likely to focus and complain about their little quirks that make them gripe-worthy. Same goes for our spouses, parents, kids, etc.

3. Build your vision. Here are Sutton’s suggestions for getting to the root of—and hopefully addressing—your relationship issues:

  • Set up a meeting. Don’t ambush them. “Hey want to talk about data at 1pm?” *1pm rolls around* “So, I wanted to talk about our relationship.” …yeah, don’t do that.
  • Describe your relationship vision. You. Them. Us.
  • Explain the issue, and focus on your needs.
  • Apologize for your contribution to the problem. It takes two to tango.
  • Ask for their perspective. Have they found this to be a problem? What do they think after hearing your side of the story?
  • Make a plan together. And check in on one another regularly.

4. Evaluate. How are things going? Are you both holding up your ends of the bargain?

Easier said than done, right? My friend and fellow grad student, Caitlin, and I participated in some role-playing with two PIs sitting by us. We both broke into sweats playing our respective roles as students while the real-life PI played PIs with whom we had to have difficult conversations. It was hard. It was familiar. A lot of these tools are easier said than done, for sure.

But the time you put into learning a laboratory technique is just as valuable as the time you spend learning how to interact with others as a member of a group, and this skill goes for any aspect of your personal and professional life.

I’m going to make a concerted effort from this point on to continuously re-evaluate my relationships with my labmates and superiors. The needle’s no fun, but digging out the splinter early on is the best thing you can do for your sanity.

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