Resolving Conflict

What are productive methods of addressing conflict or concerns?

The first course of action for the mentor and mentee should always be to talk openly with each other about the issue at hand and to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Preferably, this dialogue will take place face to face.

Learn more about active listening.

What conditions should be in place to allow for effective discussions of difficult issues?

  • A feeling of mutual trust and respect. 
  • Past experience with open and frequent communication between mentee and mentor.
  • An understanding that everyone makes mistakes.
  • An ability to see each other as individuals.
  • An ability to admit that one doesn't know everything.
  • An understanding that there may be a completely unrelated issue that is the underlying cause of the problem.
  •  A willingness to entertain different ways of handling the issue.
  • Sensitivity to cultural, gender, and personality differences that may influence perceptions.
  • Attention to the development of communication and problem-solving skills.

What steps should be taken to discuss the issue?

  • Identify an appropriate space for discussion.
  • Agree to ground rules.
  • Specify needs clearly.
  • Be flexible in ways of handling the problem.
  • Develop a solution that works for both the mentor and the mentee.

What methods are not particularly productive?

Written communication through e-mail, instant messaging, and other electronic means is strongly discouraged when mentees and mentors are trying to resolve a problem. Written communication can easily be misunderstood and lead to an escalation of the issue. Moreover, dashing off an e-mail in anger or frustration does not allow individuals the time they need to cool down and think through the situation. 

What should be done if the issue has not been resolved?

One way to proceed is through mediation, which involves bringing the issue to another party to help resolve the dispute. This is a well-accepted method for resolving problems, and taking advantage of this method should not be viewed as weakness on anyone's part. Sometimes, another set of eyes and ears is needed to make headway. This tends to be a more formal process. 

Who should be the mediator?

The mediator should be an objective, neutral, third party whose judgment both the mentor and the mentee respect and trust. Although the third party may be a colleague, advisor, or peer, it is recommended that the selected mediator be senior to both the mentee and the mentor and have administrative or supervisory oversight of both of them, as is usually the case with a department chair or division chief. 

Once the issue has been resolved, is there a way to learn from it?

A useful tool for taking something positive from a difficult experience is reflection. Reflection is the act of thinking carefully and intently about what happened, how it made the participants feel, if there was a way to avoid the situation altogether, and if there is a better way to have handled it.

This section adapted with permission from the Institute for Clinical Research Education Mentoring Resources, University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about PITT ICRE Mentoring.