I recently attended a training course at Bangor University, with Dr Fay Short, on how to manage dissatisfaction, which I found to be surprisingly illuminating and useful for a number of settings. One of which, of course, was mentoring. So I’ll provide a brief summary of what I learned that could help us in our sessions.
Modern life promotes dissatisfaction, even within ourselves
Fay explained how evaluation forms are everywhere. Cute and fun selfies abound on social media. Gossip bubbles up in every classroom and office. Lifestyles of the rich and famous are shown constantly on TV. TripAdvisor reviews skim over the great parts to really shout about the few tiny ‘disasters’ that happened on every holiday. And we are almost conditioned now, not just to compare people and events, but also to look for negatives rather than positives; which, as academics, you know goes hand in hand with a balanced criticality. In fact, at times, we also focus too much on looking to have our expectations not only met, but surpassed. But, again, in academia, provided that an argument is strong, with evidence to back it up, there is really no need to seek a Nobel Prize for every essay or article written. Graduation and publication should suffice.
Dissatisfaction in the mentoring context
Therefore, it’s possible that the way might be paved for dissatisfaction to creep into our mentoring sessions, perhaps in sneaky ways.
How many sessions have we had in which:
- a mentee hands their essay over for you to check (could this writer simply want a proof reading service?),
- or comes in looking desperate and saying that they didn’t know where else to turn (could they want this hour to change their entire academic career?),
- or says that they want to know everything about referencing so they don’t get into trouble again (is this possible in an hour, especially when paraphrasing takes time to practice?),
- or that they want to write English fluently (sometimes this cannot – and should not – be achieved in a lifetime?)?
Perhaps being more aware that these kind of expectations lead to potential dissatisfaction can help us to approach the session with more proactive questions and firmer boundaries: we cannot do that, but we can offer you this service instead; that’s a lot to achieve in an hour, so what would you like to start with?
We also need to be aware of our own potential expectations of a session. How open minded are we before a session? Has our preparation beforehand set up too many expectations of how a session will go, only to find that it takes a completely different turn? How often do we hope that writers don’t ask us about certain topics, or wish that the writer had brought their essay or assignment details, even if they can tell us everything we need to know? Again, maybe we need to learn to recognise our thinking, and learn how to wipe the slate clean, so that we can come to each session fresh and ready for anything.
But how can we deal with the dissatisfaction that we, and others, feel?
Ways to alleviate or avoid dissatisfaction
We can change our expectations. Fay is right: how can we enjoy a gruelling essay, for instance, which is usually how we rate satisfaction? But it pushes us, and we feel great afterwards, having learned a lot, improved our skills, and boosted our employability.
Breaking a habit, such a negative thinking, can be achieved more easily by relearning a new more positive one. So, instead of allowing a writer to complain about things, we can reflect with them on how smoothly a session activity is going, or focus on what they have already achieved, and what they learned from this session that they didn’t know at the start. We can ask them – and ourselves – to think of three positives about an otherwise negative situation or problem, and we can turn ‘what if’ statements from worries into hope: what if I get an A? What if it’s a really fun session?
And a really great message from the training was that managing dissatisfaction is not about ignoring or avoiding the negatives in life, but an attempt to stop looking for them, and look for positives instead.
In the School of Psychology, they’ve also come up with a great structured model for dealing with dissatisfaction too (along the same lines as the skills you pick up if you work in customer service for long enough!). As this is a public blog, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the more background to a problem you can get, and the more questions you ask someone with a complaint, the better you are both able to move forward to resolve whatever the issue is.
A mentoring example
So, to put this advice into practice, let’s take a possible example in the mentoring context.
A writer comes to a session to complain about the grade and feedback they got for an essay recently. First of all, is the dissatisfaction really about the grade and feedback? Is the feedback, for instance, when you read it yourself, way too vague and lacking in examples, or too personal, maybe too negative? Or is the writer’s problem based more on how the feedback makes them feel guilty about staying out late the night before the essay deadline, or that they simply disagreed with a tutor about an interpretation of the material, or perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed by other things and this grade just isn’t helping?
Asking questions – as with everything in mentoring 😉 – helps a lot here. We need to establish, for example, what the situation is, what the mentee knows already, if they have already spoken to the tutor about the feedback, and whether they have re-read the essay in light of the feedback, to check if it makes sense? Is there any background to the situation that the writer might not even know? If a tutor is suddenly curt, for instance, have they had their own crisis to deal with recently?
Once you know what the writer’s issue is, then you can start discussing with the mentee how to resolve it. But it’s important that they come up with some possible solutions of their own here, especially if it appears that the writer simply wishes to complain about everything and dismisses all of your suggestions, because maybe they just wanted to vent. Asking the writer to come up with ideas of their own can shift the onus of resolving the problem to the dissatisfied person, while allowing them a feeling of empowerment, helping them to narrow down the session topic, and it can show a person how difficult it is to change a situation sometimes. Maybe, for instance, the marking criteria is fixed for a reason, and they just didn’t meet it in a particular area. But this is something they can learn to do for next time. Or maybe they’d like a chance to resubmit on a different topic, and this is something they can discuss with their School? Alternatively, the writer decides they want to learn how to better structure an argument, and then they’ve definitely come to the right place.
Following this discussion, it’s worth making an action plan, as we do on each of our Appointment Record Forms, for how the writer can take the matter forward, positively, such discussing the feedback with the tutor, or by analysing the feedback and choosing two major things to work on for the next essay.
Thus, a lot of what we do already reflects this training. But I think what I really learned the other day was both why these actions are so important, and also how to recognise our deep-seated perceptions and feelings that can lead to dissatisfaction and complaining. Also, how to approach these impressions and expectations head on with focussed questions, to see that ‘in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’ – Albert Einstein.