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Healthcare Mentoring Matters Pt.3: Establishing Mentee Trust & Safety

By Traci Hanlon MN, RN, Consultant at Creative Health Care Management

In Part II of the HealthStream Mentoring Matters series, I defined the three top priorities for developing a successful mentor/mentee relationship as: 1) defining the mentor/mentee goals, 2) formalizing the goals by writing them out and articulating who is responsible for what, and 3) developing an actionable timeline for accomplishing the agreed upon goals.

Now, let’s discuss the actions you can take to establish trust and safety in your meetings with your mentee.

To help establish trust and safety, it is important to understand the neurobiological underpinnings of how humans connect. In their book See Me as a Person: Creating  Therapeutic Relationships with Patients and Their Families, Mary Koloroutis and Michael Trout use the theory of attachment to explain how, from the time we are born, our brains are hard wired to seek connection with another human being. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. As infants, if we are connected to our primary caregiver, we are more likely to survive; food is more likely to be provided by someone who is deeply connected and concerned for our welfare, protection is more likely to be provided, and emotional support is more likely to be available as we grow and develop. It turns out, connection is an imperative to survive, and on a fundamental level, as adults we subconsciously look for signs of connection and determine in a matter of minutes whether or not someone can be trusted enough for meaningful connection to be possible.

You can see why this fundamental explanation of how people connect applies to the mentoring relationship. As a mentor, we want to give our mentees indications that they can trust us to really be there for them. To this end, there are actions we can consciously employ to connect with our mentee—actions that build trust and connection from a primal place in our development; actions that, if missing, create anxiety, distrust, and an inability to feel connected to us as mentors.

Key strategy #1 for building trust and safety: Be present and focused on your mentee when you meet; be attuned.

As Koloroutis and Trout explain, the first action in building a meaningful relationship is attunement. To be attuned is to be completely present with another, listening intently with our complete focus on the person before us. Misattunement is the opposite. We have all experienced what it feels like to be with someone who feigns interest in what we are doing or saying, but their actions speak a different language. This is the person who answers the phone, glances at a text message, or continues to work on their computer or watch TV, all while claiming to listen to what you are saying. These are just a few examples of misattunement, and although we may not intend to be misattuned, one of the biggest complaints I have had from mentees is the sense that the mentor did not have time for them, or that they were so distracted, the time they had with their mentor felt fragmented and not valuable.

Key strategy #2 for building trust and safety: Be curious about those things you are most likely to jump to conclusions or judgments about; learn to wonder.

The second action that builds relationships is wondering. Wondering is the act of setting our assumptions, judgments, and conclusions aside so that we are open to being truly curious about a situation, response, or attitude of another. Wondering allows us to be open to the idea that everyone has a backstory or experience that has led them to where they are, and our job as a mentor is to accept the mentee where they are and provide a way for them to see things differently without providing “our” answers, judgments, or conclusions. Wondering allows us to engage in a different kind of critical thinking, and in doing so provides the safety for our mentee to show up with their flaws, vulnerabilities, and sometimes even their bad behaviors, knowing that we will be the compassionate witness and guide, not the judge and jury.

Key strategy #3 for building trust and safety # 3: Learn to follow.

The third action is what Koloroutis and Trout call following. Following is the principle of letting the mentee lead the direction of where a mentoring discussion will go. Many times as a mentor, we feel the need to give advice, to fix, or to share a similar experience we’ve had as a way to provide insight. This type of communication is not always inappropriate, but it can shut down the reflection, critical thinking, and problem solving capabilities of our mentee. It conveys the message: “You’re not capable of figuring this out without my help.” Learning to be supportive by truly listening, asking meaningful questions based on what your mentee is telling you, such as: “Wow, that’s a difficult situation, what do you think is the best course of action?” and letting the mentee find their own truth is a key strategy to helping them be good critical thinkers and problem solvers.

Key strategy #4 for building trust and safety: “Hold” your mentees by being truly devoted to them.

The fourth and last action is holding. Holding is a practice of being devoted to the well-being of your mentee as well as the preservation of his or her dignity. It is the idea that we are so committed to another’s success that we consciously, and with intention, engage in acts that uphold the integrity of the relationship at all times. This could be the simple act of not talking about difficulties your mentee is having with another or providing support and comfort beyond the professional realm of advice in times of personal stress or adversity. Holding is the act of genuinely caring about someone and having your actions reflect that.

See Me as a Person: Creating Therapeutic Relationships with Patients and Their Families defines these actions in the context of how caregivers can genuinely connect with their patients; however I see these actions as foundational to the mentor/mentee relationship as a way to create a sacred space where learning, empowerment, and success are the outcomes.-

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Traci Hanlon MN, RN is a consultant with Creative Healthcare Management and specializes in preceptor, nursing orientation, and transition to practice program development.

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