Handling Conflicts with Mentors

What do you do if you have a conflict with a mentor or supervisor?  Veterinary medicine is such a small field, you can’t afford to upset anyone.  Also, conflict is unpleasant.  Also also, you can learn something about yourself and grow as a human being.  So, you have a problem with one of your mentors.  Now what?

  1. Reflect on your feelings.  What are you upset or frustrated about?  Why are you upset?  What led to your feelings?  Could you be the problem?  “If you meet one jerk, maybe they’re the jerk.  If you meet five jerks, maybe you’re the jerk.”
  2. Find an opportunity to casually speak to them.  I think the best time is when they are alone in their office and you can drop by.  Ask, “Do you have time to talk?”  Once they give permission, you can have a seat and open with, “I’d like to talk about how I’ve been feeling lately.”
  3. Phrase things in an “I feel” way and ask questions to seek understanding.  “I feel like I haven’t been getting the direction I’d like from you,”  “I feel bad when you put me down in front of the students,”  “I feel that I have a hard time bringing things to you.”  Try not to externalize or assume their own motivations or behavior.  Don’t say “You don’t teach me”, “You make fun of me”, “You don’t listen to me.”  Seek understanding.  “I was wondering what your preferred approach is to teaching me,” “How do you think I feel when you call me out in front of the students,” “How do you want me to bring issues to you.”
  4. Remain calm.  If you feel like you can’t remain calm OR can’t approach this individual, you may speak first to a mentor you have a closer relationship with or the program director.  DO NOT go to the person’s supervisor (e.g. department head) unless there is a serious grievance (e.g. harassment, abuse).
  5. Consider involving an ombudsman.  These people are trained in conflict management.  I would probably pursue this path if you have an initial chat with the mentor and it doesn’t go well.  I would suggest something like, “Would you be willing to meet with me and an ombudsman to discuss things?”
  6. If you don’t get anywhere with reasoned, calm discussions where you are talking about your feelings and asking questions, definitely approach other mentors or the program supervisor.  DON’T make yourself alone or isolated.  Unless you are the problem (see #1), there’s certainly someone who is able and willing to help you.

I had a conflict with one of my mentors during my residency where I felt like I couldn’t talk to them about some things.  I felt intimidated about speaking to them and so talked to a different mentor.  The person with whom I had a conflict found out and was subsequently even more upset.  So I learned then: the first step is to sit down and talk.  Assume the mentor’s an RFHB.  If they’re a narcissistic sociopath, keep your head down and just Get Through It.  I’ve had to do that, too, and it’s no fun.  Fortunately, in veterinary medicine, you generally have plenty of professional opportunities.  Don’t stay long-term in a terrible situation.

2 comments on “Handling Conflicts with Mentors

  1. - Post author

    From an anonymous reading:
    Seeking out therapists/mental health counseling is huge also in addition to ombudspeople in these situations. I think whether it is 1 on 1 or group therapy, both are highly beneficial resources. I think often as the trainee being in this situation is very disempowering, and I think having those resources to process is very important.

    • - Post author

      This is fantastic advice and I am sorry I missed it! I am a huge proponent of mental health professionals and seeking them out whenever you are experiencing undue stress or unhappiness in your life.

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