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Difficult Issues in Mentoring: Recommendations on Making the Undiscussable Discussable

Bickel, Janet MA; Rosenthal, Susan L. PhD

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31822c0df7

Many mentoring relationships do not reach fruition because the individuals fail to bridge a critical difference. When a difference prevents a learning partnership from achieving its potential, the loss is multidimensional for the individuals and the institution—wasting opportunities for the fostering of current and future talent. Insights into when such impasses are likely to arise may help both mentors and mentees address what feels “undiscussable.” The authors offer numerous examples of how differences related to ethnicity, language, gender, and generation may interfere with the development of mentoring relationships. Next, the authors offer recommendations on preparing for and handling difficult conversations, including creating safety, noticing assumptions and emotions, and raising sensitive issues. Virtually all faculty can become more effective at communicating across differences and addressing difficulties that prevent mentoring relationships from achieving their potential. The pay-offs for these efforts are indisputable: increased effect in the limited time available for mentoring, an expanded legacy of positive influence, and enhanced communication and leadership skills. The honing of these relational skills enhances the colleagueship and teamwork on which virtually all research, clinical, and educational enterprises depend. Academic health centers that systematically support mentoring enhance institutional stability, talent development, and leadership capacity.

Author Information

Ms. Bickel is career and leadership development coach and consultant, Falls Church, Virginia, and adjunct assistant professor of medical education, George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC.

Dr. Rosenthal is professor of behavioral medicine (in pediatrics and psychiatry) and vice chair for faculty development, Department of Pediatrics, Columbia University Medical Center-College of Physicians and Surgeons, and New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, New York, New York.

Correspondence should be addressed to Ms. Bickel, 7407 Venice St., Falls Church, VA 22043; telephone: (703) 876-0111; e-mail:

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges