Academic Using Restorative Practices to Get the Mentoring You Need

By Angie N. Ocampo

Having good mentors has been crucial to navigating graduate school and enhancing my overall experience as a PhD student. Mentors provide professional and personal support on multiple aspects of the graduate experience such as coursework, research, and careers. As I wrap up my final year of graduate school, I noticed that I receive different kinds of mentorship from different mentors, so it has been helpful for me to rely on several people to fulfill my personal and professional mentorship needs.

In the fall of 2020, I attended a workshop on managing difficult conversations and nurturing relationships with advisors facilitated by Restorative Practices @ Penn. I learned the importance of being an active mentee and how establishing good communication strategies is key to getting the mentoring you need. I also learned to consider how a mentor’s perspective may differ from my own, and how taking this into account can make for a more productive mentor-mentee relationship in the long run. Here are a few steps that you can take in order to evaluate your mentorship needs and whether they are being met.

A cloud with the word MENTORING and arrows pointing radially outward to a speech bubble with an 'i' inside over ADVICE, a person waving hi over SUCCESS, a street sign over DIRECTION, a person over COACHING, hands shaking over SUPPORT, a bullseye over GOAL, a person pointing to a screen over TRAINING, a thumbs up over MOTIVATION


Defining your goals

First, start by considering your goals. Focus on your own needs and think about the best way for those needs to be met. For example, are you looking for career advice or options, help with specific research questions and grant applications, or making connections with potential collaborators? It is helpful to reflect on your priorities, your learning and work style, as well as how you prefer to communicate, so you can discuss these preferences with a potential advisor. Second, consider these questions from the perspective of your mentor. Is this particular mentor the correct person to help you with this specific priority? How can I work with this mentor’s communication preferences to ensure we are getting the most out of our time together? Try to focus on meeting each other where you are so you can get your needs met.

Ensuring your mentoring needs are met

Having ongoing communication with your mentors is helpful to ensuring a fruitful mentor-mentee relationship. At some points, you may feel like your mentor is not providing you with enough guidance, or you may disagree with what they have asked you to do. You may also be confused or unsure about your plans, goals, and expectations.

When this happens, it is important to initiate a conversation. This can seem intimidating or difficult for many reasons such as finding the right time, your confidence in approaching the issue, concern or anxiety over the response or potentially negative feedback, and the power imbalance in the general mentor-mentee relationship. To initiate the conversation, consider asking your mentor if you can set up a time to discuss your semester plan and use that as an opener to discuss your concerns.

It is helpful to remind yourself that your perspective may be different from your mentor’s. Empathy can help you approach a conversation in a way that allows for open dialogue.  Avoid blaming and anger, and consider how you can attack the problem, rather than the person. Make “I” statements, practice active listening, and express a desire to move forward. Here are a few key steps to maximize your conversation with your mentor, with some sample language.

  1. Consider how you frame issues. Try to frame issues using neutral (non-blaming) language, that does not contain judgment or assume one person’s version of the facts. Break up broad issues into more specific, easily handled sub-issues. “I” statements are key in helping you express this effectively. You can also practice positive communication.
  • Let’s discuss timing for meetings/meeting schedule.
  • Let’s discuss roles for the project.
  • Let’s understand the optimal organizational structure for each person.
  • Let’s talk about communication.
  • Let’s talk about optimal office layout.
  • I don’t agree.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I feel excluded from the decision-making process.
  • I view things a bit differently.
  • I am frustrated that we didn’t get to discuss my agenda item at this meeting.
  1. Ask open-ended questions driven by curious inquiry, rather than using questions to reinforce already formulated assumptions. Avoid questions with yes or no answers.
  • Can you say more about that?
  • Describe the circumstances to me, if you can.
  • Can you explain what you mean when you say that she is inconsiderate?
  • Can you walk me through your thought process?
  • When and where does this impact you the most?
  • What are some of the options that you think will work best for you?
  1. Practice active listening. Listen to understand your mentor’s perspective, needs, and concerns. Listen to constructive comments carefully and ask questions to clarify or learn more.
  • Encourage your mentor to share their perspective as fully as possible. I want to understand what has upset you or I want to know what you are really hoping for.
  • Clarify the real issues, rather than making assumptions. Ask questions so you can learn and let your mentor know you are trying to understand. Can you say more about that?
  • Restate what you have heard, so you are both able to see what has been understood so far. It may be that the other person will then realize that additional information is needed. It sounds like you weren’t expecting that to happen.
  • Reflect feelings and be as clear as possible. I can imagine how upsetting that must have been.
  • Validate the concerns of the other person, even if a solution seems elusive. Expressing appreciation can be a very powerful message if it is conveyed with integrity and respect. I am glad we are trying to figure this out or I really appreciate that we are talking about this issue.
  1. Be creative in problem-solving. Create systems and options that work best for you. What systems do you need to put in place to avoid future conflict? You may find it helpful to create scheduled meetings at a time that will work – putting a reminder system in place up-front is helpful so that the reminder is not seen as rude, just planned. You may also find it helpful to create a joint agenda before meetings in a shared document.

Developing improved communication to foster a better mentor-mentee relationship is an ongoing process and will involve more than one conversation. Building these communication strategies into every relationship, even those that are going well, is a sure way to get the mentoring you need.

To learn more about Restorative Practices @ Penn and their services for members of the Penn community, contact Pablo Cerdera ( or Marcia Glickman (

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