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Mentoring Using Motivational Interviewing: One Path to Becoming a Quality Mentor

1 September 2016 420 views No Comment

Mary Kwasny

Mary Kwasny

Mary Kwasny realized she was leaning more toward being a mentor than a mentee about the same time she realized progressive lenses (bifocals) were a fabulous invention. While her main focus (pun intended) is on being a great collaborator and teacher, she quickly realized great mentoring was vital to ensuring the sustainability of the profession. She is always happy to share her thoughts on the balance she found between the Socratic method and ‘shoulder to cry on,’ but also warns this is a work in progress and apologizes to her prior mentees, who may not have benefited from this current research.


Colleen Stiles-Shields

Colleen Stiles-Shields

Colleen Stiles-Shields jokes that she enjoys multidisciplinary work so much that she decided to become multidisciplinary herself. She is a licensed clinical social worker and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, who recently defended her dissertation on mobile apps for depression. She has been mentored by a variety of talented psychologists, social workers, engineers, and statisticians (in particular, Mary Kwasny).


Lately, there has been much ado about mentoring. Perhaps it is just that I have entered that mid-late phase in my career where one is more prone to be asked to be a mentor, or perhaps it is because the literature has become replete with results from surveys that conclude that employees want mentoring.

I believe changes in the workforce that have many benefits have also spurred the need for mentorship. When people used to work at the same company for most of their working lives, the company was responsible for training and promotion. Now, as the workplace has become more volatile, mentorship becomes more important as a means toward professional development.

There are several forms mentoring can take. I serve on the Mentor Development Academy at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This program focuses on guiding residents, fellows, or junior faculty through productive work experiences, promotion, and possible tenure, with the ultimate goal of increasing productivity and retention.

While these are great goals for mentorship programs within an organization, they may not serve well for mentorship programs within a profession.

Personally, I like the idea of the mentorship programs at the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) or the ASA’s Conference on Statistical Practice (CSP), aiming at sustaining the profession and focusing on bringing the best out of our more junior colleagues.

With this noble goal in mind, I started to examine different mentorship techniques and tools, looking at both my own and others’ experiences, as well as researching materials that were available for mentoring in medical schools and mentorship as a whole.

As part of the Mentor Development Academy, we offer roundtable experiences to discuss mentoring skills. Again, these tend to 1) focus on good communication skills, assessing understanding and aligning expectations, and 2) have the overarching goals of getting mentees to be productive and engage in discussions to ensure this productivity is the “right” type to achieve promotion and tenure.

For example, for a great teacher who loves to spend time in the classroom, but will only be promoted with first author publications, mentoring would focus on ensuring her efforts in and out of the classroom are steered toward activities that can lead to publication.

Within that context, I asked a senior mentor, “What makes a good mentor?” The reply was almost an instantaneous “active listening.” When I returned to my desk, I reached out to one of my behavioral psychology collaborators, explained my original query, and asked, “What makes a good active listener?” Her response was to go research motivational interviewing. Then, I ordered the third edition of Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick.

In the interim 24 hours, courtesy of Amazon Prime, I pretty much convinced myself I wasn’t sure what I was researching anymore, so I picked up my old Greek notes and went to the first use of the term “mentor.” For those who were not as lucky as I to take Homeric Greek and translate (poorly) the Odyssey: Mentor was a friend of Odysseus. Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War and asked Mentor to watch over his son, Telemachus. Athena wanted to counsel and incite Telemachus to fend off suitors of Penelope, so she disguised herself as Mentor to meet with him. Mentor introduces Telemachus to king Nestor, from whom he learns to behave as a son and heir of a great king. From this story, I saw three key particulars for mentoring: beneficence, encouragement, and assistance with networking.

Motivational interviewing (MI), I later learned, was a counseling approach, in part developed by clinical psychologists in the late 1980s. Originally evolving from experiences in the treatment of problem drinkers, MI is now used to help patients move toward behavior change across a variety of behavioral health concerns. The layperson’s definition is that MI is a collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change. The key words of this approach are equality, understanding, and empowering. The key aspects of the MI spirit are the following:

  • Absolute worth—prizing the inherent worth and potential of every human being
  • Accurate empathy (watch over?)—an active interest in an effort to understand the other’s internal perspective
  • Autonomy support (counsel?)—honoring and respecting each person’s irrevocable right and capacity for self-direction
  • Affirmation (incite/network?)—to seek and acknowledge the person’s strengths and efforts

Now, while I am not suggesting mentees have the same issues as problem drinkers, I believe mentees do have ambivalence about changes, and hence are seeking mentorship. It is addressing this ambivalence that is similar to a counselor-client relationship. There are (at least) two extremes as to how a mentor might approach the relationship. On the one hand, a mentor can be distant and engage minimally with a mentee, serving more or less as a checkpoint. On the other hand, a mentor can be overly eager and “advisorial.” That is, if a mentee were to pose an idea such as “I’m thinking about going back to school to get my PhD,” an eager [possibly academic] mentor might recall how great an experience that was for her career, consider the current structure of academia and the limits a master’s degree may pose, and start giving advice about how to get into a top school or talk about how much more freedom a PhD might give the mentee.

However, the mentee may have many possible reasons for thinking about getting a PhD that have little to do with the actual training a PhD program may provide. Perhaps the mentee liked the structure of taking courses, compared to a current work situation, which may be remedied by taking a few courses. Perhaps he wants to learn a few new techniques for data analysis, which may be addressed by webinars or continuing education courses. Perhaps he feels he would have more independence with a PhD, which may be alleviated by switching work environments or looking into PStat® accreditation.

Without taking the time to learn about what the intrinsic motivation is to go back to school, a mentor may completely miss the mark in helping her mentee. Assessing motivation and ambivalence can promote optimal mentoring.

There are four processes in MI: engaging, focusing, evoking, and planning. Here, I will define each of these processes and the pitfalls to avoid, or skills to improve the mentor’s ability to use these processes. MI is a process in itself. I have found that being cognizant of these processes has helped me become a better mentor, but I know I am far from being a certified motivational interviewer. I have asked Colleen Stiles-Shields, a licensed clinical social worker and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, to ensure that these definitions are consistent with MI theory, as she was the collaborator who turned me in that direction.


Many of us, at some point, have engaged in collaborations with investigators. Most successful collaborations start with establishing a helpful connection and working relationship. The same is true with mentoring. There are two common pitfalls in engagement to avoid—and that many statisticians are at risk of making. The first is assessing.

In consultations, assessing may be a good thing (e.g., What is your research question? What data do you want to collect?). The problem with assessing too much in mentoring is that it leads to a passive role of the mentee. Indeed, in over-assessing, a question-answer pattern typically occurs. This increases the feeling of a hierarchy (i.e., the mentor is the questioner and the mentee must provide acceptable answers) and decreases the odds of any in-depth exploration of mentee issues.

The second pitfall is premature focus. Many times, we are under time pressure and hope to identify a problem, help solve it, and move on. With mentoring, the discovery of the issue at hand is mostly to be done by the mentee through hearing himself talk about issues. The goal you hear might not be the real issue (e.g., “Oh, you want to go back to graduate school? Great! Here is a site that describes the programs!”).

To avoid these pitfalls, it helps to practice reflective listening. One acronym to help describe that practice is OARS (Open-ended questions, Affirming, Reflecting, and Summarizing). The acronym, itself, has been used as a metaphor for the style: One has the power to move and gently steer a ship with an oar, but it is far removed from the power of a motor. OARS are great techniques for mentoring, as well as many other types of collaborating.

Open-ended questions help create an atmosphere of interest. It is difficult for many people to meet and connect with strangers. When we are intimidated, it is easy to answer simple questions … simply. The more adept you become at asking questions that “expect” more than a short answer, the more you become a conversation starter. A simple change from “Where did you go to school?” to “Tell me about your experience in school.” turns a simple question into a larger opportunity to start a discussion.

Once the conversation starts, genuine affirmations can help build rapport. Recall situations in which you felt you were rambling, but someone chimed in, “That’s great. What happened next?” It shows you are not only listening, but engaged in the story. This is slightly different than reflecting.

Reflective listening is key to this whole process. In its simplicity, you are rephrasing what you just heard while probing for more information. Reflective listening might be “simple,” where you simply restate the issue to learn more about it: “So you want to go back to school.” Or, it can be more complex. For example, a mentor can choose to use a double-sided reflection, in which she acknowledges the mentee’s current conflict(s) and pairs it with statements the mentee has made in the past. In light of a mentee’s concerns over going back to school, a mentor might reflect, “On the one hand, you’re worried about how much time and money school will cost, while on the other you think the long-term benefits of going back to school align well with your career goals.” By reflective listening, you can really explore what you believe to be conflicts between desires and beliefs.

Summarizing can help in mentoring and collaborative situations. Essentially, it is similar to reflective listening, but summarizing might be better used to complete part of a conversation, or even a meeting. Summarizing what the issues are that led a mentee to mentoring, or summarizing goals the mentee hopes to achieve or the ground rules to the mentoring relationship (e.g., when to meet, how often to meet, how best to contact), can be useful to both parties to ensure the mentor heard what the mentee said and the mentee said what the mentee meant!


The process of becoming clear about path and direction is known as focusing. One of the ideas from the Mentor Development Academy is to have the mentee set an agenda for each meeting. While for an adviser-type relationship, this might be sufficient, it might be useful in a mentoring relationship to also include the mentee’s hopes, fears, expectations, and concerns. If a mentee has many goals, helping him prioritize those goals can lead to more productive interactions. If the mentee is unsure about goals, reflective listening can help define a set of finite options.

Once a list of finite objectives exists, “agenda mapping” can be a good tool to use to help prioritize goals. This can include actual visual aids—as in jotting down all possible options and agreeing on priorities—or simply an open discussion with a clear summary. Once clear focus exists, the process can continue to evolve.


Perhaps the hardest part of mentoring is to evoke. Most mentees (most people) have some degree of ambivalence about making changes. As a mentor, it is important to not get ahead of the mentee’s readiness for change. To assess how ambivalent the mentee is, it is important to listen to what he says. If most of what he says is about desire, ability, reasons, or needs for changing, then he is still in preparation for change. At this point, you want to use reflective questions to encourage this contemplation and preparation for change: Why do you need to change? What are your reasons for changing?

Moving ahead to mobilizing this change is not appropriate because the mentee simply is not ready. The key is for the motivation to come from the mentee—not the mentor. To move toward the mobilizing phase, ask the mentee to quantify his importance for the change. Follow up by asking why the importance is not lower. This, ideally, will evoke why change is important to the mentee.

Query extremes: What will happen if you don’t do this? What will happen if you do make the change? In three years, what do you think things will be like if you change? Was this something on your radar three years ago? Remember, people are more committed to what they actually hear themselves say.

When the mentee is close to being ready to mobilize, help him identify and affirm his strengths. Review his past successes, brainstorm a few “hows,” reframe failures, and start hypothetical thinking (e.g., “You’ve done really well at X in the past. How could you use that skill here?”). In moving toward change, it is important to maintain equipoise. Otherwise, you can easily become a cheerleader or problem solver. But you will be a much more effective mentor if you lead the mentee toward his solution and have him identify it.


Once the mentee reaches the stage of planning for change, MI tools can help strengthen the commitment to the plan and offer support throughout the process. It is important to continually confirm the goal with the mentee (it could certainly change, and it remains important that the mentor and mentee are still talking about the same goal). Help the mentee develop options to reach his goal, or have him troubleshoot possible barriers to what he may believe is a clear plan. Being a resource to help the mentee network is fine, but having him make the contact is vital to his professional growth.

MI can be a powerful tool in becoming a better mentor. Knowing the full story as to why a person is seeking mentorship can only help strengthen the bond between mentor and mentee. Understanding goals and fears and evoking solutions from a mentee lead to empowering him in that interaction. The one “downside” to this idea is that success of a program is hard to measure objectively. In the Mentor Development Academy, success relates to retention, promotion, and tenure. In a professional mentor situation, the personal decisions one makes for their “best” self may be to change employment, which may be seen as a failure from a corporate perspective. If only happiness and self-fulfillment could be objectively measured!

I have had many mentoring relationships—some good, some bad. Some of my mentors had no idea I considered them mentors, nor did they “try” to be one necessarily. Usually it was a “random” conversation that led me to think about a change I wanted to make, ambivalence in making it, and then “what do you think”-type conversations with others when I was ready to make them.

The ASA mentoring programs at CSP and JSM offer a great opportunity to make connections with others. If you are a senior-level statistician, consider mentoring a mid- or junior-level statistician. If you are a mid-career statistician, consider mentoring a junior-level statistician. Junior statisticians can start getting involved in ASA programs (JSM docents, chapter or section leadership positions) to help build their experiences so they can become mentors in a few years.

Mentoring truly is one way by which we can sustain and grow our profession—and quality mentoring can ensure we are all in our best positions to help anchor that growth.

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