A few months ago I was at a study day with a passionate group of student midwives.
One of them was saying they liked Midwife Diaries because it made them realise ‘they weren’t the only one feeling that way’, which is the biggest accolade I could hope for!
I greatly enjoyed my 2 ½ seconds of elation before she added, ‘could you write a post on how to cope with difficult mentors?’ and I plunged back into thoughtful concern.
The joys of having a midwifery blog!
Of course I wanted to write something helpful for student midwives coping with a challenging practice experience because of a mentor.
But I didn’t want to scare students by making it seem like midwifery mentors are all difficult, because this isn’t the case. I also didn't want to criticise midwifery mentors, some of who are close friends and wonderful leaders of the profession.
After a long time thinking, I settled on the opinion that I wanted to write something because these student midwives will be leading the profession themselves in a few years. If I have anything in my head or experience that could be helpful, I want them to have it.
So here we go!
My first suggestion is to try and get into your mentor's shoes.
You may not be able to completely identify with your mentor and their feelings but practising empathy is a great idea and will often help you see why you are clashing.
Think about what it must be like to be them as a person rather than as a ‘clinical mentor’. No-one is a professional on the inside!
How does your mentor feel when she gets up in the morning, how does she do her hair, does she have kids, what does her week look like?
How does she relax? Do you know anything about her hobbies, TV she watches, books she reads?
Is she financially stable or does she have stress in this area?
Has this mentor gone on holiday recently? What was that like?
Is she going through a hard patch right now?
How are her family, friends and kids doing?
Does she go to conferences or midwifery events? What kind of subjects is she most passionate about?
You don’t have to become best friends with your mentor or use the information in any way. This exercise is just about understanding them as a person.
Go on to answer some questions focussed on you, from your mentor’s point of view.
What am I most afraid of in terms of having a student? What about for this student in particular?
What’s the worst situation I could get us into in terms of working together and signing her off?
If everything could go perfectly with this student from now on, what would that look like?
Asking these deep and difficult questions can alert you to skills you need to work on in terms of how you interact with clients, how you document, the most important practical abilities to demonstrate, etc.
You may be able to identify why you’re having problems and address them straight away.
These kinds of questions are difficult to work through but are very effective at revealing the truth of what your mentor is thinking.
The next thing I would suggest is talking to your mentor and asking them how you can improve.
This can feel a bit like jumping off a cliff!
But getting really honest about what’s happening is usually the quickest way to success. It’s often counterintuitively the most comfortable way through, because although asking for feedback is scary, the long drawn out process of wondering if you’re doing ok is worse.
An important fact to note here is that bullying requires a different strategy.
For lots of complex reasons, bullying is sadly more common in midwifery than in other NHS professions.
If there’s any name calling, intimidation, or abuse directed at you, you’ll need to tell a tutor, supervisor, or a qualified midwife you can trust.
This is your responsibility as a student because you can bet if there’s bullying going on in a unit, the care won’t be as good as it could be for the women.
If their behaviour is borderline it’s more difficult to work out what to do.
Sometimes from your point of view, mentors can drop a few harsh comments, when really they are just being passionate and straightforward. The pressure of a clinical situation can get to even experienced midwives and no-one is perfect.
The issue is you have to try and get good experience from every placement.
You’ll need to get your competencies in your book signed off.
And you have to try and make the women in your care feel safe, so you never want to argue with your mentor in front of them. (In fact arguing at all is not professional or a good idea).
There may be some placements where you will need to do your best, and see the experience as a stage in your training rather than a battle to be won.
Constructive criticism is part of learning. But you don’t have to take it to heart.
There’s a difference between listening to criticism, sifting through it and finding the useful learning points - and letting it into your heart and mind.
These days when I’m doing something difficult and new and know I’ll be receiving criticism, I think about the four people in my life whose respect means the most to me. I think about what they'd be saying as they watch me learn.
I recommend everyone makes a list of their 'tribe' and carries it with them. Mine is in my purse. (This is a tip from social worker researcher Brené Brown.)
When I get criticised I think ‘I’ll listen to what you have to say, but you’re not on my list of key people in my life, so your opinion of me isn’t that important’.
In this way you can use the constructive criticism without the sting.
The most important thing to note is if things are getting serious and it looks like you may fail a placement as certain competencies are not being signed off, you need to get your personal tutor involved.
I have seen at least one very talented student in this situation, for complex reasons.
This is scary stuff but get candid and honest about what you need to achieve and make a plan with your mentor/tutor.
Remember, it’s all about the whole journey you are on as a student midwife rather than any one particular placement or event.
Think healthy striving rather than ‘I must achieve this'.
Everyone loves a strong comeback, so make a plan with your mentor and work hard, and you may well find you win more respect than if it had been plain sailing.
Now I'd love to hear from you:
Have you had a difficult experience with a midwifery mentor?
On the flip side, as a midwifery mentor, have you had a difficult student?
Do you have useful strategies or stories to share? Leave me a comment below so we can benefit from each others knowledge.
As always, thanks for reading and commenting, it means a great deal to me. Much Love,