Characteristics of a Good Mentor: Seeks Understanding & Your Best Interests

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In the Introduction, Scott Santibanez framed a series on mentoring by the below request for advice he had received.

Dear Dr. S, I am an incoming medical/public health student. I recently read one of your papers. From your faculty profile, I see you’ve pursued a career that integrates many of the things that I want to do! I’d love to meet to explore potential opportunities and discuss any career advice you think would be helpful.

In today’s post, he explores the importance of a mentor being Someone Who is Willing to Take the Time to Understand You and Someone Who Has Your Best Interests in Mind. Earlier he explored these characteristics of a good mentor: Someone Who Differs From Your Preconceived Notions, Someone Who is Doing the Things You Want to Do, and Someone with Life Experience


Characteristic 4: Someone Who is Willing to Take the Time to Understand You

Understanding you means becoming familiar with your past. If others aren’t aware of where you are coming from, your life choices may not make sense to them. A good mentor will be interested in how your upbringing and experiences influence your perception of the world and your decisions. This dynamic goes both ways. You also need to understand how your mentor’s background influences his or her worldview and thought process.

Getting to know you also involves having at least a general understanding of your present area of study. A mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in your field. He or she just needs to be familiar enough to:

  • understand what you share
  • be sensitive to situations at work or school that you find stressful or worrisome, and
  • recognize and rejoice with you when you succeed or achieve a milestone

If your faith is an important factor in your life decisions, it is good to have a mentor who recognizes this and can support you in living out what you believe. There are times when God calls us to choose unexpected paths. Our faith sometimes challenges us to do uncomfortable things or to care for people whom others want to avoid. This could mean turning down an opportunity to work in a prestigious lab or a high-profile internship to work in a place that no one has ever heard of. It can be a great blessing to find someone who can pray with you about a decision and let you know, “If this is where you believe God is leading you, then I support you pursuing it.”

Your mentor does not necessarily need to share your faith, your worldview, or your politics in exactly the same way that you do. In fact, it can be useful to interact with someone who sees the world differently from you. However, your mentor should be aware of and respect your beliefs and values. He or she may even benefit from seeing your faith in action.

Characteristic 5: Someone Who Has Your Best Interests in Mind

A good mentor wants to see you do well. However, wanting the best for you doesn’t necessarily mean always telling you that everything you are doing is great. We all sometimes need tough love and in other instances, compassion. What might this look like in a real-life relationship? Here are a few examples:

  • This is a person who cares enough to challenge you to do the right thing when you are faced with a difficult ethical or moral For example, should you stand up for someone who you believe is being treated unfairly at work or in school? Should you take a shortcut to advance your career?
  • Each of us can sometimes become overly focused on our own concerns and needs, leading to immature or arrogant A good mentor will care enough to tactfully point out when we are thinking of ourselves more highly than we should.
  • You might be tempted by bad habitspartying too much, spending beyond your means, or getting involved in dating relationships that are not healthy. A good mentor will care enough to give you a reality check.

In the short-term, it is easy to resent a mentor’s intrusion in these instances. Hopefully, you will trust his or her feedback, make adjustments, and be able to look back over time and appreciate his or her honesty.

A good mentor also knows when to show compassion. Sometimes you need encouragement when you experience doubt or are going through a difficult period. During my medical training, I worked under a physician who was known for his piercing intellect and high standards. One time I was troubled by a poor decision that I had made. Rather than belittling me, he took me aside and encouraged me. He told me to not let it get me down, to learn from it and move on. This meant a lot and helped me to grow.

Finally, a good mentor can help to create a safe space where you are able to reflect on how the knowledge, skills and professional expertise you are gaining in grad school may fit into God’s bigger purposes. Together, you and your mentor can discuss and explore God’s heart for the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. You may gain insights into how grad school and your overall spiritual journey are part of God’s plan to bless others. Gaining perspective on your role in God’s bigger picture is one of the most valuable outcomes of a healthy mentoring relationship.

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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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