K-12 Corner: "You can't give what you ain't got" - Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring

Three important mentoring tips from a relationship guru

by Jean Rhodes

Relationship expert John Gottman has spent his career defining the attitudes and skills that lead to strong friendships in marriage, many of which apply well to a range of friendships, including mentorships. In the following sections, three core principles of his theory are applied.

  1. Gottman has also described the importance of not only noticing but expressing appreciation for positive attributes. As he notes, it’s basically “a habit of mind that scans our world for things to admire, be proud of in our partner, and appreciate. This is the opposite of a critical habit that scans for our partner’s mistakes. Then the appreciation needs to be expressed verbally or nonverbally—it can’t stay hidden. This is the idea of catching someone doing something right and thanking them for it, of actively building a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship.” Of course, showing positive regard need not translate into “a stream of compliments.”It can often be conveyed just as effectively through listening, speaking in a warm, gentle tone, and maintaining an interested and authentic stance.
  2. Mentors should also create a “roadmap” of their mentees’ inner psychological world, including his or her “hopes, dreams, values, and goals.” This is accomplished by asking questions and remembering the answers. Indeed, we found that 15 year olds described being “gotten” liked, and understood specifically in terms of adults remembering things from previous conversations, e.g., “How did that track meet go? What was your aunt’s wedding like?” These kinds of touch points signal  that the adult was not only fully present during the conversation but internalized it. Adults should ask open-ended questions that they are interested in knowing the answer to, not closed, perfunctory questions.
  3. He also recommends recommends having a “toward” orientation. As he notes  in any interaction, there are countless ways, both verbal and nonverbal, that people let needs be known. They’re making what he calls “bids” for emotional connection: “They are asking for attention, interest, conversation, humor, affection, warmth, assistance support and so on. These tiny moments of emotional connection form an emotional bank account that gets built over time…the fundamental law of turning toward is that it leads to more turning toward.”

Establishing a good working alliance is complicated by the fact that children and adolescents are often referred to mentoring programs by parents or teachers and, in some cases, may not even acknowledge the need for help with anything. When youth feel that their participation is involuntary, they may resist mentors as just another adult authority figure telling them what to do, and mentors who roll up their sleeves too quickly risk losing the relationship. In fact, early resistance is an important signal to mentors to slow down and focus on building an alliance, buy-in, and positive expectations.

There is also the added fact that mentees’ relationships are not only wit youth. Psychologists Marc Karver and Stephen Shirk have studied alliances between therapists and their child and adolescent clients for years, and recently conducted a major meta-analysis with implications for youth mentoring alliances. Across the 28 studies included in their meta-analysis, encompassing 2,419 clients with an average age of around 12 years, the overall effect size of the working alliance was fairly strong. Interestingly, therapists’ relationships with children and adolescents’ parents and caregivers was of the same magnitude as the therapist-youth alliance. This underscores the need for mentors and program staff to build strong ties and mutual expectations not only with youth, but with their parents, caregivers, and/or teachers. Even when mentors feel close with their mentees, a failure to connect with the parent can weaken the relationship, particularly if the parent feels threatened. Psychologist Tom Keller has also highlighted the importance of communication and agreement among stakeholders, noting that there are often four key people (i.e. the youth, the mentor, the mentoring program staff member, and the parent) who should be considered, as any one of these people can strengthen or sabotage the bond. As these findings imply, mentors are more likely to thrive when they feel supported by their program.  Ongoing training can promote more effective, enduring, and higher quality mentoring relationships