At the Heart of Mentorship, a Q&A with Dr. Hilary Dutton

Dr. Hilary Dutton is a Pākehā/Māori (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) youth development researcher at the University of Canterbury. Her research focuses on the relational processes that contribute to developing high quality mentoring relationships, particularly self-disclosure. In 2021 she was awarded a Rutherford Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship to undertake a two-year project exploring youth perspectives on disclosure in youth-adult helping relationships. She is also a board member for the New Zealand Youth Mentoring Network. Our Assistant Editor, Saniya Soni, spoke with Dr. Dutton about her recent study on the use of observational dyadic methods to investigate the role of self-disclosure in predicting relationship quality.

Saniya: Self-disclosure has been a hot topic in the world of therapy and mentoring. But we’ve been limited, as you point out in your recent study, by a lack of research and reliance on self-reports. What made you interested in exploring the impact of self-disclosure on relationship quality in mentoring?  

Dr. Dutton: The initial seed for thinking about disclosure came from informal conversations with colleagues at the beginning of my PhD. I already had a strong interest in looking at relationship quality, and self-disclosure is an integral part of human relationships as we seek to build connections with other people. Good relationships are at the heart of mentoring practice and understanding those dyadic processes that support relationship development can facilitate better, more effective mentoring. On a personal level, it was also something I had grappled with when I was a youth mentor, in terms of deciding whether or not to disclose particular things about myself, and also in reflecting on how much I was unconsciously relying on disclosure to grow our relationship.  

When I looked at the literature it quickly became apparent that there was no dedicated research on self-disclosure in our field at all. There was a wealth of knowledge from social and clinical psychology that clearly demonstrates the link between disclosure and relationships qualities like closeness and trust. While I use theoretical frameworks from these fields, the empirical research was largely done with adults (e.g., in romantic relationships) and in my view, the unique dynamics of adults and young people disclosing to each other in a mentoring context deserved a closer look.  

Saniya: A common struggle for mentors is deciding when to disclose and when not to. Your findings highlight the importance of intimate mentor disclosures in fostering higher mentee relationship quality. Were there any specific types or themes of intimate disclosures that seemed to have a more significant impact on the relationship, and how did they contribute to the sense of closeness between mentors and mentees? 

Dr. Dutton: Intimacy is incredibly important because it progresses the feelings of closeness and trust. Intimacy is often coupled with vulnerability and by sharing those more sensitive or private aspects of ourselves, we are communicating to our partner that we trust them with our more vulnerable selves. The value of having research done with mentoring pairs is that we can better understand what intimacy looks like in this specific context. As we were coding this data, higher intimacy occurred with disclosures with heightened emotions, such as talking about family conflict, illness and grief. However, it isn’t just about disclosing intimate topics, but actually expressing the meaning of those experiences and emotions with the mentee. For instance, we observed one mentor say they were feeling sad about a relationship breakup, but they quickly moved on to another topic so little intimacy was actually expressed in that interaction. In contrast, we had a mentor talk in some detail about how they were affected by the death of a grandparent which was more intimate because the mentor revealed a fuller picture of their emotional experience. 

I think mentees respond positively to these kinds of disclosures for two reasons. First, adolescence is often characterized as a time of intense emotions, so mentors talking about complex and difficult emotions can validate what mentees are going through developmentally. Second, I think mentors sharing emotional intimacy and vulnerability with mentees feels special because they may not have other adults who open up to them in this way. Disclosure can be a potent signal to mentees that mentors are putting trust into the hands of mentees, which also connects to the idea of mutuality which has long been identified as a cornerstone of mentoring relationships.  

Saniya: While greater mentee openness was correlated with higher mentor relationship quality, more intimate mentee disclosures were associated with lower mentee relationship quality. Can you elaborate on these differential effects in the relationship? What can mentors and mentoring programs take away from these findings?  

Dr. Dutton: The intimacy findings showed that while mentees like receiving intimate disclosure from mentors as I just described, they may not be ready or willing to engage in similarly intimate disclosures. They might feel too shy or vulnerable to disclose themselves, but they are nonetheless able to understand the messages being sent by mentors when mentors are doing the intimate disclosure. While disclosure is typically reciprocal, this is an example where the unique nature of youth-adult relationships changes that dynamic. Mentors should bear that in mind: just because you’re not getting same kind of disclosure in return (as we would expect in other relationships), doesn’t mean mentees aren’t responding positively to disclosure.  

The finding about mentee openness was interesting because it was the only dimension that seemed to impact on mentor assessments of the relationship. I think it’s a sign that mentors have sensitive expectations about mentee disclosure. Rather than focusing on the content of the disclosure as a barometer for relationship quality, they looked for verbal and non-verbal signs that the mentee was being authentic and wanted the mentor to know them. Mentees can communicate this, even when the disclosures are low intimacy, and mentors were picking up on it. 

Saniya: More intimate mentor disclosure was associated with higher mentee relationship quality, whereas higher amount of mentor disclosure combined with low intimacy was associated with lower mentee relationship quality. How can mentors be encouraged to make meaningful disclosures that promote youth empowerment and empathy without burdening their mentees? 

Dr. Dutton: One of the things we observed in our data was that some mentors would disclose a lot at a low-intimacy level and as a result, dominated the conversation with little room for mentees to contribute. Sometimes this happened out of good intentions, as mentors were offering the disclosures in an effort to find something the mentee would connect to. However, it can shut mentees out of the conversation.  

I am currently working on another self-disclosure study, where I have interviewed young people about their experiences of giving and receiving disclosure to an important adult in their life. I’m in the midst of analysis as we speak, but hearing directly from young people has been enlightening. Both empathy and the emotional burden of receiving disclosure have come up in these conversations—my participants are cognizant of the inherent inequality of these relationships and appreciate those caring adults who are able to find the balance between sharing enough to make the young people feel seen, understood and validated, without putting them in a position to have to comfort and support the mentor themselves. 

Saniya: And finally, the study’s use of behavioral observation and dyadic modeling to examine the associations between self-disclosure and relationship quality seems like a novel approach. For the researchers in our audience, could you elaborate on why these methods were chosen over more traditional self-report methods? What advantages do they offer in understanding the dynamics of mentor-mentee communication? 

Dr. Dutton: Behavioral observation is a really special method that comes with some challenges. My co-authors Kelsey Deane and Nickola Overall have lots of experience using observation in social psychology, and Kelsey led the Youth-Adult Partnerships (Y-AP) Observational Study to bring those methods to a youth mentoring setting. One of the major benefits is that you capture interactions in real-time. For communication processes like disclosure, the way dyads talk and interact is rich in information about how they relate to one another, but is also dynamic and shifts very quickly—people don’t always realize what cues they are sending to their partner and these are missed in self-report. Instead of relying on individual memories and interpretations that can be influenced by participant biases, we can actually see what behaviors are happening. Observation is therefore much better suited to trying to understand complex, fluid interactions compared to self-report methods.  

However, behavioral observation is labor and time intensive. It requires expertise and special equipment (e.g., a laboratory with videos and microphones) which can be expensive. But, if it is designed well, the data has longevity and depth that makes the investment worthwhile. As the interactions are recorded on video, they can be revisited to look for different kinds of behaviors, or apply different theoretical perspectives. For a field focused on understanding meaningful relationships, there are few better ways to understand those relationships than actually seeing them in action.