Empathy – A Critical Ingredient in Youth Mentoring Relationships?

Renée Spencerby Renee Spencer

Working on a poster my colleagues and I presented at the Society for Research on Adolescence gave me a great excuse to look at the recent psychotherapy literature on empathy. As a clinical social worker, the psychotherapy literature is like a dear old friend to me. I enjoy catching up on the latest news and I always benefit from the wisdom and great insights I find there.

My most recent foray into that literature did not disappoint, as I found an interesting article by Theresa Moyers and William Miller (2013) provocatively titled, Is Low Therapist Empathy Toxic? In it Moyers and Miller make the case for the need to consider empathic listening skills in the training and hiring of counselors. They cite research in which differences between therapists in their empathy skills were more predictive of client outcome than the particular approach being taken to the treatment process. This indicates that basic relational skills, such as empathy, transcend treatment type and may actually serve as a necessary foundation upon which different treatment approaches can then be built. Conversely, they also cite research indicating that a lack of therapist empathy is associated with poorer treatment outcomes, meaning clients of low empathy therapists got worse in treatment rather than better, hence the title of their paper. Although there may be some unexamined variable, such as client motivation, that explains both therapist empathy and client outcome, the robust literature on the core skills of effective therapists demands our attention. As Moyers and Miller (2013) write, “we know of no therapeutic approach where low empathy has been linked to better outcomes in any area of health care” (p. 882).

But what exactly is empathy? Although there has been considerable debate about this for some time, greater consensus is beginning to be reached, bolstered in part by the burgeoning neuroscience research on social connections (Ellison, Bohart, Watson, & Greeberg, 2011). Empathy, long understood to be the ability to understand another person’s experience or view of the world, is now thought to have three parts: (a) an emotional response to the experiences of others, (b) a capacity for taking the other person’s perspective, and (c) and an ability to regulate one’s own emotional response to the experiences of the other person in a way that allows for the mobilization of compassionate and responsive helping behaviors (Ellison et al., 2011, p. 133). That is, empathy is a complex relational process that involves understanding the feelings and perspectives of another person as well as taking action that is experienced by that other person as being responsive to these.

So what does all of this have to do with mentoring? Well, it is hard to imagine a successful mentor who is lacking in empathy. Julia Pryce’s (2012) rich qualitative study of mentor attunement exquisitely documents how mentors vary in their ability to read and attend to the needs of their mentees. As her work shows, mentors need not be perfectly attuned to their mentees at all times, but neither can they be tone deaf. Building a meaningful and positively impactful mentoring relationship requires that mentors open themselves up to learning who the young person they are mentoring is – what they are about and what makes them tick – and finding ways to be responsive to this, whatever form the mentoring relationship may take.

This has implications for the selection, training and support of mentors. Returning to the article with which I began, Moyers and Miller (2013) advocate for the screening and teaching of accurate empathy when selecting therapists. As I have argued elsewhere (Spencer, 2012), the commonly held belief that virtually anyone can be a mentor may not in fact be quite true and more attention needs to be paid in research and practice to determining what it takes to meaningfully engage a young person in the mentoring process. The psychotherapy literature would suggest that empathy could be one critical ingredient.

Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Empathy. In J. C. Norcross (Ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work: Evidence-based responsiveness (pp. 132-148). New York: Oxford University Press.

Moyers, T. B., & Miller, W. R. (2013). Is low therapist empathy toxic? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(3), 878.

Pryce, J. (2012). Mentor attunement: an approach to successful school-based mentoring relationships. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 29(4), 285-305.

Spencer, R. (2012). A working model of mentors’ contributions to youth mentoring relationship quality: Insights from research on psychotherapy. LEARNing Landscapes, 5, 295-312.