Identifying key features of mentor self-disclosure in the context of youth mentoring

Dutton, H., Deane, K. L., & Bullen, P. (2020). Opening up: An exploration of youth mentor self-disclosure using laboratory-based direct observation. Children and Youth Services Review, 108, 104654.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Self-disclosure helps strengthen existing relationships as well as help create new ones
  • Despite the importance of having close mentoring relationships in youth mentoring, there’s a lack of research on the role that self-disclosure plays in mentoring relationships 
  •  Specific strategies and skills mentors can use to help establish close, trusting relationships with their mentees are also understudied.This current work aims to identify the main features of mentor self-disclosure by facilitating a laboratory-based observation project
  • Video recordings of 42 mentor-mentee pairs were analyzed 
  • Findings indicate that mentors orient self-disclosure towards the mentee by finding things that they have in common, offering advice, and practicing interpersonal disclosure
  • Results also showed that mentors geared their disclosures to be relevant to their mentees and that reciprocity was salient. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Research on communication in youth mentoring is nascent, despite being a vital part of developing high quality relationships. In this study, we explored mentor self-disclosure using laboratory-based direct observations of mentor-mentee interactions. We analyzed video recordings of 42 mentoring pairs engaged in a discussion activity to identify key features of mentor self-disclosure in a controlled and standardized setting. Our findings show that mentors practice self-disclosure in mentee-oriented ways, characterized by disclosures that are relevant and meaningful to the mentee, and typically shared in the context of a reciprocal pattern of disclosure. We discuss the ways in which the unique context of youth mentoring influences mentor disclosure and the implications for relationship-building. Since this is the first time research using laboratory-based direct observation has been used in youth mentoring, we also discuss how this innovative methodology can advance our understanding of relational processes.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Meaningful and relevant disclosure was widely observed but practiced to varying degrees: some mentors were able to infuse it into every disclosure, while others only used this practice once or twice. Even for those mentors who struggled to engage in self-disclosure of this nature, there were indications mentors were genuinely attempting to be relevant and connected to their mentee. Previous research has indicated mentors purposefully use disclosure to make connections through similarity (Dutton et al., 2019), and we observed such efforts in this study. Such disclosures explicate superficial similarities that can contribute to perceptions of compatibility (Keller, 2005), and may lay the foundation for future interactions (e.g., going to a bookshop together or asking the mentor for help with Calculus). Interpersonal disclosures emphasize the relational aspect of mentoring: it gives mentees feedback about how they are valued by the mentor and makes explicit the warm personal regard that is believed to be important to relationship-building (Keller, 2007). At times, such disclosures also surfaced how the mentee enriches the mentor’s life. In a formal helping relationship, mentors are expected to make a difference to their mentee, but the reverse can also be true, and disclosures of this nature may facilitate mentee feelings of closeness in the mentoring relationship. While advice did not always come in the form of self-disclosure, doing so can provide an opportunity for mentors to connect with their mentees in an authentic, empathetic way (Spencer, 2006).

Relevance and meaningfulness are described here as interconnected, but many mentor disclosures were disconnected insofar as only one of these dimensions was present. This was most often the case when mentors disclosed in a way that was irrelevant to their mentee. Research examining relationship failures shows that socioeconomic, class, and cultural mismatch can deeply effect mentoring relationships, particularly when mentors place little thought into adjusting their own behavior to bridge these differences (Spencer, 2007), and mentors have previously indicated an awareness of how this may affect their self-disclosure (Dutton et al., 2019). In some dyads, this mismatch appeared to be at play when mentors disclosed about things such as overseas travel and work problems which mentees did not connect with. The contextual influence of youth mentoring was particularly apparent in these instances. Such disclosures may be standard among adults and therefore feel like an easy way for mentors to pursue a conversation with their mentee. However, these unrelatable disclosures were more likely to stifle than stimulate conversation: what works among adults does not necessarily translate to the mentor-mentee dynamic. Mentors are well-intentioned volunteers and introducing mentees to new things and broadening their horizons is a desirable thing (Rhodes, 2004). However, this needs to be carefully considered against distancing mentees by amplifying the economic and social differences, which are often present in mentoring relationships. Mentors who can adjust their disclosures in a mentee-oriented way may have greater success using self-disclosure to connect with their mentee and enrich their mentoring relationship long-term.

The mentee-oriented nature of meaningful and relevant disclosure aligns with the developmental relationship approach advocated by researchers (Li and Julian, 2012, Morrow and Styles, 1995). Developmental relationships prioritize the mentor-mentee bond as the ‘active ingredient’ for mentee growth (Li and Julian, 2012, Morrow and Styles, 1995). By fostering a relationship that is mentee-focused, mentors provide a space for mentees to seek help, support, and advice. Disclosure is most commonly associated with cultivating interpersonal bonds (Derlega et al., 1993), which is essential to developmental relationships (Morrow & Styles, 1995). Making meaningful disclosures may be especially useful for this purpose, because its affective quality expresses an opening up and desire for the mentee to know the mentor. Many mentors were able to disclose in this way but combining it with relevant disclosure was more difficult. For instance, some mentors talked about work in a meaningful way – they opened up about feeling stressed, proud of a recent promotion, or concerned about being made redundant – but only a few were able to make it relevant to youth, typically by comparing it to school, and therefore connecting it to an experience familiar to mentees. Disclosures that are relevant enhance the developmental approach because it centers on the mentee. Relevance pushes mentors to ask what they have to share about themselves that can benefit their mentee. This may include honesty, trust, similarity, advice, normalizing emotions, and positive interpersonal feedback. Relevant disclosure and meaningful disclosure enrich one another. Building developmental relationships is often endorsed by mentoring programs (MENTOR, 2015), and this type of disclosure provides a concrete exemplar for applying the principles of developmental relationships in practice.


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