New research identifies “elusive ingredient” in mentoring relationships: Mutuality

Lester, A.M., Goodloe, C. L., Johnson, H. E., & Deutsch, N. L. (2018). Understanding mutuality: Unpacking relational processes in youth mentoring relationships. Journal of Community Psychology, 1-16. doi:

Summarized by Justin Preston

Notes of Note: This study focuses on what the authors describe as the “elusive ingredient” in mentoring relationships: mutuality. Described as “the bidirectional movement of feelings, thoughts, and activity between persons in relationships” (p. 36, Jordan, 1991), mutuality results in a relationship where “all parties are open and receptive to the impact another may make on them and in which there is a sense of shared emotional availability and an active and shared initiative.” The key point to note here is that mutuality is something that can help to serve as another powerful aspect of the mentoring relationship when and where it is appropriate.


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Evidence suggests that a close interpersonal bond is important for the success of youth–adult mentoring relationships. Mutuality has been suggested to be important for developing a close interpersonal bond (Rhodes, 2002, 2005), but mutuality remains an abstract construct, difficult to understand and cultivate. Using thematic analysis of mentor and mentee (n = 42) interviews, we investigate how mentoring pairs reflect on mutuality.

Results suggest that mutuality is understood as a combination of 2 dimensions: shared relational excitement and experiential empathy. Shared relational excitement is felt when there is a genuine desire by both the mentor and the mentee to invest in the relationship. Experiential empathy is the process through which mentors connect with, advise, and normalize the experiences of their mentees by sharing their own relevant experiences. This work has implications for mentor training, program development, and future research on youth–adult relationships.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Through thematic analysis of both mentor and mentee interviews, we found that mutuality in the context of youth-adult mentoring relationships was described by participants as consisting of two key dimensions: shared relational excitement and experiential empathy. Our findings are in conversation with previous outlined “expressions” of mutuality (see Genero et al., 1992; Josselson, 1992) but at the same time speak specifically to the youth–adult mentoring context.

However, shared relational excitement goes a step beyond engagement and zest to include a genuine perceived interest in self by other… In youth–adult mentoring relationships, the mentors often have to encourage the mentees to “buy in” to the relationships. This is where the perceived interest in self by others is crucial. …[In] a youth–adult mentoring relationship, the mentee is often signed up by a parent and thus may enter into the relationship hesitant.

It is for this reason that mentors must both engage a relationship with enthusiasm and work to ensure that the mentee perceives their genuine interest in their life and the relationship. Thus, because of the nature of youth–adult mentoring relationships, there is need for the mentor to extend beyond … dimensions of engagement and zest and foster a sense of shared relational excitement, a key dimension in the development of mutuality in this context.

…[O]ur findings lend themselves to implications for mentoring programs in terms of selection, training, and relational activities. The foundation of a mentoring program is its mentors. However, evidence suggests that some mentors can lack an awareness or competence in the relational aspects of mentoring (McArthur, Wilson, & Hunter, 2017). Thus, the selection of mentors is a vital first step to the development of healthy mentoring relationships. In selecting future mentors, leaders should seek out mentors that are enthusiastic and willing to share openly about their life, which will help foster both relational excitement and experiential empathy. Additionally, the current study can inform and encourage current mentors by serving as a reminder that small, consistent, and genuine efforts go a long way.


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