The importance of expressing empathy in mentoring relationships

Spencer, R., Pryce, J., Barry, J., Walsh, J., & Basualdo-Delmonico, A. (2020). Deconstructing empathy: A qualitative examination of mentor perspective-taking and adaptability in youth mentoring relationships. Children and Youth Services Review, 105043.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although previous research has highlighted the importance of empathy in establishing positive mentoring relationships, less is known about howempathy is expressed within these contexts
  • The current study analyzes how mentor’s express empathy in order to better understand this process
  • Authors also examine how the expression of empathy impacts the development of youth mentoring relationships
  • Two aspects of empathy emerged from the qualitative data
    • Perspective-taking:
      • e. Mentor’s efforts to relate to their mentee and/or understand things from the mentee’s point of view
    • Adaptability:
      • e. How open, responsive, and flexible mentors are with regard to their mentees’ wants, needs, and experiences
  • Mentors that expressed more empathy with their mentees were able to effectively handle the ups and downs of their relationship, also feeling generally more satisfied in their mentoring relationships
  • Mentors that had a difficult time bonding with their mentee felt more frustrated and upset with their relationship

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Empathy has been identified as a central component of effective youth mentoring relationships yet little is known about what empathy within mentoring relationships looks like and the specific aspects of empathy that may be at work in this context. Longitudinal qualitative interview data with 50 mentor participants in a larger study of mentoring relationship development were used to examine mentors’ expressions of different dimensions of empathy within their narratives about the nature and quality of their mentoring relationships. Two main dimensions of empathy were identified: (a) perspective-taking, which was marked by mentors’ descriptions of their efforts to relate to the youth’s experiences and to understanding things from the youth’s point of view and (b) adaptability, which was conveyed through the mentors’ descriptions of their openness to the wants, needs, and experiences of the youth and to their flexibility in the relationship and responsiveness to the youth. Mentors who described being able to engage empathically with their mentees also conveyed greater satisfaction with the experience of mentoring.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study sheds light on specific dimensions of empathy and how they may contribute to mentoring quality and longevity. Drawing from and informed by the psychotherapy and interpersonal relationship literatures on empathy (i.e., Cuff et al., 2016, Davis, 2006, Knafo et al., 2008), the close examination of these mentors’ narratives led to the explication of two dimensions of empathy, perspective-taking and adaptability to the youth’s experiences, and some of the ways that these processes worked together. Some mentors described active efforts to relate to their mentee’s experiences and to understanding things from the youth’s point of view. Openness to understanding the wants, needs, and experiences of the youth from their points of view was evident in some mentors’ narratives, as were attempts to be flexible in the relationship and adapt to the youth’s experiences. Other mentors struggled, some even mightily, to step out of their own experiences and worldviews to genuinely consider their mentee’s experiences and points of view. In the absence of taking the mentee’s perspective, these mentors had difficulty building meaningful connections with their mentees and tended to become increasingly dissatisfied with the relationship over time, often directing their frustration toward the mentee and/or the mentee’s family.

The findings here are similar to descriptions of empathy found within the psychotherapy literature (Bohart, Elliott, Greenberg, & Watson, 2002). Considering these similarities may begin to offer explanations for how empathy can contribute to the promotion of positive outcomes for mentees. Mentors’ openness to youth created opportunities for the mentor to see and acknowledge not only the youth’s needs, but also their strengths and the contributions they made to the relationship. Akin to the way Bohart et al. (2002) describes empathy in the psychotherapeutic relationship as activating clients’ abilities to self-soothe and heal, the instances described here suggest that empathy expressed by mentors seemed to similarly illuminate and elevate youths’ own strengths and capacities in ways that may make these more evident to the youth themselves. Further, mentors’ ability to take the youth’s perspective and be responsive to their interests and needs may demonstrate to youth that their interests and preferences are important and deserving of respect.

Importantly, examining perspective-taking and adaptability in mentors’ descriptions of their mentoring relationships illuminated how differences in backgrounds can influence the mentoring process, joining an emerging stream of research on ethnocultural empathy in youth mentoring relationships (Leyton‐Armakan, Lawrence, Deutsch, N., Williams, J., & Henneberger, 2012; Marshall, Lawrence, Williams, & Peugh, 2015; Peifer, Lawrence, Williams, & Leyton-Armaken, 2016), which addresses empathy occurring within cross-cultural contexts (Wang et al., 2003). Although similar to general empathy, ethnocultural empathy also explicitly addresses empathy between people from different cultures and has been defined as “feeling, understanding, and caring about what someone from another culture feels, understands, and cares about” (Rasoal, Eklund, & Hansen, 2011, p. 8). The marked racial, ethnic and economic differences between the mentors and mentees in this study are typical of many mentoring programs (Garringer, McQuillin, & McDaniel, 2017). Taking a close look at empathy points to the importance of how mentors understand and engage with differences in backgrounds. As demonstrated here and in other research examining mentors’ motivations and attitudes (Hughes, Welsh, Mayer, Bolay, & Southard, 2009), many white middle class mentors may enter into these relationships carrying negative biases toward people of color and people living in poverty (Steele, 2010). Such relationships can serve to reproduce, rather than reduce, inequalities in mentoring relationships (Keller, Perry, & Spencer, 2019). The negative judgements of the mentees and their families expressed by some mentors in this study also suggest that a lack of general and/or ethnocultural may contribute to early match closures, which can be a significant problem in many formal youth mentoring programs (Rhodes, 2002, Spencer et al., 2019). Future research should examine the relationship between general and ethnocultural empathy within youth mentoring, and the relative contribution of each to relationship quality, duration, and effectiveness.


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