What are “common factors” and how can they improve the practice of mentoring?

What are “common factors” ?There are certain “common factors” cutting across all helping relationships that seem to account for most of the improvements. These common factors include such things as: a close relationship with a therapist who is warm and respectful; high expectations for client success; opportunities for self-expression; opportunities to learn and practice new skills and behaviors.

Others have argued however, that, although those factors are necessary, there is clear evidence that certain approaches are more appropriate and effective than others for treating certain problems (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety). Yet, despite 30 years of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and dozens of meta-analyses of these clinical studies, the notion that common factors are what account for change prevails. Psychologists Budd and Hughes have argued that this stalemate may stem from the fact that our evaluations and meta-analyses are better suited to the task of identifying the common factors than to isolating and measuring specific approaches. This is because unlike highly controlled randomized clinical trials of drugs, relationship processes are subtly influenced by so many variables (e.g., the particular difficulties of the person being helped, the dynamics and personalities involved in helping relationships, the broader context), that it difficult to isolate the effects of a particular approach on a specific symptom or outcome.

Still, the authors reflect, much has been learned about important “common factors” from the 30+ years of meta-analyses in psychotherapy. Here we highlight what they consider to be three of the most important lessons. The implications for mentoring are clear

1. A therapist’s commitment to a particular intervention approach strongly predicts predictive of the effectiveness of that intervention.

Implication for mentoring:

  • Mentors should be presented with a convincing rationale for why particular approaches to working with youth are recommended.
  • Mentors should not be asked to rigidly follow lessons plans, etc. but instead be encouraged to use-evidence-based strategies in the context of personalized formulation that the mentor is invested in.

2. Across all different approaches, the most robust predictor of outcomes is the quality of the helping relationship.

Implication for mentoring:

  • Researchers should continue to explore the factors that promote close relationships.
  • Match support providers and mentors should be encouraged to carefully monitor the quality and progress of relationships and to quickly redress any problems that arise.

3. Some helpers are simply more effective than others.

Implication for mentoring:

  • We should systematically hone in on the approaches of what we observe to be particularly effective (“expert”) therapist and mentors, since their routine practice might shed useful light onto the nature of successful mentoring.
  • The practices should then be tested using more traditional research designs.
  • Beyond initial training there should be ongoing coaching in which we essentially “mentor the mentors”.

As we move toward greater precision in the science of youth mentoring, we have much to learn from common factors that have been identified in psychotherapy research.