Ten Characteristics of Flourishing (Mentoring) Relationships
December 2, 2018

It’s no secret that as we improve our mentoring skills, we  enhance the other relationships in our lives. Whether we call ourselves parents, spouses, friends, or employees, improving in mentoring can enrich all of our relationships if we pay attention and transfer these skills into our everyday lives. Below are ten important, research-based characteristics that can boost the quality of mentoring and every other kind of relationship.

Relationship expert John Gottman describes this as a habit of our mind to scan our world for things to admire, be proud of, and appreciate about the other (Rhodes, 2017). One study showed that mentors’ positive views of their mentees’ personal qualities and performance was associated with higher self-esteem and well-being in mentees from underrepresented groups. Instead of being fixated on the mentee’s deficiency or problems, mentors who catch mentees doing something right and thanking them for it can create a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship.

Create a map of the other person’s inner world – their hopes, dreams, values, and goals. Ask questions and remember the answers. Asking follow-up questions such as, “How was your dance competition?” or “How was your cousin’s birthday party?” signals not only that you were listening but that you internalized what the other was saying and thought of them during your time away from each other. Mentoring expert Jean Rhodes (2017) and her research team found that “fifteen year olds described being ‘gotten’, liked, and understood specifically in terms of adults remembering things from previous conversations.”

Renown writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie wrote, “The royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about things he or she treasures most,” (Rhodes, 2017). Though we might know this to be true, our own interests or distractions might get in the way of practicing this consistently. If we truly want to improve the relationship, the best thing we can do is become less interested in our phone and more interested in the other person (mentee, friend, spouse, co-worker).

A study out of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London researched the effect of laughter in relationships and concluded, “Given laughter’s ability to trigger endorphins,” (Dean, 2015) which are crucial to form social bonds, “laughter may increase willingness to disclose intimate information because the opioid effect of endorphins makes individuals more relaxed about what they communicate.” So before expecting the relationship to dive into personal depths, have fun together!

In his research, John Gottman has observed that in any interaction there are countless ways, verbal and nonverbal, that people express their needs. He has coined the idea of making “bids” for emotional connection, (Rhodes, 2018). Your mentee might casually mention, “Oh, it’s raining.” If distracted, a mentor might lose the opportunity to respond to this comment and strengthen the connection. Attuned to this mentee, a mentor might respond, “Oh, it is! What do you like to do when it’s raining?” This kind of response leads to a feedback loop that encourages more bids and further enhances the connection.

Jean Rhodes (2018) describes an alliance as the working relationship and partnership between mentor and mentee, and lists three major components of an alliance: the bond forged, agreement on goals, and agreement on the specific tasks or activities that will lead to achieving those goals. Rhodes notes that it is critical that mentors “adopt a flexible, youth-centered style shaped by the mentee’s interests and preferences.” To this end, if the mentee looks forward to a fun, stress-free time with his mentor, an alliance can be formed by deciding together how to best achieve that.

Relationship expert Bruce Wampold defines empathy as, “a complex process by which an individual can be affected by and share the emotional state of another, assess the reasons for another’s state, and identify with the other by adopting his or her perspective,” (Rhodes, 2018). In her brilliant Ted Talk, social work professor and researcher Brené Brown explains that empathy is not problem solving, it’s not silverlining; it is actually becoming vulnerable enough to feel with the other. If you haven’t already, please watch this beautiful animation of Brené Brown’s definition of empathy.

Being authentic is a powerful way to achieve two great things: build trust, because your mentee knows that you are not faking or lying about your true self, and create a safe space for your mentee to be real with you as well. One way that mentors can convey authenticity is to occasionally disclose something personal about themselves or lives. Being careful to consider relational boundaries and age-appropriateness, mentors can become more fully human to their mentees by sharing something about work, the drive to the school, or even a personal preference like favorite food. Another way is to make and admit mistakes. This may allow the mentee to see her mentor as more approachable.

It is important to note that much like psychotherapy, mentoring comes from the dominant-cultural norms of North America and Western Europe. Something like asking a mentee to look one in the eye when speaking might be culturally insensitive to someone from a culture in which looking down when speaking to an adult is more respectful. The best way to learn about a mentee’s cultural norms is to respectfully ask, something like, “In my family, we have a tradition of eating turkey or ham for special occasions. Does your family have special foods you eat for holidays?” This kind of sensitivity and curiosity about a mentee’s culture is a wonderful way to communicate that the mentor’s culture and traditions are not the only important ones.

Jean Rhodes advices that mentors need to be open to learning from their program, their mentees, and willing to ask for advice when they need it. Asking a mentee for help or advice can be a terrific way to share a little power and make them feel like a true partner in the relationship. Also, opening this possibility of listening to the mentee’s opinion keeps the mentor from a prescriptive, heavy-handed, or rigid mentoring approach which Rhodes (2018) describes as “the kiss of death in youth mentoring relationships.” Along similar lines, mentors can find great support and expert advice from their Mentor Directors. Mentor Directors often describe the best of mentors as the ones that are coachable and open to new ideas.

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