What makes an effective mentoring relationship?
A 2001 research study by the National Resilience Resource Center, University of Minnesota1, includes some important revelations that can help guide volunteers who mentor prisoners, ex-prisoners, and children of prisoners.
The study investigated the mentoring practices of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, the oldest and one of the most reputable mentoring programs for adolescents. And while the results were based on relationships between adult mentors and youth, some of the key findings can extend to matches between adult mentors and adult prisoners.
Notably, the majority of youth in the study would be considered “at risk”—90 percent coming from broken homes, 83 percent from low-income households, 40 percent from families with a history of substance abuse. More than a quarter of the youth were victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Compare these with characteristics of prisoners2: 57 percent grew up in broken homes or in foster care, 40 percent of females and 12 percent of males reported being sexually or physically abused in the past, 37 percent have a parent or sibling who served time in prison, 80 percent have a history of drug abuse.
Types of Mentoring Relationships
The authors of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters study found that mentoring relationships usually fall into two general categories, termed “prescriptive” and “developmental.” There are sharp distinctions between the two, and one stands out as much more successful in developing the resilience that at-risk youth need to overcome the odds against them.
Prescriptive Mentoring Relationship
- Mentors believe their primary purpose is to guide their mentees toward the values, attitudes, and behaviors the mentor considers positive.
- Mentors set the goals, the pace, and the “ground rules” for the relationship.
- Mentors are more problem-oriented—they focus on trying to “fix” deficiencies in the mentees’ attitudes and behaviors (such as school performance)
Developmental Mentoring Relationship
- Mentors see themselves primarily as a friend, not as a teacher or preacher.
- Mentors believe they are there to help meet the developmental needs of the mentees by providing supports and opportunities the mentees lack.
- Mentors focus their involvement and expectations on developing a reliable, trusting relationship. They expand the scope of their efforts only as the relationship grows stronger.
- Mentors involve the mentees in the decision-making process of their activities—giving them “voice and choice.”
How do outcomes differ between the two relationship approaches? The study found that “not surprisingly, adults and youths in prescriptive matches found the relationship frustrating and nonsupportive.” Fewer than a third of the mentor matches met consistently, and only 32 percent of the relationships still existed after 18 months. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of the developmental relationships were still going strong, with mentors and mentees meeting regularly and with positive results among the youth—such as reduced use of illegal drugs and alcohol, improved academic performance and confidence, and improved relationships with family and peers.
A chief lesson established by the study: Focusing on fostering resilience rather than on reducing high-risk behaviors has the power to produce more positive results. Resilience refers to the ability to adapt well to or recover from adverse conditions.
“Health and resilience unfold in environments of caring relationships, high-expectation messages, and opportunities for participation and contribution,” the authors state. “These environments meet basic human needs for love and belonging, respect, identity, mastery, power, and meaning.”
Helping People Help Themselves
A more recent study (2008) on mentoring3—this one related to mentors in the workplace—also showed the superiority of developmental over prescriptive relationships. It identified several critical qualities of effective mentors:
- Displaying genuine empathy toward the mentee and being invested in his or her development
- Having the ability to listen and ensuring the process stays focused on the mentee
- Having a service orientation
- Demonstrating an ability to ask effective questions and to shift style as appropriate, such as being nurturing when needed and challenging when needed
- Having the ability to deliver feedback constructively and with care.
Yes, it might be appropriate for a mentor to be prescriptive if the mentee is about to make a critical mistake, the study points out. But for the most part, “effective mentors listen first, ask questions second, and advise third.” There is a difference between telling people what to do and helping them find the solutions themselves.
Putting Lessons into Practice
What are some applications for those who serve as mentors? Consider these:
- Focus on building the relationship, not on fixing or changing the person you mentor.
- Do fun things together—part of relationship building—which can unfold “teachable moments” as you naturally model good choices and values.
- Listen more, direct less. Ask questions that help your mentee think things through and draw conclusions.
- Follow the example of Jesus, who with His most intimate circle—the apostles—taught through His life as well as through His words. It was not Jesus who initiated teaching His disciples to pray. They came to Him, no doubt because the power of prayer they saw in His life revealed the deficiencies in their own lives. He didn’t have to point out their need to change; just being around Him increased their desire to change and to learn how to do it.
1Benard, B., and Marshall, K. 2001. Big Brothers/Big Sisters Mentoring: The Power of Developmental Relationship. National Resilience Resource Center, University of Minnesota.
2Beck, A., et al. 1993. Survey of State Prison Inmates. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
3Satter, A. M., and Russ, D. E. 2007. Why Don’t More Senior Leaders Mentor? Journal of Management Inquiry 13: 382-390