Building a Mentoring Relationship

Seven Habits of Highly Highly Effective and Rewarding Mentoring Relationships

Key ideas for developing a mutually rewarding mentoring experience!

This document was originally adapted from the Community Tool Box of the University of Kansas, and material available from the Scholars’ Latino Initiative, North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Continual revisions to content are made by Carlos Aleman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication Studies, and SV-SLI University Coordinator of Academic and Mentoring Programs. For questions, contact alemancg@jmu.edu


Congratulations! You’ve chosen to be part of a challenging and rewarding relationship – a mentorship. And like any relationship worth having, you’ll need to act with patience, creativity, respect, and good humor. You’ll also need flexible interpersonal communication, problem solving, and goal setting skills.

These next sections are for you, the college student mentor, to reflect upon and develop as you cultivate your mentoring relationship.

Why focus on mentoring relationships?

Few components of an academic mentoring program are as vital to success as strong personal relationships between people. A successful mentoring relationship won’t just happen. It will take skill and hard work, on everyone’s part, to make the relationship grow.

The foundations of your mentoring relationship are laid the minute you meet your mentoring partner. This relationship will grow and change for the duration of your involvement with SLI, and it will mean a lot for your partner if s/he sees that you are willing to go the extra mile to be there for him/her. So it’s worth some effort on your part to make sure things go as smoothly as they can!

The Importance of Modeling Behaviors

In academic mentoring programs such as SLI, much of the responsibility falls on you, the college student, to be a role model for your high school partner. Your partner may internalize and copy many of your attitudes and actions, so it’s important that you take your actions seriously. Positive behaviors you can model include:

  • Be reliable: Let your partner see that you as consistent in your behavior and attitude.
  • Be trustworthy and dependable: Do what you say you’re going to do, and do it in a timely fashion
  • Be responsible: Let your partner see you honor your commitments to school, family, and your mentoring relationship.
  • Be friendly and approachable: Let your partner see your positivity and kindness!
  • Be helpful: Let your partner see your willingness to care.
  • Be respectful: Let your partner see you treat others with dignity and humility.
  • Be mindful of when more professional behavior is needed, and when it is okay to communicate more casually.
  • Avoid negativity, gossiping and using profanity, because It only speaks bad of you.

Cultural Awareness and Privilege

Your high school partner may have a different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background than yours. It’s important that you be conscious of any preconceived notions you may have about your partner based on these factors. Try to be honest with yourself and open to learning about any prejudices you may unknowingly hold that may negatively impact your relationship. Just like you, your partner is an individual, with individual strengths and individual faults. Don’t let preconceived ideas about his/her race/culture/class act as a barrier to your relationship!

At the same time, you will want to be aware of how cultural differences may have an impact on your relationship. For example, if your partner practiced Islam, it would be inappropriate for you to invite her or him to a pig roast—her or his religion forbids him to eat pork.  Some examples of potential differences that may arise between SLI college mentors and high school partners are differences in: religious practices, documentation status, family structure, language spoken at home, and socioeconomic status. Your awareness of and respect for your partner’s cultural traditions, and her/his sense of self, will go far toward strengthening the bond between you. Show respect by asking questions about those traditions, and be willing to share some of yours.

Try to be aware of how unrecognized or “hidden” biases in society create circumstances where some people, including yourself, are afforded a social privilege that they may not be aware of, didn’t ask for, or do anything to earn. For example, many college students simply assume that the freedoms and privileges afforded by just being born a United States citizen — such as the ability to apply for federal financial aid, a summer job, or even a driver’s license — are shared by everyone their age. Sometimes this sense of privilege shows itself when a college student offers unsolicited, well-intending, “good advice” to a high school partner, but is unwilling to accept advice in return from that student. Rather than deny that you may benefit from unearned privilege, it’s best to learn to recognize and acknowledge how you might benefit, and then advocate for others to share in those freedoms.

And remember: Mentoring relationships are not “one-way streets.” Avoid labeling your high school partner or assuming they have the same life story as others in the group. By doing so, you run the risk of overlooking him/her as a unique person, and minimizing everything she or he has to offer you and your mentoring relationship.

Building Trust

Respecting your partner’s cultural beliefs is only one of many steps you can take toward gaining her or his trust. Depending on her or his experience, your high school partner may never have had an opportunity to develop a close, trusting relationship with a college student. She or he may be wary at first, and may have trouble believing you’ll be there when she or he needs you. Remember that you need to earn trust. Only the most privileged college student would ever assume that their high school partner would automatically trust them. Here are some tips that will help you:

  • First and foremost, give your partner time to trust you. Trust doesn’t happen overnight, it builds over time. It’s something you have to earn.
  • Respect the privacy of your partner.  Keep conversations with them confidential, except when you have reason to believe your partner is going to hurt herself/himself or someone else.
  • Be sensitive to your partner’s daily concerns. Her/his daily life may include issues that require more energy than the mentoring relationship.
  • Be patient and help your partner through the storm and stress of adolescence!
  • Be consistent. Reliability fosters respect and gives your partner a safe environment in which to let down her or his guard.
  • Show and tell your partner that she or he is important to you, and that you value your mentoring relationship.
  • Encourage and praise your partner. She or he can never have too much positive reinforcement!
  • Don’t be afraid to express your opinion. Feedback, both positive and constructively critical, helps give your partner direction and motivation to continue reaching for her/his goals.
  • Respect your partner’s right to make her or his own choices, even when you disagree with those choices. (However, do encourage positive actions.)
  • Be sensitive to your partner’s feelings. Think before you speak, and take responsibility for your own feelings and actions before you project them onto others.
  • Take responsibility for contacting the partner to set up meetings. Follow up when she or he doesn’t call you. Schedule meetings in advance and then confirm them a day ahead of time. Be on time.
  • Keep promises.  Make every effort to show up for meetings. If you absolutely cannot make a meeting, cancel at least a day in advance and then reschedule as soon as possible.
  • Measure progress in small steps and by how much your partner has accomplished, not by how much you have left to do.

Open and Adaptive Communication

As a mentor, the most important thing you can provide for your high school partner is a trusting environment. Open and adaptive communication are crucial to trusting mentoring relationships. Open communication refers to making yourself available to hearing another person, as well as being willing share your own thoughts and feelings with honesty and good will. Adaptive communication refers to adjusting your communication behavior and attitude toward best fit the mentoring situation. This is especially true when a college mentors says they are frustrated because they “keep trying to communicate” with their high school partner, but doesn’t try to communicate differently. Here are some of the keys to open and adaptive communication:
Active ListeningActive listening means listening with your head and your heart, not just your ears. It is the ability to focus on what the other person is saying and feeling, but from their perspective, not yours. It requires asking open-ended questions and paraphrasing what you heard, rather than assuming you understand. It also requires that you pay attention to when your partner just wants you to be a supportive listener, especially when s/he just wants to vent anxiety and frustration.
Empathy: This is understanding how the other person feels without being judgmental. Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy, which means feeling sorry for or feeling pity for someone who’s in a worse situation than you are. Active listening can help you to develop empathy, but having empathy can help you to recognize when you need to be a supportive listener.
Open-midedness: It’s important to be as non-judgmental as possible and accept that your high school partner has a right to hold her or his own beliefs (personal, political, religious, or any other) even if you disagree.
Self-awareness: Recognize and accept your own limitations. It’s important to identify your feelings and their source, and accept responsibility for your feelings and actions.
Assertiveness: Being assertive is not the same as being aggressive. Assertiveness means expressing your wants, needs and feelings clearly and appropriately, and setting boundaries where necessary.  Some people are uncomfortable being assertive, but rest assured, it’s a skill you can learn like any other!
Support: Remember to offer moral support, acceptance, and encouragement for the decisions your high school partner makes, but especially when they are decisions you would not choose.
Trust: This involves demonstrating your feelings and views to another and being open to his or her reactions. This means not avoiding a potentially difficult or awkward conversation, making yourself vulnerable, and accepting the fact that sometimes your trust may be abused. Scary, isn’t it! The pay-off, however is a more rewarding relationship experience for everybody.

Active and Supportive Listening

Let’s take another minute to think about active and supportive listening. A person who is actively listening to another:

  • Hears what the other person says. They actually pay attention to words and behaviors that the other person is expressing;
  • Identifies and labels the feelings the other person is experiencing;
  • Listens for undercurrent feelings not explicitly expressed by the other person. Undercurrent feelings give you excellent insight into what’s really going on inside your partner and into attitudes and behavior that may have lasted a lifetime;
  • Recognizes  personal values and personal history revealed in conversation. This can include the kind of family a person grew up in, what’s important to the person, what the person’s view of the world is, how this person treats other people, how this person treats him or herself.

The process of active listening also includes verbally responding, managing your body, and communicating empathy.

1. Responding: In order to demonstrate interest and gain understanding, it’s important for a listener to respond to a speaker verbally and non-verbally. Some verbal response techniques include:

  • Paraphrases: Restatements of the speaker’s feeling or meaning in your own words. Paraphrases help you guard against miscommunication and allow the speaker to clarify  her or his own feelings.  For example: “So, the security guard accused you of stealing the shirt, and called you a liar when you said it was paid for, right?”
  • Feeling reflections: Statements that focus on the emotions or feelings you observe in the speaker. Feeling reflections show the speaker that you are listening and validating her or his emotions. For example: “You sound like you were angry when the guard accused you of stealing the shirt.”
  • Clarifications: Questions or comments you make to elicit more information from the speaker and to double-check your and the speaker’s understanding of the problem. For example: “And you say this happened yesterday?”
  • Neutral statements: Brief verbal responses that show the speaker that you are following the conversation.  For example: “I see. Go on.”
  • Summaries: Organizing statements that capture the speaker’s emotions and concerns concisely. A summary helps integrate the information you’ve heard, leads to new directions in conversation, and helps wrap up a listening session. For example: “If I’m understanding you right, you feel this situation is unfair and your first reaction was to get angry.”

2. Managing Your Body: Another component of active listening and effective responding is managing the non-verbal messages being communicated by your facial expressions and body. For example, the posture you have during a conversation can sometimes be interpreted as a clue to how interested you are in the conversation. Rather than create a misunderstanding, remember to:

  • Look the person in the eye — Good eye contact shows you that are paying attention and take the conversation seriously. Watching the speaker also lets you attend to the speaker’s face and gestures, which may say a lot about how s/he feels.
  • Be mindful of your facial expressions, especially when you’re tired — There will be times when you are feeling tired from the week or even worn out from a long day. But that’s when your partner might wrongly interpret your facial expressions as disinterested, or worse, angry or upset. So, when you’re feeling tired, remind yourself, “Put on the happy face!” Research shows that smiling will actually put you in a better mood.
  • Use natural posture — Sit up in your chair with your legs crossed or together or stand up with your feet about a shoulder’s width apart in a relaxed stance. If you slouch, rest your head on your hands, shift positions a lot, or cross your arms on your chest, you might unintentionally signal boredom, fatigue or restlessness.
  • Sit in a helping position — If you sit across from a person with a table in between, you may put yourself in an “oppositional” stance. Sit at an angle and lean slightly towards (but don’t crowd out!) your partner.

3. Empathy: Empathy means understanding how the other person feels without being judgmental. Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which means feeling sorry for or feeling pity for someone who’s in a worse situation than you are. Your mentee doesn’t want to be pitied, but she or he does want to feel like you understand.

To show empathy, you should:

  • Concentrate on what your partner says
  • Listen for the underlying feelings and values in the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and in the content of what’s being said
  • Reflect your partner’s feelings and values back to him
  • Summarize important issues and feelings you’ve heard

Listening Fumbles

Despite that some people believe the key to effective communication is just using common sense, some common reactions or styles of relating can leave your partner feeling uncomfortable, which shuts down communication. Some common pitfalls include the following:

  • Interrupting a person while she’s/he’s talking
  • Arguing or constantly opposing the other person’s point of view
  • Blaming your feelings on someone else
  • Passing judgment on a person’s actions
  • Demanding that someone do something or behave in a certain way
  • Not recognizing a person’s right to her or his own opinions
  • Giving advice instead of working together to explore options and alternatives
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Pressuring someone to disclose information about themselves before they’re ready
  • Abusing confidentiality

Some of these are common styles of communication to fall into; you’ve probably used some of them yourself on occasion. But think how frustrated you would be if you wanted a good listener and ended up with an inconsiderate talker!

 Listening and Problem Solving

Active listeners become problem-solvers they help their partner explore and understand her or his concerns, and help them to talk through what they perceive as solutions and options. An active listener does not make suggestions or give advice to another person. Rather, the active listener helps the other person understand the root cause of a problem and construct alternative solutions.

Some problems are quite complex, and require great reflection over time. These might be family and relationship problems, or questions about career and life goals. Other problems are more straightforward, and can be addressed in terms of relatively simple reasoning. These might be choosing between colleges or how to handle a particular conflict with a person. Some steps to reason-based problem solving include the following.

  1. Exploring the problem: Your partner describes the problem as she or he understands it.
  2. Understanding the problem: Using open-ended questions, you uncover important facts, feeling sources, personal limitations and preferences. Understanding the problem also helps your partner to understand her or his emotions.
  3. Defining the problem: You and your partner restate the problem, locating its root causes. In this step, you can use open-ended questions and summaries to help your mentee clarify the problem.
  4. Brainstorming alternatives: You and your partner think of any and all options, no matter how far-fetched or impractical they seem, to dealing with the root of the problem
  5. Evaluating options: You and your partner discuss the benefits and risks of each alternative, and discuss options that seem to be most agreeable or most plausible solutions
  6. Choosing the best option: Your partner can now choose the best alternatives for the given situation, based on the solution’s advantages and disadvantages and her or his personal values, abilities and limitations. It’s important that you respect and support the decision she or he reaches, even if you don’t entirely agree with it.
  7. Taking action: This step entails you helping your partner to make an observable effort to bring about the solution best tailored to the his/her needs. It would be easy to ignore this last step, but then the problem solving process wouldn’t be the problem solving process!

Pay close attention and devote enough time to enhance your communication and problem-solving skills. They will be very important to your mentoring relationship.

What do you do when your relationship doesn’t work out?

The fact is, despite everyone’s best efforts, not all relationships work out. You and your high school partner may experience insurmountable cultural differences, communication problems, a lack of common interests, or you may simply not get along. You may also find that your partner has problems that cannot be addressed in the context of a mentoring program.

We encourage you to do your best to work things out between you and your partner, if possible. Your partner will see that there is at least one college student who is willing to “go the distance” for her or him, and may at the same time learn valuable lessons about determination and persistence. But you should also be aware of your own limitations. If the strained relationship between you and your partner has become a barrier to your mentee reaching her or his goals, or if your partner has serious problems that are beyond your ability to help, it’s time to end the relationship. If your partner is verbally or physically abusive to you, it’s time to end the relationship. If your mentoring relationship is causing you great anxiety, or demanding so much of your time that you cannot successfully complete your own studies, then it may be time to end the relationship. Finally, if your high school partner tells you that s/he wishes to end the relationship, then it’s time to end the relationship. Whatever the case may be, be sure to notify program staff so s/he can look into the situation, and your partner may be reassigned to a new mentor.

Most importantly, if you suspect your partner is experiencing an abusive home environment, a substance abuse problem, or a mental illness, notify program staff as soon as possible, so your partner can be referred to the appropriate agency for help.

In Summary

Building your relationship with your high school partner is a difficult but extremely rewarding enterprise. Progress may be slow, and you and your partner may get frustrated. Hang in there! With some time, patience, and work you will make a real difference in your partner’s life. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes!

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