Building effective relationships
Building effective relationships
The key to creating effective mentoring relationships lies in the development of trust between two strangers of different ages.
Volunteers come to mentoring programs because they want to help young people. Without establishing trust, however, mentors can never truly support the young people they are interacting with.
Establishing communication and developing a relationship can often be difficult processes.
Learning to trust, especially for young people who may have been let down before, requires time—young people cannot be expected to trust their mentor simply because program staff have put the two of them together.
The most critical factor in determining whether matches develop into satisfying and effective relationships, characterised by high levels of trust, is the approach of the mentor. Mentors who follow a gradual path in trust-building find that the types of support they can offer, and are accepted, broaden considerably once trust has been established.
Mentors who focus first on building trust and becoming a friend to their mentee tend to be more effective than mentors who immediately try to change or reform the young person.
Adults who are focussed on ‘reforming’ young people are often frustrated by the young person’s lack of receptivity.
These mentors make the mistake of pushing too hard and too quickly on the mentee’s problems: pressing them to talk about sensitive issues before they are ready and ignoring the young person’s desire to help set the agenda for the pair’s activities. These mentors fail because they are too focused on their own agenda.28
Do’s: Effective mentors do the following
- See yourself as a ‘friend’, rather than a teacher or parent, and define your role as supporting the young person in a variety of ways.
- Be an ‘active listener’.
- Make a commitment to being consistent and dependable, to maintaining a steady presence in the young person’s life.
- Understand that the relationship may seem fairly one-sided—you may feel like you are doing all the work—and take responsibility for keeping the relationship alive. For example, early in the relationship, young people often test adults to determine whether they will actually stick around. Successful mentors regularly initiate contact and ensure that meetings are scheduled, rather than waiting to hear from young people.
- Involve the young person in deciding how the match will spend their time together. While young people are often reticent about expressing what they want to do, successful mentors take the time to learn about the young person’s interests and provide them with options for how to spend their time, rather than planning everything without their input.
- Pay attention to kids’ need for ‘fun’. Having fun together is a key part of building relationships, and it also provides young people with valuable opportunities that are otherwise often unavailable to them.
- Seek and utilise the help and advice of program staff. Successful mentors recognise that they don’t have all the answers, and they value the support and guidance that program staff can provide.
Don’ts: Less successful mentors do the following
- Approach the relationship with narrow, specific goals aimed at changing the young person’s behaviour.
- Have difficulty meeting with young people on a regular and consistent basis; if a mentor fails to turn up it reinforces to the young person that adults are unreliable, or that they don't matter.
- Demand that young people play an equal role in initiating contact. Unsuccessful mentors often complain that their mentees do not call them to schedule meetings, or that young people fail to show up for meetings when they say they will.
- Attempt to instil a set of values that may be different from, or inconsistent with, those the young person is exposed to at home.
- Attempt to transform or reform the young person by setting tasks (for example, focusing on doing schoolwork during their meetings) and adopting a parental or authoritative role in their interactions with young people. For young people, the value of a mentor is often in having a supportive adult who is not a parent or teacher—adopting the posture of these authority figures undermines the development of trust between a mentor and mentee.
- Emphasise behaviour changes over developing mutual trust and respect in the relationship. Mentors cannot force young people to change; too much focus on what is wrong with a young person is more likely to turn them away from the mentor.