FORUM: Mentoring relationships as a context for service delivery: What do you think?

FORUM: Mentoring relationships as a context for service delivery: What do you think? - Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring Psychotherapy researchers have long argued about how direct and goal-oriented the therapist should be.  There are some who believe that, if a strong relationship is forged between the therapist and client, a “corrective experience” leading to a cascade of good outcomes will eventually emerge. Others believe that the practice of therapy works best when there are clear goals and strategies for attaining those goals. From this perspective, the therapeutic relationship is important only to the extent that it motivates the client to follow and adhere the evidence-based protocol.

Similar arguments abound in the field of mentoring. Some believe that a strong adult-youth relationship should be the end in itself, as it will lead to a host of improvements in the youth’s lives. Others believe that we should be thinking about mentoring as a means to an end. That is, mentoring can be seen as a context for curriculum delivery.

Salem Valentino, Associate Director of Research & Evaluation for Big Brothers Big Sisters, put this question to a group of researchers. It sparked a great deal of conversation (as follows)


Jean Rhodes: I like the idea of thinking about the mentoring as relationship vs. more of a delivery system, I believe that the latter is likely to be, at least partially, conditioned by the strength of the former.

Timothy Cavell : I took the liberty of rephrasing Jean’s comment in this manner:

“The impact of mentoring as a context for prevention-focused experiences is likely dependent on the strength (i.e., quality, length) of the mentoring relationship.”

I would certainly agree with Jean’s comment and would note that relationship-strength can vary and for some proportion of mentors is less than ideal.

In fact, we might well ask: “How good or how enduring does the relationship have to be before it achieves socially significant outcomes?” I don’t know if we have clear answers to that question.

Mentoring programs are encouraged to use best practices for screening, training, and support, in part, so that matches will reach optimal relationship strength.

But imagine a mentoring program that doesn’t require optimal relationship strength. Would it be possible for mentors to meet a minimum threshold of relationship strength and still deliver a compelling, robust, prevention-focused experience? I believe it is possible.

I believe that not-so-strong mentoring relationships can achieve socially important outcomes, if the program is structured and specified and a good fit for the targeted population.

Can a strong relationship achieve more? Quite likely, but what about the not-so-strong matches? What do we do with those?

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested this “formula” for mentoring:  (Consistency – Conflict) X Context = Outcomes, but this formula is based on the notion of meeting that minimum relationship threshold. When a relationship is rich, intimate, and enduring, it can transcend time and span multiple contexts. Close, strong, enduring relationships take on transformative qualities not available in a short-term focused mentoring experience. Can both achieve important outcome? Sure. But for our practitioner colleagues who are trying to recruit mentors, manage personnel, support matches, and seek funding, it can be difficult if the success of your work hinges so critically on the strength of an artificially arranged relationship.

If agencies had multiple kinds of programs, then they could focus on structuring a tightly specified context for prevention-focused experiences and activities, and not just achieving optimally strong relationships.

I’ve likened these 2 choices to the “claw” game where you move levers in an effort to pick up a stuffed animal. In mentoring, one lever is an attempt to manage the strength of the relationship and the other is an attempt to structure the mentoring context. I’d agree that both levers are important but I’d also contend that one lever is more responsive than the other.

Renee Spencer: I actually think that “context” and “relationship” are one in the same. I agree with the point made about the primacy of relationships in human life and I think that they are themselves the context, or the primary mechanism through which development occurs and therefore likely to be the mechanism of change in mentoring. Our social, emotional, and cognitive development all occur within the context of our relationships with others and is dependent upon the nature and quality of those relationships. I think that relationship quality and strength get conflated and the latter tends to take on the connotation of a relationship that is long-lasting, close, confiding relationship, and highly meaningful. But that is just one kind of a high-quality (or what could be called “growth-promoting”) relationship.

Learning at school occurs in the context of high-quality relationships with teachers, but the parameters of those relationships – or what makes them high quality – are somewhat different and the skills the teacher needs to be effective in that role are different in some ways (though similar in others) to what an effective parent, guidance counselor, coach, etc. needs. Like Jean, I like the idea of thinking of mentoring as a delivery system and I find Tim’s framing of mentoring as context as very helpful in getting us to loosen our thinking about what makes for a high-quality relationship within different types of mentoring programs or when delivering mentoring to achieve different purposes, but I don’t actually see “context” as different from “relationship.” There is always, at the core, a relationship (or the delivery system is always some kind of a relationship)  that will at minimum need to be consistent, predictable, and respectful and in which both participants, at some minimum level, are engaged and committed but beyond that may differ quite significantly.

David DuBois: There is more common ground among our varying perspectives than might be first apparent but there are also some real differences that could lend themselves to testable hypotheses. One hypothesis, for example, is that building in more “context” (non-relational in primary focus such as “Step It Up 2 Thrive” model) will tend to increase average youth outcomes but also their variability, specifically less favorable ones due to the inherent (or so I would argue) greater potential for both risks and rewards when doing so – For example, it is safer to have mentors not even attempt in our case to “teach” goal-setting and pursuit but then the potential upside is (I would hypothesize) compromised as well. Not suggesting any of this is brilliant but illustrates how we could translate some our discussion to building a stronger empirical foundation to guide strategic planning efforts like this one. Renee U love your teacher example – I plan to purloin with attribution!:)

Jean Rhodes: These interesting new comments lead me back to Tim’s question: “could it be possible for mentors to meet a minimum threshold of relationship strength and still deliver a compelling, robust prevention-focused experience? I believe it is possible.”

Here’s my thinking on this:

Particularly since effective, long-lasting relationships have been so messy and difficult to obtain, I am not opposed to thinking about training mentors to be “good enough” to deliver structured, relatively short-term evidence-based prevention programs. This then leads back to wondering what that “minimum threshold of relationship strength” is and how we avoid losing sight of a) what distinguished mentoring from skills training, and b) the benefits of deep connections for the sake of deep connections, with all of the collateral benefits they confer.

At the most basic level, it comes down to our goals. As in psychotherapy, some kids need short-term help with emotion regulation, etc. while others, perhaps those who have spent years in and out of foster care, need more of a corrective experience. It seems to me that we should be able to differentiate and to match mentoring service to need more effectively.

David DuBois: Well said – I think understanding more about the potential benefits of treatment-youth matching for lack of a better term should be a high priority lest we unwittingly go down the same dead end as the early “therapy wars” in psychotherapy research


We’d love your input—how do you think about mentoring relationships? As an end unto themselves or as a context for service delivery? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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3 Comments on "FORUM: Mentoring relationships as a context for service delivery: What do you think?"

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  1. Elizabeth Williams says:

    Instead of service delivery what about the idea of mentoring as both a framework and a relationship. In after school programs those lines can be crossed pretty easily. The service delivery idea emphasizes that the specific actions of psychotherapy or other services will be within the context of a mentoring relationship. Not all relationships within these services are appropriate as mentoring relationships and could cross professional boundaries. Therefore using mentoring as a framework gives the underlying knowledge and mission of being a mentor to the broader scope of the organization without actually putting it into every aspect of service delivery. If appropriate, then individual relationships could be established.

  2. Tim Cavell says:

    Well said, Deborah.

  3. I value these shared perspectives as they touch upon multiple different and valid aspects of what contributes to productive mentoring exchanges and outcomes. Much of this is influenced by “why” the mentee is seeking or being matched to a mentor. This viewpoint influences the form, style and duration of mentoring to be provided, as well as the basis for assessing effectiveness over time.

    Having been a Big Sister for two completely different girls through the BBBS program, the mentoring process was more about establishing a relationship versus providing a delivery system, as Jean Rhodes touches upon in her initial comment.

    Being a mentor to hundreds of individuals from different backgrounds, ages, education levels, physical capacities and behaviorial challenges, who seek for one reason or another, to make a living through self-employment or brick-and-mortar ventures, on the other hand, benefits from more highly structured mentoring processes.

    In both of these mentoring situations, mentees have a general understanding at the start of the mentor/mentee relationship what style of mentoring to expect, which is also important to supporting desired outcomes.

    Much of my more recent work involves mentoring youth at risk of dropping out of school, as well as adults in transition ranging from their mid-20s to early 70 year olds. In these situations, I am finding that a combination of relationship building and delivering a highly structured process that facilitates individual goal setting and progress over time is relevant.

    The relationship piece tends to be important in the beginning as the factors that drive the “at-risk” behavior and “transition” situations tend to be highly correlated to fear. As a result, trust must first be earned before any transformative change can occur. Once I view signs that they view I can be trusted, it then becomes essential to facilitate ways where they can begin to develop self-worth and self-confidence. I find this is best achieved through facilitating hands on exercises where the mentee experiences tangible results and outcomes that can be directly correlated to their actions.

    In summary and as touched upon in many of the above comments, the mentee’s needs, goals and capacity define the mentor style and duration. Human behavior is fluid. Time and circumstances influence behaviors. That said and given the point of the original post, there is likely to be plenty of material and no end to arguing about what style may be most appropriate for adult-youth mentoring.

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