Fine-tuning your approach will improve your relationship-building skills

This week’s blog is brought to you by Jeni Matthewman, our Head of Communications, on how communicating effectively, or attuning yourself to others, can help you to build successful relationships.


We know that communications is about the transaction of information in a way that people can understand and use effectively (preferably for mutual benefit).

At Friendship Works we believe that good communications relies on ‘receive and respond’, an interaction in which information is constantly exchanged, made sense of, and then responded to in order to be able to communicate effectively between two or more parties. The way we work is collaborative. We don’t just decide what we want to tell people, or what they need to know. We are always listening to the people we work with on a daily basis to try and understand what information they want and need from us, and how they want this communicating.

The ability to communicate well enables people to form relationships and sustain these. Our casework team deploy exceptional communications skills on a daily basis, listening to mentors, families and children to assess them, match them, and manage the progress of the mentoring matches.

In every single instance and interaction, they provide thoughtful and appropriate tailored responses, whether a mentor is phoning for specific advice on a situation, or whether they are just providing some feedback on how their latest outing went. The team observe what is being communicated, assimilate the information available to them, and then formulate a response based on that particular situation. It’s done so quickly you can’t even see it happening, and it’s a skill shared by every single member of the team. In fact, one of the many pieces of positive feedback we receive from volunteers is that our communications is excellent.

Evidence shows that our most successful mentoring matches are also based on great communications. The mentors themselves, much like our casework team, are constantly involved in observing, thinking through, and providing appropriate responses to their mentees in various different situations.

New evidence from an independent study into what makes mentoring effective also bears out this fact. Although it’s called ‘attunement’ and not communications, I believe that the two things are in many ways the same.

Research Corner is a new blog and mentoring hub aimed at sharing evidence to support best practice in youth mentoring, explore new ideas and promote dialogue. It is run by MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership in America, with thought-provoking articles and features from Director of the Board and leading mentoring specialist Professor Jean Rhodes.

In the latest post, ( she shares new evidence from research carried out by Dr Julia Pryce studying the need for mentor attunement, namely, the evolving connection between mentor and mentee as the mentor seeks to understand the young person’s world. Or more simply, the mentor’s ability to relate effectively to a young person.

To carry out the study, Dr Pryce and her team studied Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring relationships in action, observing matches in context and interviewing the mentors and mentees themselves about what they thought contributed to the success of their mentoring partnerships. The research team focused on ‘patterns of interacting, modes of communicating, emotional/affective tone, conflict and anger, authority and decision-making, types of support, contact with other matches and activities and tasks’.

The findings suggest that, more than factors such as gender, age or race of the mentor and match, it is the mentor’s ability to attune themselves to a young person which determines the success of a mentoring relationship.

The research team categorise highly attuned mentors as having a great deal of empathy, and a good ability to understand a young person and respect their views on life. They respond flexibly and creatively to verbal and nonverbal signs from a young person as to their preferences, concerns and feelings, whereas minimally attuned mentors are limited and slow in their responses to the young person, and are often unable to adjust their approach to suit the situation in hand. Attuned mentors are consciously observing their mentee all the time, to be able to understand their personalities and needs, and adapt their approach accordingly.

Pryce suggests that mentor attunement can be a trainable skill (although not for extreme instances), and that mentors should be trained in:

  • Active listening
  • Appropriate eye contact
  • Identifying and responding to nonverbal as well as verbal cues
  • Maintaining flexibility
  • Soliciting youth ideas regarding activities.

This study and the resulting evidence supports the Friendship Works model of mentoring across the board. We look for mentors who are emotionally mature, can understand the needs of others, and have the flexibility and creativity to constantly adapt their approach.

As well as looking for these core attributes to be present already to some extent in our mentors, we deliver a full package of training to develop skills in these areas, which covers active listening, establishing eye contact, how to pick up and respond to mentee body language, and how to read a situation and respond accordingly. These are all of the key areas recommended by Pryce as crucial to attunement.

When we get to the matching stage, we believe that it is more important to create a match based on personality and interests rather than gender or race (although it’s obviously based on the individual need of the child, so if a family requested someone of a similar cultural background we would take this into account). This means that each child is carefully assessed to see what sort of mentor they would most benefit from, to ensure that they get the mentor who is most able to understand them and respond to their needs.

In the ongoing match supervision process, a designated caseworker will speak each week with the mentor to check how things are going, ensure that the mentor is adopting best practice with regards to listening, observing, understanding and responding to a young person, as well as making sure they are an active participant in decisions about what they do on outings.

We find that the best mentors are those who are highly insightful and take the time to observe a young person, respect them, try to understand them, and then make conscious decisions about their own responses, behaviours and ways of interacting, to get the best outcome in every situation. And where they are not sure what to do, they talk it over with their caseworker to get advice, support and suggestions for approaches or tactics to try out in the future.

In all of these instances, whether it’s a mentor responding to the needs of a child or our caseworkers responding to the needs of mentors and families, and whether you call it attunement or communications, it is the key to building and maintaining successful relationships.