Abstract: Deconstructing Empathy: A Qualitative Examination of a Critical Ingredient in Successful Adult-Youth Mentoring Relationships (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

664P Deconstructing Empathy: A Qualitative Examination of a Critical Ingredient in Successful Adult-Youth Mentoring Relationships

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Johanna Barry, LCSW, PhD Candidate, Doctoral Student, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Renee Spencer, EdD, LICSW, Professor, Boston University School of Social Work, MA
Julia Pryce, PhD, Associate Professor, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: There is a long history of the study of empathy as an important component of helping relationships within social work and across related disciplines. Empirical studies examining the processes at work in youth mentoring have identified empathy as a distinguishing characteristic of higher quality relationships. However what empathy looks like within the context of these relationships, or the nature of these processes, has not been studied. The present study sought to understand the nature and function of empathy in adult-youth mentoring relationships.

Methods: Data were drawn from a larger longitudinal study of youth mentoring relationship development. A purposive sample of 67 youth-mentor pairs participated in in-depth individual qualitative interviews at multiple time points during a 2-year period. Interviews with mentors lasted between 45-60 minutes and were recorded and transcribed verbatim. For this analysis, we included interviews from mentors who had completed interviews from at least 3 time points (n = 48). These mentors were 20 to 55 years of age (M = 27 years) and self-identified in the following ways: 73% White, 10% Black, 4% Latinx/Hispanic, 4% Asian and 8% multiracial or other backgrounds. Mentors interviewed were in relationships with mentees for between 6 and 24 months (on average 13 months). Their mentees ranged in age from 8 to 16 years.  

A process of open coding of the interviews was undertaken by the research team using NVIVO-12 data analysis software. This yielded an 12 sub-components of empathy, which were then further examined through frequency analysis and additional coding and synthesized into two predominant themes that represented central dimensions of empathy within these relationships.  

Findings: Perspective-taking (which encompassed relatability and understanding) and adaptability (i.e., openness and flexibility) represent the two core themes most strongly indicated in the participants’ narratives. Perspective-taking was evidenced by mentors’ descriptions of efforts to relate to their mentee’s lived experience, including those influenced by aspects of the youth’s background (i.e., racioethnic background, economic status). Mentors conveyed an intellectual and emotional understanding of the mentee’s frame of reference and communicated deep care for youth. Adaptability involved mentors’ active openness to adjusting their perceptions and behaviors in response to the mentees’ needs and frames of reference. By displaying an openness to the youth (in terms of activities or conversation topics, for example), mentors adapted their views, acknowledging the priority in engaging mentees. Both of these aspects of empathy were described as taking place within the context of mutual enjoyment of shared activities.

Conclusions and Implications: This research contributes to a growing literature aimed at understanding the processes at work in adult-youth mentoring relationships. The findings lend insight into specific relational processes at work in mentoring relationships and raise questions about whether and how mentor empathy may contribute to the promotion of youth outcomes through mentoring, which should be further examined in future research. Unpacking and examining specific dimensions of empathy on the part of adult mentors also has implications for youth-serving programs striving to promote stronger youth-adult relationships in other program settings.