The Mentoring Relationship

 – Building a Therapeutic Alliance –

Key to any kind of developmental work with people is something, from a therapeutic context, called the therapeutic alliance. The word ‘alliance’ simply means a partnership. This is the process of establishing an open and caring relationship with people so that trust and vulnerability will thrive. Without trust there can be no vulnerability, without vulnerability there can be no progress or healing. Vulnerability is the process of people revealing their ‘real’ self. This is the part of them that may be hurt, demotivated or neglected. This is the part of them which is in need of healing, and so understanding how to foster this relationship with people is crucial because if you can’t get to the root cause of issues, then you will waste you time on surface level emotions. Surface level emotions are just the symptoms of the real problem. Without creating this alliance the developmental process will be stunted.

There are many ways in which to foster this relationship with people, however I believe there are three main concepts vital to this. I have already mentioned trust and vulnerability. Foundational to these two is compassion. Compassion’s goal is to communicate great care and concern for the person/s with whom you’re in relationship. Without this ‘loving motion towards’ people you can forget about creating any space for vulnerability or trust. Before I trust you, or am willing to be vulnerable with you, I must know that I am safe with you; and that is compassion’s specialty.

Now, for some of the practical ways to create this alliance. I have listed five areas, which I believe are important, although there are many others to be found in good resources on the topic.

Attending behaviour is what is used to describe the kind of factors that communicate attention and interest in a person. Attending behaviour is an art form that can, and should, be practiced for it’s development. It can be difficult to master, yet is simple to understand theoretically. Attending behaviour includes things like

  • Body language: this includes things like having an open and relaxed body posture, i.e. uncrossed arms; leaning slightly towards people when they speak; maintaining eye contact.
  • Tone of voice: that is engaging, interested and warm. Aggressive or cold tone immediately blunts engagement.
  • Choice of words: this includes the use of open ended questions, i.e. any question that doesn’t invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response; non-judgmental words; empathetic words that indicate connection with what is heard.

Suspending one’s judgement is a critical factor in allowing people the space to voice their feelings and concerns. This does not mean that people are unable to do anything wrong, it just means that you allow the space for people to express themselves as they discover the rights and wrongs of their past behaviour and thinking. If someone says, “I could just punch them”, to jump in and reply that this would not be helpful may disrupt the dialogue, and this dialogue is what is so important. The person/s who have come for help haven’t mistakenly booked for a lecture – as the mentor or counselor you have to create this space for dialogue. This may mean being quiet for long enough until you begin to really understand, not just project your understanding into, the situation.

Jumping too quickly to judgement disrupts the therapeutic alliance. This alliance must be preserved. Once it is in place, and you fully appreciate the situation, you can move on to responding with insight or comments. More of this in Part 3.3 ‘Partnering for growth’.


Listening is a lost art form. In a modern era that elevates the value of speaking above listening, it is important to reclaim listening as one half of the whole picture vital to effective communication. Listening carefully will be covered further in reflective listening, but suffice to say, when people don’t feel heard they tend to close up. No amount of questioning may prompt someone to share a deep part of themselves if they feel they are not being heard.

Being oneself while creating this alliance is also important. Authenticity is a part of showing true compassion, which includes reciprocal vulnerability. Reciprocal vulnerability means sharing, appropriately, of yourself with the person/s with whom you’re journeying. In a clinical context this is not permitted, but true compassion requires that someone’s investment in their own vulnerability is matched in return by the mentor’s. Sharing some of your own past hurts and celebrations opens up a number of avenues – those of deepened trust; an appreciation of our common humanity and fallibility; and faith that the theory you share is supported by hard won experience.

Lastly, allowing silence. This can be a very hard thing to do, because we often want to fill silences with some advice or question. However, sometimes the best option is to allow people space to think or breathe. Trust that the silence is a breeding ground for better disclosure, and so conversation, towards solving problems.


Follow this link to continue to the next blog in this series – Part 3.1 – Reflective listening