What Makes a Good Mentor

Traits and Abilities that Lead to Positive Mentoring: Part I

According to the research, successful mentors have a key attributes in common. Some are intrinsic personality traits, but others are learned social abilities that may be developed. This article will focus on empathy, but later in this series we will explore other key traits and how to develop them. Below are some practical ways to tap into empathy even if it’s not one of your most dominant personality traits.

Empathy is an allusive trait that allows you to tap into the experience of another's point of view and emotions. Being empathic with your student will help them feel more understood, valued, and at ease. This creates a supportive learning relationship that fosters growth. A harsh or uncaring atmosphere greatly distracts from the learning process. But when one’s emotional and relational side is acknowledged, it’s easier to focus on the intellectual tasks, leading to a more meaningful and effective clinical experience. Here are some strategies to improve your empathetic goals as a clinical instructor:

  1. Relate to your student: Remember your own experiences as a student physical therapist. Which mentors had the most positive impact on you? How did they make you feel? Try to emulate their empathy to your own student.
  2. Humanize your student: Keep in mind that the student is not just a developing rehabilitation specialist, but also a human being who faces the same financial and mental burdens of being in grad school. Be mindful that while they are there to learn, they also have a personal life.
  3. Use your observational skills: Just as you look for signs of psychological distress in your patients, observe your student’s affect day to day. Address any problems earlier rather than later.
  4. Build rapport: Though you are in a professional mentoring role, you can certainly ask your student about his or her life. Your students will feel more welcomed and at ease if you take a little time to get to know them, the same way you build rapport with your patients.
  5. Share with your student: You will be more personable and human as a mentor if you let your student see that you have a life beyond work. Stay professional, but it’s good to relate to your student by sharing appropriately about your family, hobbies, and your own past experiences as a physical therapist and student.

As you practice these methods, you will optimize your trait of empathy and provide more supportive mentoring to your student. Keep in mind that each student is a unique individual. Take the time to build an empathic relationship, so you will know your student's specific learning style and needs. You will become a more effective mentor and be better able to prepare your student for success.


1. Turban, Daniel B. and Lee, Felissa K. “The Role of Personality in Mentoring Relationships.” The Handbook of Mentoring at Work, edited by Belle Rose Ragins and Kathy E. Kram, SAGE Publications, 2007, pp.21-50.

2. Straus, Sharon E., Johnson, Mallory O., Marquez, Christine, and Feldman, Mitchell D. “Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers.” Academic Medicine, vol. 88, no.

1., pp. 82-89, 2013. Pub Med, doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31827647a0. Accessed 8 February 2019.