Mentor Well: Lessons from Positive Psychology

by Dr. Laura Gail Lunsford

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But when interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 68)

In this article, I call attention to relationship quality and advance the idea that we need to focus more on promoting and studying high-quality mentoring relationships. I present a technique from positive psychology to illustrate how we might integrate findings from other fields into our mentoring practice and research.

Until recently researchers and practitioners neglected a close consideration of relationship quality. Those individuals who first focused on relationship quality examined the “dark side.” However, our assumption is that mentoring relationships are beneficial. This suggests that we believe the quality of the relationship matters and that mentoring has a “bright side.” Yet I rarely see tools or skills from positive psychology integrated into mentoring training or much consideration of how to develop mentoring’s “bright side.”

Positive psychology has roots in community and counseling psychology. This line of research coalesced into a field after the 2000 American Psychologist issue on the topic (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000). The overarching goal of positive psychology is to help individuals, communities, and society to flourish. This perspective emphasizes well-being, the good life, and the meaningful life (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000). The coaching literature (e.g., Gordon, 2012; Kauffman, 2006) has started to draw upon positive psychology, but mentoring researchers and practitioners have not.

An emphasis on high quality relationships aligns well with evidence-based practices in positive psychology. We know that certain positive psychological, state-like characteristics, such as efficacy, hope, optimism, and resiliency, are associated with positive work behaviors and outcomes. These characteristics are referred to as “Psychological Capital” (PsyCap) and can be developed through mentoring. There are several techniques that promote the development of rapport, listening skills, and PsyCap that can be integrated into a mentor’s skill set.

Building PsyCap

One way that mentors and protégés engage with one another is to talk about bad events experienced by the protégés. An important role for the mentors is to help their protégés reframe their thinking about the bad events in a way that helps them overcome their challenges. The ABCDE model (Seligman, 2002) is a five-step process that can guide a conversation to develop PsyCap. Each step is reviewed below along with an example of how it might unfold in a mentoring interaction.

Adverse situation. The first step is for the mentor to identify the adversity (A) faced by the protégé. Consider a mentor–protégé pair in an organizational setting. The mentor Maria is an engineer at a prestigious software company. The protégé Alex is a newly hired computer scientist who believes he has offended a team leader in a recent team meeting. Maria first seeks to understand the adverse event. Alex relates how the team leader shot down Alex’s ideas in meeting yesterday.

Beliefs. The second step is for the mentor to listen for the protégé beliefs (B) that occur as a result of the adverse situation. Maria asks Alex to explain his beliefs as a result of this event. Alex says, “The team leader thinks I’m an idiot.”

Consequences. Protégés are then asked to describe the consequences (C) of having these beliefs. Maria asks Alex to state the consequences of his belief. Alex thinks for a moment before replying that he thinks he will never be promoted under this team leader or be assigned to an important project.

Disputation. The fourth step is often the most difficult one. In this step, the mentors ask the protégés to dispute (D) their beliefs. In other words, the protégé is asked to come up with alternative possible explanations of the adverse event. The transformative aspects of this approach occur when Maria asks Alex to imagine other reasons the team leader may not have liked Alex’s idea. At first, Alex may struggle to come up with other ideas. It is important for Maria to listen supportively and to help Alex think about other explanations. For example, Alex recalls that the team leader was recently out on vacation and may not have received the email updates that Alex sent the team. Alex observes that his idea may take longer and may cost more initially, even if it will save money on updates over the long term.

Energized. Upon considering other possible explanations, protégés often realize that a different explanation is more appropriate and realistic. As a result, protégés are energized (E) to handle the adverse situation in a different way. Thus, in the final step, Maria will ask Alex what beliefs he might have about the event if the other explanations are true. Alex observes that he might need to provide more documentation to the team leader or help the team leader make a case for the long-term savings. Alex may realize that the team leader may not believe he, Alex, is an idiot after all.

Take Away

Research clearly points to the negative effects of ruminating or over-thinking bad events. The ABCDE model is useful for when mentors encounter protégés facing challenging situations. Mentors have an opportunity to build PsyCap in their protégés by having conversations that reframe challenges into opportunities.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, New York.

Gordon, S. (2012). Strengths-Based Approaches to Developing Mental Toughness: Team and Individual. International Coaching Psychology Review , 7 (2), 210-222.

Kauffman, C. (2006). Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching . In D. R. Stober, & A. M. Grant, Evidence Based Coaching Handbook: Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients (pp. 219-253). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. A divsion of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction (Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 5). American Psychological Association.


About the Author: Dr. Laura Gail Lunsford

Laura Gail Lunsford
Laura Gail Lunsford is a Southern transplant to the Southwest, where she is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. She studies the psychology of mentoring, is a frequent speaker, and is an academic and popular writer on mentoring and leadership. In 2007, the International Mentoring Association awarded her the Dr. Hope Richardson dissertation award. She is a friendly critic of mentoring and recently redirected her talents from studying the “dark side” of mentoring to focus on its “bright side.”