This is the first of several posts related to principles in mentoring. They are excerpts of David Riffel’s upcoming book, Mentoring Warriors: Coming Alongside Young Men 18-30.

When it comes to mentoring, I am less about programs and more about the organic way that mentoring relationships form. There is no one formula that fits every situation. No step by step that works foolproof for everyone. Hear me clearly: there are some very good mentoring programs around. Many have found a niche and success in the communities they live in. Some take a sociological approach, while others are faith-based.

Sometimes, when it comes to deeper things of a person’s life, we think that what works for one person, works for everyone. Yes, absolute truth is true for everyone, even if the person doesn’t hold to absolute truth. Despite all our commonalities as humans, however, we each have elements to our nature that are different. Even God admits such. Your personality is unique to you. You may be like other people, but there is no one exactly like you.

Some friends of ours have five sons. You can tell they are brothers by their looks, but each has a personality totally different than the others  It’s the commonalities with mankind we share that make these mentoring principles work. Principles are not widgets. When you apply the ideas I bring up, apply them to your particular mentoring relationships in a way that fits the person you are working with. Remember, if you are forcing a program or formula and are hitting a brick wall with the young man, the problem may not be with you or the young man. It may be you are forcing a way of mentoring that doesn’t fit. The widget doesn’t work.  

Here is the first of several principles that have proven successful, at least in my experience.


Every healthy relationship has at its core trust. There is a diagram that I’ve come to appreciate. It comes from a teaching series called Biblical Soul Care taught by Garrett Higbee.

The diagram works for any relationship if it wants to be healthy.

Relational Dynamics for healthy mentoring
Levels of relational dynamics that lead to healthy mentoring.

Superficial is Important

Most relationships are superficial. That is, we talk about the weather, sports, common interests. None of that is wrong. In fact, for a relationship to go deeper, as the diagram shows, there must be a reasonable amount of superficial aspects to it. You might think that sounds shallow, but here’s what I’ve come to understand. Those superficial talks build what is called phatic connections in your relationship: small fibers of commonalities that help build a network of trust.

James’s family has a mowing business. Since my heart surgery, by doctor’s orders, I am to limit my yard work. James is handy with trimming bushes and doing odd chores around my house. Those phatic connections build trust. Mike’s brake light went out. I helped him change it. That helped build phatic connections. Connor and I spent an afternoon target practicing. That developed those small fibers necessary for the relationship to go deeper.

Phatic communication, as Tim Muehlhoff explains in his book I Beg to Differ, sets up a foundation for those deeper conversations any meaningful healthy relationship needs to have. You might be comfortable with phatic conversations even if you never heard the term before. As I write this, I’m in a van traveling to Indianapolis. The three guys in the row in front of me are watching YouTube videos about everything from golfing to a recent tornado to corny songs. The conversation has been going on for hours. Mostly, it seems meaningless. No real deep life issues are being dealt with, but I can say that after this 19-hour road trip, those three guys will have built a host of phatic fibers in their relationships. Connections that will carry them for a time to come.  

A reminder to myself is that although life is short and there are deeper issues to deal with than golf videos and corny songs, the time spent engaging in those phatic conversations is worth it. Don’t get impatient, wanting to press on to the deeper things of life, but don’t only live in the moment of daily chatter either.

Recently, I flew back from Winnipeg on business. The gentleman next to me on the plane was a larger guy. We were waiting to see if some seats would open up.  He wanted more space. Seats did open up, but he stayed. Why? Our superficial conversation captured enough of his attention he decided the conversation was of greater value than a seat by himself. After about an hour into the flight chatting about family, jobs, hobbies, and common interests, the conversation moved to deeper issues.  By the time we landed in Wichita, we had the opportunity to talk about his struggles with women and how getting ahead in his career was a never-ending race. I may never see him again, but I can tell you that if we were able to stay connected, those two hours of phatic conversation would have led to deeper talks and an opportunity along the way to share what Christ has done in my life as well. Here’s the issue, however: if all you ever do in your relationships is superficial conversations, you will miss out on the deeper issues and rewards of mentoring. Take the time to chatter, but don’t stay there. Build trust, but let it lead to more life-altering issues.

Practical Steps

If, as a mentor or mentor-want to be, you want to build better, deeper relationships with those you come alongside (of any age), practice superficial talk. I know that sounds odd, but to go deeper one needs to start with phatic conversations.

  1. Next time you meet with someone, spend time getting to know them better. Ask a lot of questions. Not probing, deep questions, but ones that help you see them full-orbed: their family, likes, dislikes, sports, etc. Make it a time of discovery more than a time of soul-probing.  
  2. Invite your mentee to an event you both would enjoy. Show him godly hospitality. As you do, you’ll discover his love language. Yes, God desires you to love those, you mentor.
  3. Take a road-trip together. Talk about everything and anything under the sun. Laugh together. Hang out. Enjoy the back deck and kick back.

More in-roads have been made doing the above that have led to some deeper, soul-searching talks. I’ve learned to play disc golf, target practice, hike in the dark by headlamps, try different foods, expand my music repertoire, and all around see and enjoy various aspects of life from a warrior’s point of view. Those phatic connections have led to deeper, gut-level conversations where real change happens.

Find creative ways to build trust through superficial (phatic) conversations.

David Riffel


David Riffel is the Founder and Executive Director of Having gone through his warrior years (18-30) essentially without a mentor, God has placed in him a heart for warriors, to come alongside them in various ways as they figure out life. David’s newly released book, Mentoring Warriors: Coming Alongside Young Men 18-30, outlines principles for mentoring and gives advice for warriors in six key areas of life: self-management, life skills, education/career, relationships, faith, and identity.