A successful mentoring program is built on relationship, and the life vein of any relationship is communication. You can’t build trust, collaborate on goals, measure progress, or transfer knowledge—all important elements of a strong mentoring relationship—without maintaining strong and effective communication.
In Tune in: The Importance of Listening in Mentoring, we explained how listening, an important element of communication, is an essential quality in a good mentor. But there is another element of good communication that is even more important than listening, and that is the ability to ask the right questions.
The right question can mean the difference between clarity and confusion. Both mentors and mentees can benefit equally from this skill. With the right questions, mentors can gain a thorough understanding of a mentee's current skillset, what they hope to gain from the mentorship, and what fears or doubts might be holding them back.
In turn, mentees can use intelligently developed questions to help them understand a mentor’s background and how it relates to their role as a mentor, the mentor’s expectations, and how their mentor defines success. All of these things are key ingredients to a mentorship that starts out strong and will stand the test of time.
There are many different question types and techniques, but some of them are especially suited for a mentoring relationship:
Open vs. Closed Questions
Open and closed questions are similar in the sense that both methods are designed to elicit a specific type of answer. Open questions are geared toward developing conversation. They aim for long, detailed answers that deliver lots of information. Closed questions, on the other hand, elicit short answers designed to communicate facts.
Example (Open Question): What are your primary career goals?
Example (Closed Question): How many mentees have you had in your career?
Structured questions are designed to inform the respondent of the reasoning behind a set of questions. This creates the setting for an open Q&A geared toward developing comfortable dialogue with the respondent.
Example: In order for us to set expectations for the mentorship, I’ll need to ask you a few questions about your goals and intentions.
Utilize Wait-time, or Silence
A strategically placed pause or extended silence between questions creates space in a Q&A session. This method is used for emphasis as well as to draw out a response. Pausing before or after a question or statement also gives the respondent time to evaluate the question being asked and devise a thoughtful answer.
Example: You have the potential to become a leader in your career…Can you tell me the defining characteristics of a good leader?
The great philosopher Socrates was famous for using questions to promote learning. This method of questioning is designed to encourage respondents to go deeper by communicating the thought process behind their answers. Respondents are asked to analyze their answers and explain why they have a certain thought or feel a certain way. The purpose is to gain a thorough understanding of their goals.
Example: What is your idea of success? Can you explain what this definition of success means to you?
Questioning to Elicit Participation
This method of questioning is especially suited for group mentoring sessions. In a group setting, it’s all too easy for less outspoken individuals to retreat into the crowd. Questions designed to elicit participation aim to draw these individuals out and encourage them to interact with the group. In this way, shy mentees gain just as much from the session as outgoing ones.
Example: What do you look for in a mentor? Turn to your neighbor and explain your answer.
Finally, a thoughtful response can be just as important as a question, and it can sometimes yield the information you didn’t gain from the question. In mentoring, there are no “wrong” answers, but there is often a need for further clarification of a respondent’s ideas. Responses can be used for encouragement, validation, redirection, or to provide context.
Example: Your answer is a little vague. Can you say it in a different way?
There are other methods of questioning that may be useful in mentoring, such as probing, rhetorical, or process questioning. Ultimately, it’s up to both participants to decide how best to use questioning to build the relationship and gain the knowledge they need to reach the program goals.
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