5.3 Questioning skills
Effective questioning is an important skill throughout many aspects of our working lives, but is something that takes on a particular significance when it comes to your role as a mentor.
Being able to ask the right questions at the right time and in the right way will help you and your mentee talk about what’s going on and help you in guiding a conversation in the direction that’s required. If you ask the wrong questions, you'll probably get the wrong answer, or at least not quite what you're hoping for!
Imagine that you are having a meeting with your mentee – identify the reasons why you may find yourself asking questions during the course of this discussion.
Some of the most common reasons mentors might ask their mentees questions during their mentoring meetings are:
- To check understanding
- To draw out knowledge and opinions
- To involve the mentee in the discussion
- To explore relevant experiences
- To stimulate thinking
- To aid reflections
- To identify and address problems
- To challenge the mentee
- To clarify thinking
- To discover potential blockages to learning
- To assess progress
Questions can elicit different responses, depending on how you phrase them.
Broadly speaking, questions fall into two types – closed questions and open questions.
The possible responses to closed questions are limited. Such questions usually elicit statements of fact, although these may not be very detailed - some types of closed question simply elicit a ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Don’t know’ response; for example:
- ‘Do you understand my explanation?’
- ‘Have you handed in your portfolio to the university?’
Closed questions are useful for fact-finding, information gathering and identifying issues. They can be used to assess existing knowledge or establish what has been learnt.
In contrast, open questions invite fuller explanation, prompt further discussion or encourage mentees to expand further on what they are thinking or feeling, for example:
- How do you feel about this situation?
- Can you tell me more about your ideas?
Open questions can focus on exploring meaning, revealing attitudes and values.
It should, however, be remembered that there are no golden rules as to when each of these different types of question should be asked – conversation is a lot more complex than this implies!
Given the general understanding of how people typically respond to open and closed questions, it is useful to pay attention to responses that go against the trend as these can tell you quite a lot about the person you are talking to. For example, if someone is naturally shy or feeling particularly nervous, closed questions give the opportunity for them to talk more briefly in a way that they may view as being “safer”.
One of your tasks as a mentor may be to try and probe deeply about a problem or issue. The funnel technique gives us a useful visual reference for thinking about questioning skills. This provides a framework that might be used practically in order to help elicit the type of basic information we may be looking to gain. In addition, this also helps to probe these issues further, something that can help to fuel additional discussion of issues raised during a mentoring discussion.
At the mouth of the funnel you begin with an ‘open’ question’. This question is intended to give the mentee the widest possible scope for responding. Sometimes it may be necessary to repeat or rephrase this question to give the mentee more thinking time.
Working down the narrowing body of the funnel you use a series of probing questions, a useful technique that can be a helpful strategy to draw out further specific information and help complete the picture. This might be something as simple as asking your mentee to provide an example to help you understand something they have previously said.
Closed questions then draw out, check or confirm specific pieces of information, or get the mentee to commit on a point more precisely.
The bottom of the funnel reminds you that you should clarify, using a short summary, what you have got out of the discussion, aiming to check your understanding of the main points.
The question sequence might go like this:
- ‘Tell me how you went about…?’ (open)
- ‘How did you prepare?’ (open)
- ‘What was your starting point?’ (probe)
- ‘So, what happened next?’ (probe)
- ‘Who else was involved?’ (probe)
- ‘And how did they respond?’ (probe)
- ‘What were your thoughts at that stage?’ (probe)
- ‘What were the main outcomes?’ (probe)
- ‘So, that took a total of six weeks?’ (closed – clarifying)
- ‘Was it your idea or someone else’s?’ (closed – clarifying)
- ‘So, let me see if I’ve followed you…’ (checking – summary)
For an example of good questioning in practice, watch the following video:
Good questioning transcript
Set yourself a goal for today to ask a couple of questions in three conversations that you participate in.
Then, set a goal for the next week.
When you ask questions, try not to ask more than one question at a time so that the other person has time to respond to it. It is possible that the speaker may become silent for some time but, if this happens, do not try to rush and fill up the silence. Instead, you should give the speaker a chance to compose their thoughts.
Make it a habit to ask questions in every conversation. This will help you learn new things and improve your listening skills.
(Idea adapted from:)
During your mentoring relationship, you may find yourself in a situation in which your mentee wants to talk to you about a difficult or unsatisfactory situation that they have found themselves in.
In this case, questioning can play an important role in helping to encourage the mentee to reflect back over the situation and think about potential resolutions or how changes might be made to a current practice in order to develop future practice.
In this case, the types of question you may ask could include:
- “Why do you say that you aren’t any good at ...?”
- “Tell me about a time when you ...”
- “What went well when you ...?”
- “What was it specifically that you weren’t happy with?”
- “What would you have liked to happen?”
- “If you had to do ... again, what would you do differently?”
- “What support would you need?”
Although questions and answers may seem simple at first glance, they often involve complex processes and rules. As such, when you are involved in a question situation it can be a good idea to try and listen to your own reactions and responses, making a mental note of when you think someone ‘isn’t saying enough’, ‘is saying too much’ or ‘has got hold of the wrong end of the stick’.
Doing this gives you the opportunity to think about how you might want to adjust your questioning technique, something that you may find beneficial to try and practice in a non-professional setting.
Just as mentoring is a two-way process so are questions. You can use questions as a way of wrapping up a session or episode, or of reprising something that has been going on, for example:
- “What are the two things you have learned this morning?”
- “Can you tell me the two most important things we should have been paying attention to in what we have just been doing?”
- “Is there anything that worries you about what we have just been doing?”
- “What are your thoughts about the goals you set for yourself in the context of the work episode we’ve just been involved in?”
One way you can explore questions as a two-way process is by listening to the types of question used in radio and television interviews.
Interview styles can be very different and questions are used in a variety of ways, ranging from closed questions that deny the interviewee the chance to come out with a prepared answer (adversarial political interviews), through to open-ended questions that seek a lengthy opinion (arts programmes).