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!

Activity 5.6

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.

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Feedback

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.

Closed 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.

Open questions

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.

Figure 4 The funnel questioning technique © London Deanery, with kind permission

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:

Download this video clip.Video player: good_questioning_ment_mooc_vid04.mp4
Skip transcript

Transcript

Good questioning transcript

MENTOR:
So you were very keen to discuss your career plans. And I'm wondering what you've been thinking about so far.
MENTEE:
Well, I've given it a lot of thought actually. I know last time we talked about what direction I wanted to go in. I'm quite clear that I do want to get some managerial experience. That's the direction I want to go in. So I'm quite clear about that now.
MENTOR:
OK. And what is it about managerial that appeals to you?
MENTEE:
I've spent a lot of time managing projects. And what I'd really like to do now is manage people. It's something I haven't done before, but I'm really drawn towards it. So I really do need to get some experience in this and work out how I'm going to get there.
MENTOR:
Right. So your thoughts have clarified towards managing people.
MENTEE:
Yes.
MENTOR:
And I'm just wondering where that takes you now. What are your thoughts now?
MENTEE:
Well, I need to figure out exactly what the steps are in order for me to get the experience, so that when I go to interview that I can show that I've got the skills required. So I need to do some research around that and probably some training, as well.
MENTOR:
OK. So some research and training – what kind of research do you feel you might need to do?
MENTEE:
That's a good question actually. I'm not sure at the moment. I could speak to my manager about that. Perhaps someone in HR might be able to point me in the right direction.
MENTOR:
So a little bit of prior research, really, about the research.
MENTEE:
Yes.
MENTOR:
And how do you see this going forward?
MENTEE:
Well, the first thing that I need to do, really, is to identify within my area what are the options with regards to potential promotion, and to find out exactly what would be required for that role, and then find some training that's relevant to those new skills that I need to acquire.
MENTOR:
So this sounds like the beginnings of a good action plan. And I'm just wondering how you'll keep yourself on track.
MENTEE:
Yes. As you know, I do have a lot on at the moment. So that is a bit of a concern about how I manage that.
MENTOR:
So what are the potential pitfalls here?
MENTEE:
OK, well, I mean, I'll be honest with you. Time management is not a huge strength of mine at the moment because of my workload. I really do need a very specific plan with timelines. And I need to spend some time prioritising.
MENTOR:
OK. So what works best for you in terms of really managing your time?
MENTEE:
What really works best for me is when I can have this kind of situation in my coaching that you can help me identify what it is that I need to do and help me keep on track with my timelines. It might help for us to have a talk around that actually.
MENTOR:
OK. OK. And how else can I support you going forward?
MENTEE:
Well, in our sessions, of course, it really helps when I can check in with you. And not that I expect you to chase me up, but it's good to be accountable in our sessions and to have something to aim towards.
MENTOR:
Sure. OK. So keeping you clearly on track and getting things to aim towards.
MENTEE:
Yes.
MENTOR:
And what's the very next step?
MENTEE:
Good question. OK, my next step has to be to speak to my manager. I'm going to book something in his diary, tell him that I've decided on what it is I want to do with my development, and to find out from him what the possibilities are for some training.
MENTOR:
OK. Sounds like a plan.
MENTEE:
Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. You've been helpful. Thank you.
End transcript
 
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Activity 5.7

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: http://razvandobre.com/ 10-Exercises-to-Improve-Listening-Skills-and-Become-an-Active-Listener.html [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] )

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?”

(Adapted from: http://www2.le.ac.uk/ offices/ red/ rd/ career-development/ research-staff/ mentoring/ skills-mentors)

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).

5.2 Listening skills

5.4 Giving feedback