If you’ve read my posts, you’ll have probably realised that an important feature of my mentoring style is the centrality of questions. However, in reading for the HEA Associate Fellowship application, I have discovered there is much more to the question than first appears.
Most people will have come across the difference between open questions (‘What do you think about X?) and closed questions (Do you like X?). But did you know that questions, and the listening process as a whole, can be further categorised into ‘diagnostic’ or ‘active’?
According to Connor and Pokora (2012), it is important to distinguish between the two, and to implement the latter, for mentoring. They point out that diagnostic listening and related questions are selective and are essentially about problem-solving, about ready ‘suggestions framed as questions’, or asking questions the mentee already knows the answer to, and they tend to be closed. In short, they seem to benefit the mentor more than the mentee.
I think it’s worth acknowledging that these kinds of questions may work well at the start of the mentoring session, in which we need to know certain facts in order for the session to run smoothly: What’s the topic? Is this a draft or finished piece? Have you considered the Tutor feedback? But we need to progress to more active listening for the mentee to really benefit in the main part of the session.
According to the literature, we can achieve active listening by focusing on the mentee as a whole rather than a specific issue, and by:
- using questions that paraphrase the mentee, in order to show we have heard and understood them without filtering or evaluating, as well as allowing them to hear their own words aloud to allow for reflection on their own meaning;
- asking genuine questions to explore all avenues of information and interpretations;
- asking no questions at all, but instead falling silent, to allow for reflection and to create a space for the mentee to elaborate on their ideas;
- utilising non-verbal cues to see how the mentee is feeling, and also how their body language might say something different to their words;
- raising discrepancies we might hear between what the mentee says and what is on the page they present;
- repeating key words that the mentee uses in order to query/challenge the usage;
- and making any suggestions in a tentative way, to allow the mentee time to consider them as options only.
So what’s in a question? Apparently a lot, if it’s the right type of question!
Connor, M., and Pokora, J. (2012). Coaching and Mentoring at Work: Developing Effective Practice. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.