Using Questioning in Mentoring Relationships

by Barry Sweeny

Editors note: The article below comprises two articles by Barry Sweeny, retrieved from the IMA web site. IMA members can log in to the “old” website to read these, and many more, valuable articles. Within the next few months, you will also be able to read all IMA articles on this web site, organized by topic and theme.


Former emeritus board member of the IMA, founder of the ASCD Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network

Former emeritus board member of the IMA, founder of the ASCD Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network

Using High Impact Mentor Questions

The Purpose of Asking “High Impact Questions” of Protégés

High Impact questions are ones that bring big insights to the person answering the questions and that accelerate learning. They always involve a response that demonstrates higher level, critical thinking, such as revealed by the verbs, compare, contrast, analyze, differentiate, or even evaluate or synthesize.

Mentors KNOW they have asked a “high impact question” when there is a pause and then the protégé answers, “I’m going to have to THINK about that a bit before I can answer it.”

Creating the TIME to THINK

In fact, purposely creating a newer slower, pause-filled form of dialogue is a specific mentoring strategy that is designed to create the opportunity to think. I call this strategy, “Slow down the conversation”. It’s a necessary strategy because of our rushed, sometimes thoughtless conversations in which we seem uncomfortable with silence. We allow the words to flow straight from our subconscious mind right out our mouths.

  • Sometimes that is a helpful process because it reveals our deeper thoughts and motivations–a learning opportunity.
  • Sometimes it’s helpful to talk that way because the act of talking helps us become clearer about what we mean.
  • But sometimes it’s NOT helpful because we say things we are sorry for before we really can consciously consider if they are wise or truthful or what we intend to say.

Slowing down the conversation allows time for the conscious mind to weigh “what we might say options” and decide the best way to ask a question, answer a question, or address a tricky issue. When what we say is important (when is it not?) and might be misunderstood, or might be counter-productive to what we want to accomplish, it’s time to take a pause and think before we speak.

Slowing down the conversation might LOOK a little strange, however. We don’t want our protégé to think we have gone to sleep with our eyes open, or that we are ignoring a question just asked. To create the context for such pauses, mentors just need to explain something like the following:

  • “If ever you ask me something or state something that makes me think before responding, you’ll notice I actually stop to take the time to think before I respond. So don’t feel uncomfortable if there are pauses in what I say. And, by the way, you should feel free to take the time to carefully think about your responses to any questions that I might ask of you as well.”

The THREE AGENDAS in Effective Mentor’s Questions

When a protégé seeks assistance from a mentor or describes a concern or problem to the mentor, there is a sequence of questions that effective mentors typically use in responding. Knowing and then using this pattern of questioning can help YOU to become an even more effective mentor.

Basically the three agendas are:

1. Questions that the mentor asks the protégé, but which are for the mentor’s own information

example: “What have you done so far to address this problem?”

Once the mentor has enough information to decide for him/herself what has happened, what the true problem may be, and what might be done about it, it’s time to see if the mentor can help the protégé analyze for these and other things and discover what to do themselves. That requires a different set of questions.

2. Questions that are asked by the mentor of the protégé to get the protégé to analyze the situation

example: “Do you think that you might be causing a part of the problem?”

example: “What do you think are your alternatives?”

It may take a number of such open-ended questions, but the goal is to get the protégé to a point where some planning can occur that will lead to action to resolve the problem. That will require a different set of mentor questions.

3. Questions the mentor asks of the protégé to guide the protégé’s decision making and planning

example: “What result do you want to seek?”, and then…

example: “Which of your alternatives is most likely to lead to that result?”

When this series of questions is done, all that may remain is for the mentor to offer to support the protégé in some way as the plan is implemented.

Personal Pronoun Power in Mentor Questions

A BRIEF DISCOVERY ACTIVITY

Below are a description of the three kinds of “High Impact” questions that mentors often ask in problem solving conversations with their protégés. They are each followed by a series of examples.

STEP #1

Please read the descriptions and the examples looking for a pattern in the examples.

FOR THE MENTOR – Questions that the mentor asks the protégé, but that are for the mentor’s own information:

Examples:

  • What do you think is the problem?
  • What do you think is the cause of this problem?
  • How long has this been true for you?
  • What have you done so far to address this problem?
  • How has any of those solutions worked for you?

FOR THE PROTÉGÉ – Questions that are asked by the mentor of the protégé to get the protégé to analyze the situation:

Examples:

  • Do you think that you might be causing a part of the problem?
  • What have you learned about your approach?
  • What’s the best thing that can happen for you?
  • What’s the worst that can happen to you?
  • What do you think are your alternatives?

FOR A PLAN – Questions the mentor asks of the protégé to guide the protégé’s decision making and planning

Examples:

  • What result do you want to achieve that would be the “best case scenario”?
  • What could you do that could lead to the best case?
  • What problems or obstacles might occur that would prevent achieving the best result?
  • What can you do that might avoid problems or obstacles?
  • Are there any other alternative routes you could take to that same best case result?
  • Which of your alternatives is most likely to lead to that result?
  • How will you start the process?
  • What will you do if the first plan does not work as well as you expect?
  • How will you know it’s time to switch to the second plan?
  • What resources do you have that can help?
  • Are those all the resources that you need?
  • How can I help you succeed?

STEP #2

Now look back through all the examples again, looking for the personal pronouns that were used. Examples of personal pronouns are: me, my, I, we, you, us, our, etc. Again, look for a pattern.

STEP #3

What do you notice about the personal pronouns used in ALL these examples except the very last one? Is there a pattern?

Yep! These questions all use the personal pronoun you or your.

Although it seems so subtle, there is a powerful effect in using the pronoun you this way. Here’s what it accomplishes:

  • The you assumes the protégé can figure out the problem and what would be the best solution (with the mentor’s questions as a guide).
  • The “you” keeps the ownership of the problem and the responsibility for that decision making and solution finding with the protégé.
  • It allows the mentor to ask the kind of open-ended questions that the mentor knows a more experienced person would ask themselves. Done a number times with different problems, the protégé will begin to anticipate the questions to be addressed. This shows that the protégé is starting to internalize those questions and learn to think that way as well, which is the goal.

Is This Assumption True?

If the assumption stated in the first bullet item above is true, this strategy is very empowering and can serve to help the protégé learn to think like a more experienced person. If it is true, the success of the protégé’s plan will give the protégé an increasing sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence as well. However, often this assumption will not be what the mentor believes.

What if the Assumption is NOT True? What Can the Mentor Do?

However, if the mentor is concerned that the protégé lacks sufficient experience to know some of the answers and can NOT analyze and solve the problem alone, what should the mentor do that is most helpful?

The answer is that the mentor should change the personal pronouns in the questions from you, which excludes the mentor from participating in answering the questions, to more inclusive pronouns like we, our, and us. Switching to inclusive personal pronouns has the effect of including the mentor in the ownership of the problem, and it keeps the mentor in the thinking, and decision making process.

The net result of including the mentor in the process is that

  • It allows the mentor to let the protégé do as much as possible, but…
  • It also allows the mentor to reflect and wonder about things out loud and, thereby to model expert thinking and choice making, all of which would be invisible to the protégé unless the mentor is part of the process, “unpacking his or her own thinking.

Notice below the effect on all the same questions of this subtle but powerful pronoun change.

FOR THE MENTOR – Questions that the mentor asks the protégé, but that are for the mentors own information:

Examples:

  • What do you think is our problem?
  • What do you think is the cause of our problem?
  • How long has this been true for us?
  • What have we done so far to address this problem?
  • How has any of those solutions worked for us?

FOR THE PROTÉGÉ – Questions that are asked by the mentor of the protégé to get the protégé to analyze the situation:

Examples:

  • Do you think that we might be causing a part of the problem?
  • What have you learned about our approach?
  • What’s the best thing that can happen for us?
  • What’s the worst that can happen to us?
  • What do you think are our alternatives?

FOR A PLAN – Questions the mentor asks of the protégé to guide the protégé’s decision making and planning

Examples:

  • What result might we try to achieve that would be the “best case scenario”?
  • What could we do that could lead to the best case?
  • What problems or obstacles might we encounter that would prevent us from achieving the best result?
  • What can we do that might avoid problems or obstacles?
  • Are there any other alternative routes we could take to that same best case result?
  • Which of our alternatives is most likely to lead us to that result?
  • How will we start the process?
  • What will we do if the first plan does not work as well as we expect?
  • How will we know it’s time to switch to the second plan?
  • What resources do we have that can help?
  • Are those all the resources that we need?
  • How can we help each other succeed?

Finally, the mentor can change the pronouns anytime that it becomes clear the basic assumption is not true. Even in the middle of speaking a sentence, the mentor can switch from using you to we.

about the author

Barry Sweeny was a leader not only in the IMA as a former emeritus board member but also in the mentoring field worldwide. Mr. Sweeny’s specialty was the development of teacher mentoring and induction programs and practices that result in high quality instruction and increased student learning. Barry trained thousands of mentors and administrators, and helped develop or improve hundreds of programs in school districts, professional associations and collaboratives, universities, regional agencies, community and governmental agencies, and businesses.

His “High Impact” model of induction and mentoring is used all over the world for accomplishing the goals of supporting and guiding new teachers into the profession and for creating programs that help districts accomplish their strategic initiatives. Barry was a founder of the ASCD Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network and was a Director Emeritus of the International Mentoring Association.