by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.
Often when we think of mentors, we think of people who dispense wise advice. After all, your mentor is someone who has more experience than you and can give you guidance on what to do. Many mentoring partnerships begin with a piece of sound advice that helps establish a mentor’s credibility. Over the long run, however, advice can become a trap for a mentor. Mentors who only give advice miss an opportunity to teach a protégé to think for him or herself. It is difficult to build this capability when giving advice. Advice is the end of a conversation; a question is the beginning of one.
As trust grows between a mentor and protégé, their conversations will turn to more complex issues, many of which may be vexing for a protégé. While a protégé may be seeking a simple solution to the problem, there is rarely a silver bullet. Instead, what a protégé needs is a safe place to explore the situation and get another perspective on it. When a mentor asks good questions, the protégé is asked to step out of the situation and examine it from a distance. This process of exploration helps a protégé find alternatives that she hasn’t considered yet or find a new way to approach the problem.
Questions also help a mentor keep from treating symptoms of the issue. Often the protégé is raising an issue that is a symptom of a larger issue. When advice is given before the issue is explored more fully, the protégé may address the surface issue without getting to the root cause.
Just as good advice can establish a mentor’s credibility, it can also erode that credibility. It is easier to give advice on less complex issues. For instance, you may share a few of your time management techniques with a protégé who is struggling under the weight of his commitments. That advice establishes you as someone who can help with his or her issues. Over time, however, your protégé may trust you with more complex issues that do not have easy answers. Your protégé may have a hostile relationship with his boss and wants your thoughts on what to do. When you suggest talking with the boss, your protégé says, “I’ve tried that; he doesn’t listen.” With that advice, you may lose some of that trust and credibility you have built. A better question would have been, “What have you tried so far?” and, “What did it sound like when you tried to raise the issue with the boss?” Those questions will get you more mileage than advice.
Finally, questions keep the ownership of the issue and solution with the protégé. If a protégé tries your advice and it fails, she can blame you. On the other hand, if the protégé arrives at a course of action through a conversation driven by good questions, she is more likely to take ownership of the solution and try harder to make the solution work.
There are two basic classes mentors ask. Exploratory questions are meant to get the protégé to describe the situation. You are trying to pull the protégé out of the situation to examine it from a distance. With these questions, you are trying to establish the groundwork:
- Who is involved in the situation?
- What is each party’s interest?
- What is the primary challenge?
- What constraints does the protégé face?
- What time constraints are at work?
Through these questions, you can probe the situation and try to understand all of the moving parts. Sometimes, as a protégé answers exploratory questions, she starts working toward solutions. Other times, she needs more of a spark to move her outside her comfort zone.
Catalyst questions try to engage the protégé in deeper thinking about the situation. These questions try to get the protégé to see things from different perspectives, see options beyond their current thinking, or challenge assumptions that are constraining thinking.
Catalyst questions come in many varieties, including the following:
- Logical: What could have caused that to happen?
- Enabling: You have mentioned that as a barrier; what could you do to start climbing over or working around that barrier?
- Comparison: How have others handed similar situations?
- Contrasting: How is this situation different than one’s you have experienced before?
- Visionary: What does success look life for you?
While good questions do beat good advice, there are three times when advice makes sense. As mentioned earlier, a mentor can use advice early to establish credibility. Helping with an early issue gets you a small win that can help build trust. Advice can also be used for less complex issues, often closing knowledge gaps a protégé has because he lacks experience. Finally, advice can be used to clear log jams. When a protégé has looked at an issue from many angles and still cannot come up with a course of action, advice can be presented as the first option to consider. Often by hearing that there is someaction the protégé can take frees them to consider other alternatives.
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