Asking insightful questions, a core mentoring practice

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they ask coaching questions. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

I have been enjoying working with a range of different new mentors, on various schemes, in recent weeks. Part of their orientation to mentoring practice is introducing them to a facilitative coaching style and, as I wrote about in my earlier blog post, a ‘repertoire beyond advice’. This enables them to work with a diverse range of mentees, with a range of career backgrounds and development goals. It also allows them to bring a depth to their practice beyond a superficial advisory role.

New mentors who are trying on the coaching style and trying to avoid giving advice as a default option, often ask me what coaching questions they should ask their mentees. I could define ‘a good question’ in many ways from ‘non-incendiary’, to natural sounding, to incisive, to transformational, but what I understand these novice mentors to mean is ‘what is a helpful coaching question?’. Meaning, what could they ask, that will help their mentee to reflect and learn?

Coaching and mentoring disciplines stem from a learner-centred educational philosophy which aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path and decisions, into the mentee’s hands. What this looks like in practice is the mentor sitting back and allowing the mentee to drive the conversation, supporting them to reflect deeply, to think creatively and ultimately to choose their own way forward. It won’t surprise you then that my answer is that a good question to ask is the question that works for that person, at that time. However, all irritating hedging aside, I offer some general guidance below on constructing great coaching questions, with examples. 

Setting the ground rules.  It’s still worth beginning by setting some focus for the coaching conversation, for example asking “How do you want to use the time together?”“What are you hoping this conversation will bring?” or “What specifically do you need from me today?”  Even brief ad hoc coaching conversations can have an impact, but this only happens if both parties are clear about the purpose the discussion.  

Start at the beginning and take it from there.  For some mentees a simple "How are you?"  or "How have you been getting along?" will set them off on a long and reflective retelling of recent experiences. It’s OK to keep them talking. Don’t feel that you have to interrupt with a question to be more ‘coach like’. Listen, and take in what they are saying, and ask clarifying questions as needed.

Keep questions ‘open’.  An open question is one that invites your mentee or coachee to give a considered answer, recount an event, or think out loud, in some way processing their experiences and making sense of them. It’s usually a question which doesn’t have a simple answer but requires some contemplation and evaluation of the matters at hand. As such, open questions spark reflection, and help them bring implicit thoughts or thought processes out into the open. Often, what mentees need is for you as the mentor to open the conversation, and they’ll talk it all out.

Keep the conversation flowing.  For others, perhaps mentees who are more skilled at mastering their own thoughts internally, more naturally reserved, or those who are more nervous or who are feeling a bit upset, "How are you?" will elicit the short response of "Fine." and you will have to think again about how to open up the conversation. My own favourite choice in this situation is a question along the lines of "What have you enjoyed in your work recently?" or "What have you had on your plate the last couple of weeks?". You can keep the conversation rolling by using a drawing, mapping or other vi