If there were a Mentors’ Hall of Fame, Socrates would be an instant inductee. In a heated argument over whether slaves have souls (the ancient Greeks believed that only smart people would have eternal life), Socrates bet a case of mead (no doubt Greek for Bud Light) that he could teach a common slave the Pythagorean theorem (for those who used it in high school and then filed it away: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides). He had no overhead projector, handouts, or textbook. He needed only two tools to teach the slave: the capacity to ask the right question and the ability to listen carefully to the meaning behind the answer. To this day the method behind his bold bet is memorialized as Socratic teaching.
Socrates understood the secret of mentoring : Effective questioning brings insight, which fuels curiosity, which cultivates wisdom. Quality questions have a multiplier effect on learning. Ask an information-seeking question, you get only an answer or a fact; ask an understanding-seeking question and you unleash a more powerful chain of events. Here’s how it works.
Start with a Setup Statement
Questions can be more powerful if the sender and receiver are clearly on the same wavelength — and know that they are. Starting with a setup statement establishes identification and context. It creates a milieu that makes the follow-up question much more powerful.
Mentor: (Setup) Jane, you’ve been working for about eight weeks now on the Dunn review.
Protégé: (Answer) That’s right. I’ve had to put in some long hours on it.
Mentor: (Question) What have you learned about the project that you didn’t expect to
Notice how much more effective the question is after the mentor first makes a statement to establish identification (I am on your wavelength) and context (We have now established what area we are focusing on). It communicates to the protégé, “I’ve done my homework, I care, I’m eager to learn with you.” It also helps the protégé to focus cleanly on the question and not on establishing a background to shore up the answer. Imagine how defensive the question alone might make the protégé feel.
Ask Questions That Require Higher-Level Thinking
Remember that the ultimate goal is to create insight, not to share information. Granted, some information sharing may be necessary; the main objective, however, is to nurture understanding and growth, not just exchange facts. Construct questions that require the protégé to dig deep to answer. Questions that force comparisons can accomplish this: “What are ways the Hollar project was different from the Dickinson Project?” Questions that require synthesis can induce deeper thinking: “What do you see as the key implications of Mr. Rivers’ assessment?” And questions that call for evaluation can provoke higher-level thinking: “If you could handle that assignment again, what would you do differently?”
The conventional wisdom on questioning has always been to ask open-ended questions. Closed questions, the lesson goes, will cause the receiver to deliver a short, single-word or phrase answer. However, the process is more complex than that. Socrates’ understanding-seeking questions did not just make the slave talk — they made him think. The intent of questioning to seek understanding is not just more words in the answer, but more depth in the thinking needed to produce the answer.
Avoid Questions That Begin with Why
Why avoid “why” questions? In most cultures, a sentence that begins with the word “why” and ends in a question mark is usually perceived as judgmental and indicting. Granted, body language can play a role in how such questions are perceived, but even with perfect body language, our antennae go up as soon as we hear a “why” question.
Find ways to soften the interrogatory question. “Why did you do that?” can sound very different from “What were your reasons for doing that?” The word “why” is not the problem; it is putting “why” on the front of a question. As we learned earlier, judgment can turn an open atmosphere into one of protection, caution, and guarded behavior. Without vulnerability there is no risk; without risk there is no experimentation and growth.
Use Curiosity to Stimulate Curiosity
Socrates did more than ask good questions. Socrates demonstrated an enthusiasm for the learning process. He believed in it and was excited to participate in demonstrating it. Attitude is as much a part of the Socratic method as technique.
Great mentors are not only curious; they are excited by the opportunity to stimulate other people’s curiosity. Their attitude is “I can’t wait to see the lights come on for you!” They are open about their excitement and verbally communicate pleasure when the protégé’s “Aha!” finally comes.
In a study done a few years ago, Fortune 500 CEOs were asked what contributed most to their success. Many listed an effective mentor as one of the key factors. To the question of what made these important people so influential, the most common response harkened back to Socrates: “They asked great questions.”
Questions are the jewels of mentoring.