Allison McWilliams: Ask powerful questions

Allison McWilliams, director of mentoring and alumni personal and career development in the Office of Personal and Career Development, will write occasional articles in 2015-2016 for Inside WFU.  This is her fourth for the academic year.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff drawn from her professional experience with students.

Allison McWilliams, the Director of Career Education in the Wake Forest Office of Personal and Career Development on Monday, October 10, 2011.

We all know the value of powerful questions in the classroom. A well-placed question makes us think, pushes us to make connections between events, challenges our assumptions, and generally helps us to learn. In much the same way, powerful questions help us to learn in mentoring relationships. A well-placed question causes us to reflect upon what has happened, to make connections, and to effectively assess how we can use this new knowledge in the future. This is, I believe, the gift of an effective mentoring relationship: it gives us the space and the tools that we need to be mindful and present in our own lives.

Effective mentors spend more time asking questions than they do answering them. A mentor’s role is not to be the information superhighway; we already have effective tools for that. A mentor’s role is to challenge assumptions, to offer objective feedback, and to push for clarity and accountability. She does so by making use of powerful questions. Powerful questions are open-ended, causing the mentee to reflect on the actions he is taking, the outcomes, and the next steps. Some examples of powerful questions include:

  • What do you think is the cause?
  • What have you done up to this point?
  • What’s worked? What hasn’t?
  • What result do you want?
  • What could you do to achieve that result?
  • How will you start?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How can I help you to succeed?

Other types of powerful questions encourage mentees to think deeply about choices, dreams, and goals. The New York Times recently published a list of 500 prompts for narrative and personal writing. From childhood memories to overcoming adversity to role models to social media, these are also 500 powerful questions for conversation starters.

An effective mentor facilitates her mentee’s growth by challenging, guiding, supporting, and affirming. Think about how you might incorporate powerful questions into your mentoring conversations.