If there were a mentors hall of fame, Socrates would be an instant inductee.
Above all, he understood the secret of mentoring: questioning brings insight, which fuels curiosity, which cultivates wisdom.
Quality questions have a multiplier effect on learning. Ask an information-seeking question and you get only an answer or a fact. Ask an understanding-seeking question and you unleash a more powerful chain of events.
The human brain is often compared to a computer, but it’s very different. Most computers are information-storage devices. Ask an information-seeking question, and the computer goes into a retrieval mode.
Ask an understanding-seeking question, however, and the mind has to make up an answer. Computers cannot make up answers. An understanding-seeking question stimulates mental activity that creates insight. As the mind turns to respond to an understanding-seeking question, special new synapses are activated, triggering an insight experience.
The more the mind experiences creative discovery, the more it hunts another insight. This pursuit of insight or discovery is “curiosity.” To the mind, curiosity is its own reward. The byproduct of perpetual curiosity is wisdom.
How can mentors start this insight-curiosity-wisdom chain?
One major starter is the understanding-seeking question. Here are important elements that produce insight.
Sociability: Watch out for too much silence. If the protégé does not answer in 10 seconds, he or she may need you to redirect the question. Know that eye contact can be important in conveying an interest in the protégé’s answers.
Beware of not giving the protégé an opportunity to answer. Silence can be golden. Pause after asking a question. If you’re susceptible to this trap, count to 10 after asking a question and before asking another. Assume that the protégé heard and understood and is simply contemplating an answer.
Dominance: Think before you ask. Consider your goal and focus. Determine what you seek to learn, and then choose questions that will take you there.
You may have a tendency to craft questions that give you the answer you like to hear. Leading the protégé is just as ineffective as leading a witness. Soften your tone. Make sure your approach does not make the protégé feel as though he or she is on trial.
Openness: Avoid keeping your questions too much on the surface. While invading privacy is not the goal, your aim is to foster in-depth thinking. Be willing to allow a bit of controversy; conflict is nothing more than a symptom of tension. When you accurately interpret and work through conflict by your candor and openness, interpersonal closeness and valuable creativity will be the likely byproducts.
You may often find yourself wanting to answer for the protégé. Back off and give the person a chance to communicate his or her thoughts. It is also important to avoiding getting too personal too quickly. While you may be more than ready to foster closeness, the protégé may need more time.
Other specific techniques include:
Start with a setup statement: Questions can be more powerful if the sender and receiver are on the same wavelength. Starting with a setup statement establishes identification and context.
Ask questions that require higher-level thinking: The goal is to create insight, not to share information. The main objective is to nurture understanding and growth, not just exchange facts. Construct questions that require the protégé to dig deep.
Avoid questions that begin with “why”: In most cultures, a question that begins with the word “why” is perceived as judgmental. 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.
Use curiosity to stimulate curiosity: Socrates did more than ask good questions. He demonstrated enthusiasm for the learning process. Attitude is as much a part of the Socratic method as technique.
Ultimately, great mentors are not only curious; they are excited to stimulate curiosity. They are open about their excitement and verbally communicate pleasure when the protégé’s “Aha!” finally comes.
Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.