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Mentors Series: Useful skills - Questioning and Listening

06 February, 2018Phil Renshaw

listeningThis post finishes off our last blog on leadership, and follows on from the discussion on the skills you can develop through mentoring and which, consequently, result in better mentoring.

We all have the ability to ask questions and we all listen. But, the thing is, many of us do not do it very well. However, when done well, this delivers outstanding results that differentiates the best leaders from the rest.


How do we listen? Or don’t we? We all think we know how to listen and that we listen well. This may not be the case. Do the following scenarios seem familiar to you?

- How often do you realise you haven’t heard what someone has said to you?
- Or that someone else has not heard a word you are saying?

Many factors can lead to poor listening, including the general balancing act of day to day lives. For example, the simple act of speaking on the phone and trying to read our emails at the same time.

Being listened to effectively is very powerful. When the listener gives us their full attention, is genuinely curious about what we are saying, and/or asks further questions about the subject, amazing things happen. It gives the speaker the ability to think better, thoughts become clearer and we express ourselves surprisingly well. This is the kind of listening we want to do as mentors. And consequently, this is how mentees want to be listened to, this will result in an effective relationship.

Listening well to someone provides them with the unusual opportunity for time to think productively. We need to stop listening to our inner talk and put our own agenda on hold and listen with all our awareness. A mentor needs to hear the words, sense their full meaning and offer a response that gives the mentee the chance to hear and understand him/herself.

If you have never trained yourself to listen, do so. There’s plenty of advice with a quick Google search. Like all skills, it takes careful and continuous practice. You were not born with this skill!

question markQuestioning

Powerful questioning is powerful! And yet we tend not to think about this nor believe we need to improve. Most of us can think of highly successful leaders who just seem to have the ability to ask the right questions to discover the desired answers quickly - even when someone is trying to withhold information! Acting as a mentor provides a great opportunity to practice this. To make a deliberate effort to notice the impact of your different questions, try different types of questions and to reflect on what works for some people may not work for others.

Effective questions are open-ended, seeking clarity, probing, challenging, provoke thinking, are future directed and focused on solutions. They cause a person to search for answers and new possibilities. Notice how good you are at open questions (often beginning with what, why, who, when, how). Some of the most effective questions are surprisingly simple,

  • What else?
  • And?

Remaining silent, thereby inviting the mentee to fill the gap, is often your most effective choice. And this requires practice. What often seems like an eternal silence to you is not noticed by your mentee who is still thinking.

  • What questions are unhelpful questions?

  • Why questions. Some people find these sound accusing, blaming and persecuting. This can be very culturally specific. Just watch for reactions and learn.
  • Multiple questions. Asking more than one question at a time is confusing. It is remarkably easy to do this. Especially if you like to voice your thoughts out loud. Start to notice when you do this so that you can start again ‘sorry, that was more than one question. Let’s just go with…’

Some things to watch out for

  • Skills improve through practice

Discover and read all of Phil Renshaw's previous blog articles on Mentoring.