Faculty Mentor Competence: The Art of Asking Questions

June 26, 2023

by David Woolverton, Kairos Affiliate Professor


As discussed in the last two posts, mentoring is both central and essential to everything that we do here at Kairos. In fact, it’s our number one priority. Our ongoing commitment is to increase our capacity to mentor by consistently adding the tools, best practices, and creative and relevant skills to facilitate each student’s journey of discipleship.

In today’s post, we focus on the first of our Indicators of Faculty Mentor Competence—namely, TheArt of Asking Questions.

Based on the list created by Greg Henson and Aaron Einfeld, this indicator has two main targets. The best faculty mentors:

  • Focus on asking questions rather than giving answers, empowering the student to develop their own integrated knowledge for ministry leadership.
  • Can frame useful questions that help students reflect on their experiences and integrate their learning.

Asking good questions not only guides conversations to deeper levels of learning (thank you Socrates!), but also respects the other person’s journey with God. Most especially, asking questions gives us the opportunity to stay curious—about what the Lord is doing in each of our lives and learnings, and what the Holy Spirit has in mind for our interactions with each other.

Curiosity is essential to the role of a faculty mentor. It provokes learning even as it empowers the “art” of asking great questions.

In his May 17, 2022, Harvard Business Review article “The Art of Asking Great Questions,”[1] Tijs Besieux argues that there are three consistent characteristics to what makes a great question. I’m tweaking those characteristics here to illustrate some of what a faculty mentor might do with their students to invite them deeper into the learning process.

1) “A great question should demonstrate that you’re thoroughly prepared for the conversation.”

Instead of: “How have you been doing?”

We Might Ask: “Hey, Dave, for the past three months, you’ve been canceling your mentor team meetings, and I’ve noticed that you haven’t uploaded any assignments either. What’s going on?”

Instead of: “So, Judy, what courses do you want to take next?”

We Might Ask: “Judy, last month, you shared that you’re going to be meeting with your ordination board in November. Do you know what educational updates they’re going to be needing from you? How can we help?”

2) “A great question illustrates the expertise you bring to the table, without showing it off.”

Instead of: “Jerry, do you think your supervisor really knows what he’s doing?”

We Might Ask: “I can see that you’ve been frustrated at work, Jerry. What specifically have you tried in the past to address the conflicts? Would it help to talk through some additional options—especially based on what you’ve been studying?”

Instead of: “You seem to keep repeating certain behavior patterns at work. As a counselor, I tend to notice those kinds of things. So, what’s that about?”

We Might Ask: “In what parts of your job do your weaknesses tend to show up? Does your current role help you utilize the strengths you’re discerning from your Christian Spirituality learning path?”

3) “A great question invites others to deepen or broaden their thinking, and challenge held beliefs.”

Instead of: “Betty, what do you want to do with your degree once you’re done?”

We Might Ask: “Betty, what do you think God wants you to do with your degree once you’re done? How are your studies impacting your view of God’s call on your life?”

Instead of: “So, who wants to open our meeting with prayer?”

We Might Ask: “Debbie and George, when we started our meeting, you were sharing some pretty challenging situations that you are going through right now. You both are working within the Spiritual Direction certificate program, so I’m wondering, do you mind if we go a little deeper with what you were sharing? How have you been able to care for yourselves during these challenging times? What have your studies and prayer times been exposing in you about your need for sabbath rest?”

The best questions invite people to go deeper—beyond expected limitations of thought, deeper into our appreciation of God’s creation (and especially ourselves as God’s created beings), and fully engage in the value of the other person. Way too many times, we draw our own conclusions about what others are trying to say, rather than simply asking them.

Seven Types of Questions Faculty Mentors Might Ask:

Direct Questions – Direct questions ask for specific information or engagement within the conversation. Examples: “What specifically did you want to learn from your studies in Christian Spirituality?” “Can you please share with us your learning goals?” “What has this outcome been teaching you about your view of God?”

Indirect Questions – Mentors use indirect questions to engage the student from the sideline of their “field of play”—to acknowledge the student’s capacity to not answer by putting the responsibility for the query on the mentor. Examples: “I was wondering why you chose to take Hebrew at the same time as Greek.” “I’m interested in knowing how your studies in Christian Spirituality have impacted your call to ministry.”

Open-ended Questions – Open-ended questions are a mentor’s best friend. They are designed to keep the conversation flowing. Examples: “How would you describe Kairos to someone on your ordination board?” “If you only have time for one additional course, which one would you take and why?” “How do you want to proceed with your adapted assignment proposal?”

Hypothetical (What-If) Questions – Mentors use what-if questions to help the student move beyond perceived mental, emotional, or spiritual barriers. For example: “I know you’ve been worried about not getting a promotion, but what if you actually did? How would your life be better?” “You’ve been telling us that you don’t know what you would do. What would you say if you did know?”

Rhetorical Questions – Mentors use rhetorical questions to get a reaction from the student using a playful tone. Examples: “Can you imagine life without ice cream?” “Has there ever been a church that hasn’t faced conflict?”

Reflective Questions – Reflective questions utilize any of the above types to help the student take their learning to a deeper level of integration. Examples: “What skills do you want to develop within this particular outcome?” “In what areas of your life do you want to grow?” “How will you apply what you’ve learned in this outcome to your professional growth?”

Leading Questions – Mentors use leading questions primarily to guide a student past a learning obstacle. Examples: “It sounds like you’re really struggling with writing the essays for that particular class. Might there be a different way of fulfilling this assignment that did not involve writing?” “You’re creating a workshop on leadership for your team at work. Have you considered adapting that work and using it for one of your assignments in this outcome?” “What are you not doing well that’s keeping you from fulfilling your goals?”

Of course, some questions can fit into several types of categories.

Questions offer faculty mentors a powerful tool for engaging students within their learning processes. Maintaining curiosity throughout the process keeps us from becoming patronizing, condescending, or presumptive—assuming we know the reasons for another’s behavior or thoughts.

Questions also enable faculty mentors to maintain a “balcony view” of the student’s learning process, giving us the capacity to see the bigger picture of their customized education. More on that in a future blog post.

Which of those types of questions do you want to try using this week? (See what I did there?)

Our next post will look at Asking’s essential “partner”—Active Listening. And it’s more than what you think!


[1] Tijs Besieux, “The Art of Asking Great Questions,” in :Ascend, Harvard Business Review, May 17, 2022, accessed May 25, 2023, https://hbr.org/2022/05/the-art-of-asking-great-questions.

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