Asking good questions when mentoring a person

We have a new Junior/Middle front-end developer on our project, and I’ve been mentoring him for a couple of days. My responsibility as a mentor is to help the developer understand the most parts of the project in the shortest time. As a part of achieving this, I regularly ask him two things in our conversations:

  • “Do you have any questions?” and
  • “Have I explained this well?”

“Do you have any questions?”

This one is pretty obvious to ask, but I try to repeat it as often as I can so any questions the developer comes up with are answered quickly:

  • Arriving at the office in the morning: “Hey, how’re things going? Do you have any questions?”
  • Leaving after assigning a task: “Feel free to ping me if you have any questions”
  • Sitting with a mentee in a pause while waiting for a module to build: “By the way, do you have any questions about the system or is something not entirely clear?”

The point is to make the developer super-comfortable to ask any questions he gets. The more he asks, the quicker he learns.

“Have I explained this well?”

I find this exact question extremely useful, and I feel like it’s my little invention (haven’t seen anyone using it yet). I ask it every time I explain something to the mentee to make sure I’m clear, and the mentee’s level of knowledge is enough to understand the stuff:

  • “So this is how $module.require works... Have I explained this well?”

I prefer this question more than “Do you have any questions?” because the latter feels too official to me in this context.

The point about the question is that you should ask it in exactly the specified form. It’s easy to transform it to “Is this clear to you?” or “Do you get this?”, but you shouldn’t do this. All these latter questions are about the mentee and their perceptional abilities and could make them feel insecure if they answer “No.” This decreases the communication between them and you and is definitely not your goal. I only find the “Have I explained this well?” form to be not about the mentee and therefore be safe.

Bonus question: “Can you explain this to me?”

This one is useful too. I ask it to check that the mentee fully understood the topic we were talking about. If the developer answers well, then it’s cool; if he doesn’t, I notice the points where he gets stuck, and help him with them.

Not only mentoring

These questions are useful not only when you’re mentoring someone, but also when you give a talk, a lecture, conduct training, etc.

For example, a lot of speakers only answer questions at the end of their speech, when a half of the listeners have already forgotten what they wanted to ask about. I tend to ask “Do you have any questions?” after each major part of my talk. This has two advantages:

  • attendees understand the speech better because we speak of the material that was on the screen just a moment before that,
  • and there’re fewer situations like “Could you please switch to slide 2” when you’re on slide 53.

I used this approach this with Redux in real life and in a company’s internal React training, and I feel it worked well.

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2016   soft skills
4 comments
Gosha Arinich

Nice writeup. My 2c:

“Can you explain this?” should probably be *the* question. It forces the mentee to have a mind map of the project and will unfold all their questions along the way; some questions they even were not aware they had.

You say “have I explained this well?” shifts the focus from mentee, and it does, but it also puts the focus on *you* and not your explanation. The other person may feel like responding with anything but “yes” will be inappropriate and hurt you, and this is definitely something to be avoided. What about “was this explanation great?”

Ivan Akulov

Good point, especially about “Have I explained this well,” thanks! “Was this explanation *great*” is too superior to me though, I’d go with “good” instead.

Leon Tebbens

One could take this even further by asking “did this answer your question?” after answering a question.
I found this very helpfull in all situations in life :-)

Vanya Klimenko

FAQ and support sites all over the world have been asking these questions for years.

Anatoly Filippov

Ivan, nice post and good questions! Especially agree with your idea of making the new developer super-comfortable to ask any questions he gets.

When I speak in public I also like questions “Is everything clear?” and “Have I explained this well?”, it helps to feel the audience.

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