Be careful what you ask…

by Paul Murrell

Paul Murrell, Linguistics Consultant in Training, SIL Central African Republic

“What work would you like to do next year?” I thought our question was a fairly straightforward one, but the stony silence that greeted it suggested otherwise. I was first amused, then bemused and finally completely disorientated as the minutes of silence stretched painfully into an hour and beyond. Determined not to push for an answer or give my own prompts, we sat there in awkward silence until I finally gave in and left the room to collect my thoughts and think through what had gone wrong.

We all know that, like a dash of piment in a chicken stew, a well-timed question in a mentoring relationship can be transformative, but we often forget that when we are working cross-culturally our well-intentioned questions may be communicating unintended or even unhelpful messages. In Congo and the Central African Republic, for example, a question might be used to tease or reprimand. A rhetorical question may be being used to assert authority and issue a command, while a simple question for information could conceal a hidden trap. A translation consultant might get frustrated when their insightful question, “Why did you translate temptation like that?” is met with a flurry of typing and a slightly over-zealous response, “It’s fine, we’ve already changed it.” The same translator might wonder why everything she has done that morning seems to be unsatisfactory, as the stream of questions continues relentlessly. What I mean when I ask a question isn’t necessarily what you understand, so should I even be asking questions at all?

To be honest, it’s hard to imagine an effective mentoring relationship without any questions, but perhaps the key to asking the best questions is taking the time to understand one other and build a relationship of trust. When there is a healthy mutual respect, and good intentions are not only assumed but explicit, a question that could be seen as potentially threatening becomes an opportunity to dig a little deeper, to probe beneath the surface and deal with an issue that could be holding you back. When you trust the surgeon, the scalpel isn’t something to be afraid of, even though it might be painful for a while; you’re going to get better, the problem is going to be dealt with.

So don’t be afraid of questions, but use them carefully. Get to know the culture you’re working in and get to know your mentor/mentee. Maybe begin a session by explaining that when you ask questions you’re not being critical, but that questions are a tool that can help you both grow. Think of alternative ways of asking without using direct questions, and if you need to be a little less blunt, watch an insider to see how it’s done. When you make a mistake and cause offence, like I did, don’t be afraid to apologise and learn from it. After all, mentoring is beneficial for a mentor’s personal growth too, wouldn’t you say?

For reflection:

  • Talk to a friend or colleague about how you feel when someone in authority asks you a question about your work. Share what it is that you find hard, challenging or encouraging.
  • Think about a time when you have asked/been asked a question that was misunderstood. Talk about how you managed to resolve the situation.
  • Next time you meet with your mentee/mentor try to rephrase as many questions as you can using other words. You could use strategies like, “Tell me about your latest piece of work…” or “I’d like to know about how the community responded to last week’s meeting you led…” 
  • A good question is never answered; it is a seed to be planted – John Ciardi. Discuss this quote with two people; somebody you mentor and someone who mentors you. Compare the discussions and draw some conclusions about each relationship. 

Image by Gerd Altman on Pixabay

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