Student Life

Flipping the Question: An Effective Mentoring Technique

Without fail, every week I found myself in his office, asking the same question, “What do I do?” Then, without fail, every week he would answer my question with his own, “What do you think you should do?”

In my final year of university, the question constantly cycling through my mind was, ”What do I do with my life after I graduate?” So every week, I went to one of my mentors, Rudhra Persad at the Tri-Mentoring Program, to ask him for the answer to this question.

Since I started at Ryerson, Rudhra was always one of the people I went to whenever I needed guidance throughout university. Whenever I asked him for advice about important life decisions I had to make, he would always provide me with great insight based on his own experiences, and then would tell me what he thought I could do. Talking through these decisions with him gave me a sense of reassurance and would help me to confirm I was making the right decision.

During my final year, however, as that big question began popping into my head, his advice suddenly came in a form that I was not accustomed to from him—a question. Instead of telling me his opinion about what he thought I should do, he flipped the question on me: What do I think I should I do? What do I think is the best option? What do I want to do?

I was speechless. I did not know how to answer, nor did I want to be asked the question. I went to him because I was expecting easy answers I could agree with and choose to follow through on! The first time it ever happened, I was really surprised and it felt like the rug was being pulled out from underneath my feet. I was frustrated and felt stuck because I was having difficulty coming up with answers.

I know this may sound like a drastic reaction, but looking back at it, I realized it only felt like this because of a concept called “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness was coined by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier who had conducted research with dogs, where they received an electric shock depending on their behaviour. As a result, some of the dogs gave up altogether because they felt like nothing they could do would prevent the electric shocks from happening. In relation to my situation, every time I had to make a major decision, I immediately went to my mentors like Rudhra to tell me what to do. Each time they would give me great advice and I would follow what they suggested.It eventually got to the point where I started to believe I was not capable of figuring out what to do on my own. I had became so reliant on my mentors to the point where I was dependent on them to tell me exactly what to do. In that process, I lost track of my own voice and what I wanted.

So from that moment on, Rudhra continued to flip the question, always asking me what I thought without giving me any hint or direction on his thoughts so that it would not influence my thinking. Gradually, each time he asked me I started feeling less frustrated and more empowered as I began searching and finding the answers from within instead of relying on someone else.

Now, as a full time staff on the other side of the desk, I use the same strategy with my student staff or any students who come speak with me. When it comes to student staff, I have found that flipping the question sends the message that as their supervisor, I am not the all knowing answer-giver, but more of a mentor and a guide as they search for answers themselves. I truly believe flipping the question is a small but effective way to empower students as they are in a time of discovering themselves, transitioning, and exploring the world around them. Most importantly, I believe this is a key aspect of mentoring and our work at the Tri-Mentoring Program. Our biggest role in helping with their transition is not to tell them what to do, but to support them through their journey of finding their own answers.

  • John Austin

    Such an important reminder of a tried & true technique. Thanks for this, Allysa. I think it will really resonate with our readers!

  • Allysa Martinez

    Thanks John! I hope so!