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5 October 2020


Because the right questions matter

This month I am looking at the use of Questioning in coaching, the fifth and final skill that the Academy of Executive Coaches identified as the five hottest skills in coaching!

In the AoECs blog “The five hottest coaching skills you need to master” they describe Questioning in the following terms:

“Knowing how to respond thoughtfully is crucial to the coaching process. Your line of questioning needs to help unlock the potential in the coachee.

This comes from being in the moment with the coachee and listening to them and using open questions devised to enable and encourage the coachee to explore their own behaviour. Helping them to discover and analyse their own actions and feelings will help drive sustainable change in the way they act and behave in the future.”

I like this description because it recognises that as the coach you are working with the client to help them understand what it is they are trying to achieve and what they need to do to achieve their goals. 

It also recognises the interplay between the skills required in this process. For example, you cannot use pre-prepared questions with a client as these need to be relevant to how the discussion unfolds. Your questions are crafted based on what you hear (listening skill) and how the client reacts to you (presence). You only ask great questions if you are really listening to your client. If you are simply waiting for the client to stop talking so you can impress them with your pearls of wisdom, or move them along a path of your own interest, then your questions will not chime with the clients' train of thought and will feel jarring and prompt poor thinking on the part of the client.

The reason coaching can be so powerful when delivered appropriately is that this questioning approach prompts self-exploration in the client and the client develops greater awareness and responsibility towards their chosen course of action as a result.

Coaching at its simplest involves five elements:

Encouraging: the non-verbal signals the coach gives to encourage the client to open up (a nod of the head, a smile etc.)

Extend: the questioning that prompts the client to think more deeply around an objective

Reflect what you see: feeding back to the client what you are observing about them as they speak (i.e. I notice you are wringing your hands as you talk about this, what does that mean?)

Reflect back what you hear: feeding back what you are hearing the client say and checking your understanding of this

Summarising: playing back the key elements that the client identified as part of the process for agreement or further exploration.

Whilst questioning can occur in any of the above, its real home is in Extend. This is where the use of open-ended questions, typically starting “What, How, Who, Where, When” are key in prompting the client to think more deeply around the topic whilst questions such as “Can you tell me more?” are useful in encouraging clients to think more deeply still around the subject at hand.

Questions starting with “Why”, need to be used with caution, as they can come across as judgemental; “Why did that happen?” or “Why did you take that approach?” might be better reframed as “What different approach might you take if you did this again?”It is about taking learning forwards rather than passing judgement on the past.

Well-crafted questions are a very powerful means in helping a client think differently about a challenge and how they may address it. Asking “When have you had to tackle something similar before and how did you go about it?” or asking how a client feels someone they really recognise as strong on such challenges would do are great ways to encourage a client to look at a challenge from a new perspective.

With questioning as one of the key skills the coach will use, it is easy to understand why a coaching session will typically be one-sided in terms of who does most of the talking. The coach facilitates the session to encourage the client to open up and think deeply about a subject whilst acting a catalyst for this thinking through carefully crafted questions.

The use of good questioning technique is something to watch for when you meet a prospective coach at a chemistry session to see if you can work together. Whilst the coach will need to do some talking regarding the coaching process and what you can expect, they should also be demonstrating good questioning (as well as listening and presence) asking about your previous experience of coaching, your expectations, what objectives you may want to focus on, etc. If they do most of the talking, telling you how great they are, you need to ask yourself if they will make a good coach or will really listen and question appropriately once the coaching begins.

I hope this has given you an understanding of why good questioning plays such an important role in coaching. If you have questions or thoughts on the topic of questioning, or would like to work on your own questioning skills, just let me know.

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

If you would like to hear more about coaching and how to make it work for you, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and to share this blog with anyone that might be interested in learning about executive coaching, how it works and whether it could be of benefit to them.