Coaching questions: ask the right questions…

Using carefully selected questions can be an effective way to structure coaching sessions.

One of the great myths about coaching is that it can be conducted around a fixed set of questions.

“Some trainee coaches, or line managers who are taking on coaching, ask for a list of questions to get them started,” says Jonathan Passmore, programme director of the Masters in Psychology and director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of East London.

“There are some that might be relevant, but they should not be used in a mechanistic way,” he says. “Coaching is a skill, it’s not just about following a recipe.”

Open up horizons

Nonetheless, Passmore concedes there are certain coaching questions that can be relied on to elicit a helpful response.

“Questions are for opening up horizons and getting the coachee to think. In this context, ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘when?’ and ‘how?’ are the questions to remember,” he says.

The desire to find the perfect questions is understandable: more leaders and line managers are expected to act as internal coaches, and external coaches are under pressure to demonstrate added value.

These forces are compounded by the uncertain economy both internal and external coaches have to ask questions that will keep the coaching session moving towards a positive outcome, while often helping coachees to deal with self-doubt (particularly if they are feeling the burden of announcing redundancies).

Positive and powerful

Positive and powerful questions that help the coachee progress are the favoured option of Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy.

“For example, I ask questions such as ‘what would happen if you do nothing?’,” she says.

“Here, the coachee is being given permission not to solve the problem, although paradoxically it often galvanises them into solving it anyway,” she adds.

Care is needed when encouraging internal coaches to hone their questioning skills, according to Sally Baxter, deputy managing director of Penna Boardroom and Executive Coaching.

“Leaders tend to use ‘why’ questions with their employees, which can sound too analytical,” she says. “They should think in terms of ‘what’, which can be received more openly.”

“One of the great coaching questions is ‘what else?’, which encourages the coachee to summarise the current situation and look for ways to move forward.”

Baxter adds that a question’s value only becomes apparent when the coachee responds. “You can never know in advance what that great coaching question will be, but you know when it lands,” she says. “It’s all about context.”

Effective listening

At the Association for Coaching, vice-president Gladeana McMahon agrees that context is crucial.

“Good questions come from effective listening,” she says. “The coach has to analyse, personalise, contextualise, then ask the question.”

McMahon gives an example. “If someone says they want to be x, the question to ask them is: if you were x, what would you be doing that you are not doing now?” she says. “And how would other people notice the difference?”

At the Bath Consultancy Group, Gil Schwenk has identified a series of questions that help the coachee overcome indecision.

Schwenk favours devices such as: ‘What will happen or might happen if you change?’. He also likes to introduce questions that will make the coachee realise their behaviour is a decision or a learned response that can be overridden by new decisions and learning.

“Such questions are ‘when did you decide that?’, or ‘how did you decide that?'” he says. “These are key when discussing a behaviour and when an underlying assumption or a belief prevents the desired outcome from being reached.”

Yet the coach still has to tread carefully. Asking Schwenk’s ‘when did you decide that?’ should not be confused with a more blatant ‘why did you decide that?’.

Avoid ‘why?’

The ‘why’ question can create fear and destroy trust, according to executive coach Graham Alexander. Alexander, who is widely credited with creating the Grow model (Goal, Reality, Options and Wrap-up) says the ‘why’ question implies there are right or wrong answers, whereas it is up to the coach to create a safety net in a coaching session.

“The coach needs to ask sufficiently generic and open questions,” says Alexander (see examples below). “But should also be a great listener who operates in the moment.”

And sometimes it’s best to say nothing, as Penna’s Baxter points out. “The most powerful question I came across was when I was training,” she says. “The senior coach raised her eyebrows at me. That was all, but the way she did it right there, in the moment, asked everything.”

Best questions for coaching

Graham Alexander shares this list of questions, based on thousands of hours of coaching, which could be of value to the coachee if used at an appropriate time.

  • What would be the most valuable topic to focus on?
  • When you get up out of your chair, what outcome would be most valuable for you?
  • What is the current situation?
  • If you could only take the one option that you believe would add most value, what would it be?
  • What will you do when?
  • Is this an effective use of time?

Source: Graham Alexander and Excellence in Coaching, published by Kogan Page

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