Questions are at the heart of coaching. What makes a good one?
Renewed interest in the effect questions have on the brain has brought to light their importance in coaching dialogue.
“Neuro-psychologists have demonstrated that the parts of the brain that are used by a coachee when a question is asked are different from those used when someone receives an instruction,” says psychologist Jonathan Passmore, programme director of the Masters in Coaching Psychology course and director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of East London.
He says questions are crucial to enriching the coaching process. “Coaching helps people deepen their self-awareness, because they are getting new pathways in the brain, rather than just listening to what they have been told and having to remember it.”
Coaching is based around effective conversations, and questioning, when appropriate, can kickstart the whole coaching process, says Geetu Bharwaney, founder and managing director of Ei World, a company specialising in coaching based on emotional intelligence (EI).
“During the first meeting, I start to get to know the coachee by asking context questions, such as ‘tell me about your job’,” says Bharwaney.
“I would move on to challenges facing the coachee, and then I would explore the client’s aspirations with the question: ‘tell me what is most important to you’.”
Bharwaney then seeks clarification by asking the most revealing question of all: “If you could have everything you wanted right now what would that be?”
She says this question is designed to help the client imagine what they are striving for and what their working life would be like without challenges.
Intentions revealed by the initial contextual questions help Bharwaney to set six types of goals (physical, social, financial, career, intellectual and spiritual) for the coachee and the coaching.
The structure of Bharwaney’s questions owes something to her pre-assessment of the coachee with an emotional quotient inventory called the BarOn EQi. This measured approach is the key to successful questioning it is about asking the coachee questions that are appropriate to them and their goals. No coach can walk into a session with a crib sheet of questions and hope for a one-size-fits-all approach.
“The thought of a formula [for questions] makes me nervous,” says Passmore. He aims to be client-centred by building up a picture of the coachee and their situation based on the conversation to date.
“A coaching relationship is built upon listening,” he says. “It is about demonstrating [that the coach has been listening] through brief summaries of what they have said and reflecting back accurately.”
Asking only a few questions is the mark of a successful coach, says Erik de Haan, director of Ashridge’s Centre of Coaching. He says a good coach knows when questions will get in the way of the coaching conversation.
“Questions – even open ones – can be a bit clunky,” he says. “They are fairly directive interventions as they can take the client away from where they are .”
De Haan says he has come across trainee coaches who try to base 50% of their session on questions but who would benefit from using more summaries, metaphors and explicit empathy to show they are in tune with the coachee. And he recommends that the style of questions is tailored to the situation. For example, the ‘pure’ listening approach he advocates is better suited to executive coaching than leadership coaching.
At training company Scott Bradbury, director Hugh Murray says it is also important to consider the tone of the questioning, not just the content of the question, particularly if line managers are being encouraged to act as coaches.
“It is not the question that is good or bad, it is the intention of the questioner,” he says. “A line such as ‘what makes you think you can make this work when the best brains in the company have failed?’ could be crushing if delivered with malicious intent, or stimulating if delivered with good humour.
“Generally speaking, the worst coaching questions are those that make you feel silly or demotivated. The best are those that help you think,” he adds.
Top five coaching questions
Erik de Haan shares useful questions to ask a coachee and the intention behind them.
Q: Why is this issue important for you now?
Intention: To discover more about the relationship between the coachee and the issue.
Q: What do you expect from coaching?
Intention: To establish objectives for the coaching.
Q: Where have you come across a similar issue?
Intention: To find out more about the coachee’s reaction to past challenges.
Q: What would you advise yourself?
Intention: To help the coachee take responsibility.
Q: If this is a symptom of something else, what is that?
Intention: To bring out another dimension of the problem.