The Questions Good Coaches Ask.
I defines coaching as a style characterised by asking questions. With those questions you can move away from command-and-control, to a dynamic in which your direct report grows through self-reflection.
Asking the right coaching questions means the difference between a one-way interrogation and a dynamic learning session. Good coaching questions give someone who’s busy and competent the space in which to step back and examine them-self. The right question can stop them in there tracks as they finally sees their own actions from a different perspective or envisions a new solution to an old problem. They may indeed learn to question them-selves so that next time they can catch themselves in the act and change their actions in the moment.
This occurs by starting in planning out what I ask and get myself into the right mindset before the coaching session begins.
While there are a lot of coaching questions you can’t directly prepare for ahead of time, many of the ones you’ll ask in the first session are fairly standard, so I need to consider them beforehand.
First think about what you need to know to help your direct report. My questions in a session will not only help me understand the athletes situation but also can help me to identify with them:
- Current developmental level and goals (what they are ready for, what they can handle, what’s the next step in their journey)
- Skill level against leadership competencies and behaviors
- Preferences (e.g. how they processes information or makes decisions)
- Motivations and values
- Habits and structures that might be holding them back
Then think about how you’ll ask your questions. To give your direct report the space to reflect and respond effectively, they should be phrased as open-ended queries. It can be helpful to think about the first word: open-ended questions often begin with “what,” “how,” “who,” “where,” and “when.”
Staying away from “why” – it can feel confrontational and judgmental. To get at the same thing, instead ask, “What was your intention with that?”
Open-Ended Coaching Questions
To give your direct report the space to reflect and respond effectively, your questions should be phrased as open-ended queries. It can be helpful to think about the first word: open-ended questions often begin with “what,” “how,” “who,” “where,” and “when.”
What is happening?
What is challenging about it?
What have you done, tried, or considered?
What is the impact on you, your health, or your Life-style?
What are your ideal outcomes?
What would the Family or Partner want to see happen?
What would have to change to make that happen?
What conditions would have to be in place?
How will you prepare for that?
How will we know we’ve moved the needle on this?
How will we measure success?
How will you communicate your goals with key stakeholders?
How will you stay self-aware and mindful when things get tough or busy?
Who will be impacted—positively or negatively—by these potential changes?
Who are exemplars or leaders you respect because they demonstrate those leadership behaviors?
Who else could offer you feedback?
Who needs to be included or in alignment to these goals?
Who are the key people in your network of support?
Where/when do you feel you are at your personal best?
Where/when do you feel most triggered, reactive, not at your personal best?
Where might you experience resistance?
When you experience [an emotion—frustration, impatience, etc.]; where do you experience that in your body (e.g. tension in the jaw)?
Where would you like to be in 3-5 years?
Lastly, there are some descriptor questions that can help you get at what is happening in a given situation:
Help me understand…
Tell me more about that…
Let me make sure I understand what you are saying…
I’m curious about…
Could you describe further…
I find the most important thing to keep in mind while composing (and delivering) coaching questions is that I need to be genuinely curious about the answers. People can tell if you’re just asking a question because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And I won’t be able to get to that one question and that moment of self-discovery if i’m just going through the motions rather than authentically interested in the individuals direct report, their situation, and their growth.
But being authentically curious takes practice and rewiring: I have to accept the idea that others may be as knowledgeable or more so than myself, and suspend (good!) habits like asserting a strong point of view. But it will help both parties as you prepare for a session and in the moment.
Once I am in the coaching session, I will need to respond to my direct report’s comments with further questions. Think of these questions as creating a bridge between what they have said and what else you want them to learn. This intuitive process at the heart of the coaching relationship can’t be scripted. My own authentic curiosity in them and their development is invaluable in triggering my next question: it’s something that happens from the gut.
You can help your gut to be ready, though, by intentionally getting into the right frame of mind as the session begins. For example, I always find it incredibly difficult to walk into a coaching session immediately after facilitating training or delivering a key note address: there is a big shift that I need to do to go from having a strong presence in front of a larger audience to having a more intimate presence of being quiet and hearing and reacting to the person in front of me.
I deliberately schedule my coaching sessions so that I am able to get into that place of listening, and if I anticipate it being frantic in the hour leading up to the session I take a few minutes out to pause, take a few deep breaths, and get myself physically centered. Pull up my notes from the last coaching meeting with this direct report to reconnect to the conversation as it stands now.
Once I understand my direct report’s point of view into a given situation, I am careful not to let the session turn into venting or blaming others. Instead of asking questions that might reinforce the emotional charge they already feels, I ask questions that open up possibilities they may not have considered yet.
For example, if my direct report has described an argument they had with another individual, instead of saying things like, “I can’t believe that person would do that to you” or belabouring “how did that make you feel,” I ask questions that pose a different perspective: “I hear how frustrated you are. What do you think is going on in his world that may have led to this behavior?” or “What does the situation need the two of you to do? What would you need to see from this person to have a better relationship?”
Or: if they are frustrated at their own perceived lack of personal development:
“You’ve had to come through many learning curves in your career. What has been your success cycle in the past?”
By recognizing your coachee’s story but asking them to shift their thinking beyond it is one of the most important ways a question can open up new possibilities.
Once you’ve asked a set of questions that opens the dialogue and helps you to see things through others eyes, it’s your turn to share your perspective. And even that begins with a question: “Are you open to me sharing with you how I am seeing this? Could I offer you a different lens? A new approach?”
Coaches have a tall order when it comes to asking questions. My direct reports will always be asking themselves whether they actually want you to see their weaknesses (real or perceived) and their personal opinions about others and situations—this takes real trust. But that’s also what can make the most invaluable coaches: once I build that relationship over time, I have a much deeper ability to ask just the right question.