Powerful questions lie at the heart of every great coaching relationship. The right life coaching questions can help your clients get clear on their goals, break down internal thought barriers, and test long-held and limiting beliefs. Powerful questions also create an awareness and understanding of things that were perhaps unknown or unrecognised by our clients before they’re asked.
Because clients often come to coaching when they have exhausted all conceivable ways of solving a problem, the best questions help the client ‘reset’ or disrupt the way they frame an issue or consider a problem.
The most powerful coaching questions generally fall into one of these 9 categories:
1. Rapport-Building Questions
These are most often used at the beginning of a session with a client to foster connection beyond the surface level, tune into how a client is feeling, and make the client feel more at ease. They are light in tone, specific to the client, and asked without being pushy or nosy. When asking rapport-building questions however, we have to be mindful they don’t pull us into chit chat, leading to an undefined coaching session that is more like a conversation between friends than one with a goal or outcome.
Examples of rapport-building questions: ‘How has your week been?’ ‘How was the camping trip?’ ‘How did your daughter do on the test?’
2. Open Questions
These questions usually begin with ‘what,’ ‘how,’ ‘where,’ ‘who,’ ‘when’ and allow a client to answer with a free-form answer. (A ‘closed question’, in contrast, can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or other very specific response.) True to its name, an open question expands the conversation and allows it to develop further, as your client will have to think more deeply before answering and will usually provide a longer answer.
Examples: ‘When have you achieved success in the past?’ ‘What would you like to achieve from today’s session?’ ‘What’s important to you right now?’
3. Clarifying Questions
These are the nuts-and-bolts questions to help you and your client better understand the key points of the conversation. Most clients appreciate being asked, as without these questions, confusion can set in and the client may ultimately not feel properly ‘seen’ or heard.
Examples: ‘Did I hear you correctly when you said…?’ ‘What’s another way you might…?’ ‘Can you tell me a little more about…?’
4. Scale Questions
These help a client measure their progress or gauge the importance of something. The scale is usually 1-5 or 1-10, with 1 being the least amount, and 5 or 10 being the most. Sometimes we also want the client to create the scale themselves, as in us creating it as the coach, we can define the method which could be considered as leading the client in some coaching camps.
Examples: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10 how committed are you to carrying out this action?’ ‘On a scale of 1 to 10 what progress have you made so far in achieving your goal?’
5. Solution-Focused Questions
These pragmatic questions can help the client parse what feels like a huge, insurmountable goal into manageable and achievable steps.
6. Hypothetical Questions
These questions can begin to help the client open up and imagine possible solutions and points of view that they might not have considered previously. They are mainly future-oriented and can be a great way of shifting into a more expansive, ‘big thinking’ scenario.
Examples: ‘What would you do if XX?’ ‘What if XX happened?’
7. Focus Questions
When a client is dealing with a difficult question, their thoughts can tend toward negative and limiting. Focus questions help to move the conversation in a positive or constructive direction by helping the client to see what resources they *do* have.
Examples: ‘How did you overcome a similar situation in the past’. ‘What resources did you draw upon?’ ‘What could you call into action now?’
8. Paradoxical Questions
This might also be seen as a consequence question, exploring the consequences of continuing to think in a particular way, enabling a client to imagine the possible pathway of staying stuck in their current thinking, belief or action. These questions can help when a client is locked in a downward thought spiral, as they are meant to disrupt the pattern and surprise the client by exaggerating the situation. As a result, the client often creates unexpected solutions to the problem.
This contradictory questioning style can feel a bit challenging to some clients, so it can often benefit from an introduction (‘I’d like to ask you a slightly paradoxical question, is that okay?’). These kinds of questions have to be asked in a way that still allows the held space to exist and the rapport to continue, thus allowing the client to stay open to exploration without feeling blame, shame or defensiveness.
9. Miracle Questions
These ‘blue-sky thinking’ questions come from solutions-focused therapy, and they invite the client to envision, feel, and describe in great detail how the future will be different when the problem they’re currently facing is gone. They switch attention to what will happen after the problem is dealt with and help bypass a client’s belief that ‘things can’t possibly change’.
Examples: ‘Imagine that tonight when you go to sleep a miracle occurs. When you wake in the morning the problem has been swept away. Keeping your eyes closed, imagine how that will feel? How will it be? What will you do?’ ‘’What would your favourite hero or role-model do in this situation?’ ‘If you had a genie that could grant you three wishes, how would you go about solving this issue to perfection?’
Some questions to avoid
Not every question is a useful one. Some can confuse the client, shut down communication, and generally hinder rather than help. Here are a few types of questions to avoid.
1. Multiple Stacked or Compound Questions
This refers to questions which have several parts or asking one question after another in quick succession. This rapid-fire style will only serve to confuse the client and draw attention to this confusion. Simplify your thoughts and ask one stand-alone question at a time.
2. Leading Questions
These are ones for which you are, at some level, expecting a specific answer or attempting to propose a solution. Try to resist the urge to ‘figure things out’ or to rescue your client by offering a cloaked solution within your question, trust the client and trust that they are whole and capable of coming up with their own solutions.
3. ‘Why’ Questions
Beginning a question with ‘why’ can sometimes feel judgemental and overly challenging to some clients and can have the effect of encouraging a client to remain in the past by giving lengthy, and largely unnecessary, historical context to a situation. Instead, try reframing your question to ask it in a slightly different way.
Example: ‘why did you choose that course of action?’
And yet while they can lead to judgement, asked at the right time, these questions can actually help a client unlock their purpose or direction.
As you explore the questions that you might ask, watch out for getting caught in the classic trap of thinking all your questions have to be powerful or create transformational shifts. Coaching questions are also simple and pure, direct and to the point. They come from a place of deep listening and presence with our clients, not just out of a textbook.