In coaching, the ability to ask effective questions is paramount.
This might seem a strange skill to have to learn. After all, don’t we all ask questions from the moment we learn to speak? Perhaps the most common (and hardest to answer from a 5 year old) is “why?” and “Why not?”
And yet the art of questioning in coaching is more than simply asking the kinds of questions we ask in daily life. Indeed, part of coach training is unlearning many of the habits we have developed over a lifetime – including, incidentally, the very question just mentioned. Coaches rarely ask “why” in its simplest form.
In addition, the skill of questioning does not exist in isolation; it intertwines with the coach’s ability to listen, to be present, and to understand and respond.
In this article, we’ll delve into the various types of questions used in coaching, identify the power of a ‘powerful question’, explore the impact of questioning on the client, and suggest ways to enhance the questioning skill.
5 Types of Questions
Questioning can be a powerful tool in coaching, but its effectiveness depends on how skillful the coach is at employing it.
Different types of questions serve unique purposes and contribute differently to the coaching process.
Open-ended questions, often beginning with ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’, or ‘when’.
These questions encourage clients to introspect, articulate their thoughts, and expand on their ideas.
For example, a question such as ‘What does success look like to you?’ enables the client to define their vision of success, promoting self-exploration.
Open-ended questions can go anywhere the client wants (hence their name).
Closed questions, in contrast, elicit specific, usually brief, responses.
These questions are often binary, typically answerable with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or a selection from a limited set of choices.
For instance, ‘Did you meet your target for this quarter?’ This type of question can provide quick information and can be helpful in getting to the facts of a situation. However, excessive use can restrict conversation flow.
Hypothetical questions present imaginary situations to the client.
They challenge the client’s creativity and problem-solving abilities, often serving as a platform for exploring potential responses to future scenarios.
For instance, ‘Imagine your company’s profits doubled next quarter. What would you do with the extra resources?’
Rhetorical questions, while not expecting an answer, encourage the client to think, reflect, and challenge their current perspectives.
For instance, ‘What if the obstacles you’re seeing are merely opportunities in disguise?’
The purpose is to provoke thought rather than solicit a direct response.
Leading questions are the one type of question coaches avoid asking.
Leading questions subtly (and not so subtly) contain the answer to the question within the question itself and leave little room for the client to grapple with their own thoughts.
An example might be, ‘Have you thought about making a budget as a way to manage your finances?’
Notice how this restricts the choices the client has to think more broadly. This may be an excellent idea but it has come from the coach rather than the client.
The Impact of Effective Questioning on the Client
Effective questioning has the potential to facilitate profound change in a client’s life.
It can lead to deeper self-understanding, promoting personal growth and transformation.
Firstly, through self-reflection encouraged by insightful questioning, clients gain a better understanding of their values, goals, aspirations, fears, and barriers. This understanding is a necessary step for change and improvement.
Secondly, questioning can stimulate personal growth and change. As clients respond to questions that challenge their perspectives and assumptions, they develop new insights and possibly question previously held beliefs. Such exploration can trigger growth, learning, and transformation.
Lastly, effective questioning can enhance a client’s problem-solving and decision-making capabilities. Through engaging with different types of questions, clients can learn to view issues from various angles, evaluate different options, and make well-informed decisions.
The ultimate aim of questions is to help the client think afresh and, overtime, this can develop into a powerful new skill for them.
What makes a question “powerful”?
A powerful question in a coaching context is one that provokes thought, elicits deeper understanding, promotes self-discovery, and can ultimately lead to transformative insights and action.
A powerful question is typically characterised by the following features:
- Open-ended: Powerful questions are open-ended, inviting the client to explore and articulate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas more extensively. They prompt more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
- Focused on the Client: Powerful questions are tailored to the individual client and their unique situation. They are not generic; instead, they resonate with the client’s experiences, challenges, and aspirations.
- Challenges Existing Beliefs: Powerful questions often challenge a client’s current beliefs or perspectives. They invite clients to examine things in a new light, which can lead to breakthroughs in understanding and shifts in mindset.
- Promotes Reflection: A powerful question encourages introspection and self-reflection, giving the client the opportunity to explore their inner world and gain deeper self-awareness.
- Future-Oriented: While powerful questions can address the past and present, they are often oriented towards the future. They inspire the client to envision possibilities, explore potential actions, and consider the impact of different choices.
- Encourages Action: Powerful questions don’t just promote thinking; they stimulate action. They encourage clients to take steps towards their goals, make changes, or address challenges.
- Simplicity: Despite their depth, powerful questions are often simple and straightforward. The best questions avoid jargon and complexity, making it easier for the client to engage with the question and explore their response.
- Respectful: Lastly, powerful questions are respectful and sensitive to the client’s feelings and boundaries. They challenge but do not impose or make the client uncomfortable.
What makes a question powerful, then, is its ability to prompt profound thinking, elicit emotion, stimulate action, and ultimately, to contribute to the client’s journey towards their goals and self-improvement.
What makes for a poor or ineffective question?
Just as certain elements can make a question powerful, others can render it ineffective or even detrimental in a coaching setting. Here are some characteristics that typically contribute to a poor question:
- Closed-Ended: While closed-ended questions can be useful for gathering specific information quickly, overuse can stifle deeper exploration and conversation. Such questions often lead to short, finite responses, limiting the potential for insight and learning.
- Leading: Leading questions imply an answer within the question itself and can subtly guide the client towards a certain response. This can potentially introduce bias and inhibit the client’s autonomy in their thought process.
- Complex or Confusing: Questions that are overly complex, convoluted, or filled with jargon can confuse clients and detract from meaningful conversation. The client may spend more time trying to understand the question than reflecting on their response.
- Judgmental or Loaded: Questions that contain judgement or make assumptions about the client can come across as critical or presumptive. They can cause the client to become defensive or closed off, thereby hindering open dialogue and trust.
- Too Broad or Too Narrow: Questions that are too broad can leave the client feeling overwhelmed, unsure of where to begin their response. On the other hand, questions that are too narrow may restrict the exploration of ideas and limit insight.
- Irrelevant: Questions that are not aligned with the client’s unique situation, goals, or needs can be seen as irrelevant or unhelpful. Such questions can derail the conversation and reduce the client’s engagement.
- Rapid-Fire: Asking too many questions too quickly can overwhelm the client and disrupt the flow of the coaching conversation. It can also limit the client’s ability to process and reflect deeply on each question.
Coaching is a delicate process that demands sensitivity, respect, and a deep understanding of the client’s needs and feelings.
Effective questioning is a cornerstone of this process, and understanding what makes a poor question is crucial to avoid these pitfalls and promote a more productive, empowering coaching relationship.
Enhancing the Skill of Questioning
Mastering the art of questioning is an ongoing journey that involves more than merely understanding different question types. It is a process that intertwines with the overall coaching process.
Active listening plays a vital role in formulating effective questions. By being fully present and attuned to the client’s spoken and unspoken messages, coaches can pose more precise, personalised questions that resonate with the client’s unique situation and needs.
Equally important is empathy and emotional intelligence in questioning. A coach’s ability to understand and share the feelings of their client not only informs the type of questions they ask but also affects how these questions are perceived and received.
Strategies for refining questioning techniques can include practising reframing, using silence effectively, and varying question types.
Reframing involves presenting a different perspective or changing the context of a problem or situation, which can often lead to new insights.
Silence can be a powerful tool, providing clients with the time and space to process their thoughts and feelings.
Varying question types can keep conversations dynamic, ensuring that the coaching dialogue caters to the client’s evolving needs and circumstances.
In executive and life coaching, the power of questioning extends far beyond merely stimulating conversation or gathering information.
Effectively utilised, questioning can catalyse self-discovery, facilitate growth and change, and promote enhanced decision-making and problem-solving capabilities.
However, the art of questioning is not a static skill; it requires continuous learning, refinement, and adaptation in response to each unique coaching relationship.
Coaches are therefore encouraged to consistently focus on developing this vital skill to drive better coaching outcomes. The power to unlock transformation lies not just in the answers that clients find, but perhaps more importantly, in the questions that coaches ask.