Effective questioning in coaching – and the most important questions to ask yourself

In a previous post I outlined the 5 basic coaching skills we really need in order to become effective as coaches. We’ve already taken a look at contracting, use of some kind of structuring mechanism (with the GROW Model as an example), and listening. This time I’m going to discuss questioning, which (coupled with listening) is the way coaching is given direction, and conversations can be taken forward into ‘light-bulb moment’ territory.

questions in yellow baubles

First, we’ll be looking at framing questions during the ongoing interaction with a coachee, before turning to the most important questions we coaches need to ask ourselves.

What’s so important about questioning?

‘Questioning’ can mean different things to different people. As I see it, as coaches we’re not talking about throwing questions around just for the sake of it. We’re considering the power of incisive, consciousness-raising questions. Questions which arise out of the moment in coaching as we respond to what we are learning and ‘feeling’ about coachees as they progress on their journey towards self-enlightenment, at least as far as unearthing all the varied aspects of their issues is concerned.

If a question doesn’t seem to be arising, we need to be astute enough to allow for that reality. We don’t need to fish around to find one. Remember that listening and silence are powerful. Out of silence comes further reflection – on the part of the coach as well as the coachee.

Only carefully considered, clear, concise relevant questions can encourage coachees to dig deep to find the answers that will help them move forward. And crafting those questions ‘in the moment’ is what sharpens their effectiveness, and makes them particular to the coachee at that particular juncture. Effective questioning allows the coach to get to grips with the issues, and the client to verbalise previously unconsidered thoughts or feelings, which promotes reflection. Effective questions help get to the heart of the issue and can help facilitate change.

What makes an effective question?

As far as possible we’re focusing on carefully targeted open, probing questions which seek clarification. On occasion we might also be asking hypothetical questions, which don’t necessarily demand actual answers but do provoke reflective thought.

Cartoon figure holding head surrounded by question marksBut not every question is a good question. Some types are best avoided as they’ll prompt neither elaboration nor a process of further thinking on the part of the coachee. Which are these? Closed questions (which have a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer), leading questions (which are anglng for a particular answer), or multiple questions (which have lots of distracting parts, none of which get properly answered). More often than not the subtext of all these types of questions is less to do with revealing the nuances of the coachee’s issue than validating the coach’s own ‘solutions’ or point of view.

Effective probing questions can be at three different levels, which cumulatively help gain better understanding of the real concerns and issues of coachees, as well as their beliefs and values. As rapport with a coachee builds, we’re able to make that leap to get into the individual’s head to see the world from her or his perspective. What are these levels?

  • Level 1     Facts   Simple data gathering questions, with the intention of teasing out necessary relevant information to contextualise the coachee and the issue (not just to satisfy personal curiosity). Initially these questions won’t require a great deal of rapport to be answered, but if a coach is sensitive, the process can lead to the building of trust in the relationship.
  • Level 2     Feelings     Probing further into what the coachee thinks and feels. Answering requires more thought and a higher level of trust and rapport between coach and coachee.
  • Level 3     Values     Probing even deeper into why the client values things and why they are important to him/her. Answering needs a lot of thought and a high level of trust and rapport.

Clearly, the key skills here are sensitivity and deep listening. The coach needs to be fully ‘with’ the coachee and absorbed in her or his world. It’s from this level of engagement that the rapport is built which enables open, honest answers, and which reveals in the moment which level and which question should be raised.

The most important questions to ask yourself

So far we’ve looked at framing questions to ask coachees. But in some ways the most important questions are the ones we ask ourselves as coaches. Why? Because the answers determine the intention behind our interaction with a coachee as well as the spirit in which we coach.

1. Questions to set our frame of mind     “Why am I a coach? What is the underlying intention behind my presence in this coaching relationship? Am I currently in a mental/emotional place whereby I can do justice to the responsibility of coaching the individual I’m about to meet?”

Blue magnifying glass and windowThese are just three of the unspoken questions it’s so important we consider every time we prepare for a coaching session. They can help us test and challenge our assumptions about our own motives.

As part of setting our focus, they’re crucial to our being able to dig deep to recognise the reality of why we are doing what we are doing. Just as there can be a myriad of intentions behind particular questions we ask our coachees, there can be a myriad of intentions behind why we have the urge to be a coach – and they can change over time and under different circumstances.

There are no ‘right’ answers here. There is only honesty about how we’re really thinking in the moment. We need to be honest in holding up a mirror to our intentions so that we can articulate and acknowledge their reality. Without this honesty, we may be entering coaching relationships without the self-insight necessary to being able to act with authenticity and wisdom. Without acknowledging the reality of our intentions, we can’t realign them (if that’s what we find is necessary), and we can’t work with ourselves to develop into the coaches we wish we could ultimately be.

Resetting our commitment and our focus before each session can go some way to preparing the seedbed of non-judgementalism, compassion and empathy without which transformative interactions cannot take place.

2. Questions to ask ourselves in the moment     Coaches need to be sensitive to their own reactions to what’s going on in coaching sessions in the moment.2 Stylised people talking Partly this is to pick up on where internal ‘interference’ is getting in the way of listening to and perceiving what’s actually going on, and partly it’s to identify ‘messages’ that are being delivered to the coach through bodily reaction and ‘feeling’ about what the coachee is manifesting from moment to moment. This requires a high level of self-awareness, which can be accessed through a mindful approach to the task.

Questions to ask oneself could include:

  • What am I feeling, and where is it in my body?
  • What words does this feeling evoke?
  • Have I felt like this before? In what circumstances?
  • Why has my mood changed? What is the change related to?

It’s important to try to pinpoint why we are reacting in a particular way. Sometimes this can be significant information to reflect back to the coachee. At the very least it encourages the necessary agility on the part of coaches to deal with their own contribution to what’s happening in the coaching relationship alongside what’s happening simultaneously for the coachee.

So, questioning in coaching is of great significance – questioning of oneself, and questioning of the coachee. Taken hand in hand with listening, it provides the context in which transformative interactions can take place.

 

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