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Posted By - Geoff Watts
If you would like to watch this blog post on coaching questions instead of reading it, then just scroll to the borrom.
Coaching can be an incredibly powerful tool for helping people unblock themselves, find solutions on their own and become more self-sufficient. As a coach I often find myself asking coaching questions in the hope that the answer will help that person (or that team) explore an aspect of their situation that they may not have done already, or consider things from another perspective that ultimately helps them address their situation in a different and more effective way.
There is no such thing as universally powerful coaching questions because a question’s usefulness is very context dependent. However, over the last 20 years or so I have found a few questions to be more useful on more occasions and so maybe they will be helpful to you (and ultimately the people you are coaching).
I’m sure you have others that have been more useful to those you are coaching and I look forward to seeing them in the comments.
At the start of the coaching conversation we would usually have had a discussion about the goal for the session and that might be something we just need to remind ourselves of but equally it is very easy to get dragged down in to the weeds when looking at a problem and when we step back to look at the bigger picture, somethings suddenly don’t seem as important or relevant. Also, focusing on a goal opens us up to different ways of achieving that goal rather than working out how to make this particular solution that we have begun work.
One thing I like about this coaching question is that it breaks the temporal paradigm and places them in the future. It also encourages them to assume they have wisdom to pass on to themselves, they are looking back at a situation that might, over time, have turned out to be less significant than it seems now. Alternatively, it could prove to be crucial and so it’s even more important that they do “the right thing” even if it’s difficult.
In general, I try and avoid extreme words in my coaching questions. For example, I would avoid things like “what’s the smallest step?” Or “what’s the best idea you can think of?”. I try and avoid this because finding the smallest step isn’t the goal and energy can easily be wasted evaluating two or three potentially good options when, for the purposes of our situation any small step is good enough. Once we have a small step we can always embellish it or stretch ourselves. Enabling forward momentum is our baseline aim as a coach.
There is a risk with this coaching question that we are implying that they cannot deal with this situation brilliantly but ultimately it is still their brain that is coming up with the way that this “other person” would approach the situation. This is quite often followed up with a “but I couldn’t do that” and there we have an assumption or weakness that we could look to work on.
If there is hesitancy about what to do, by bringing things back to the kind of person they want to be, or be more of, it can help people feel more empowered, brave and action-oriented. By focusing on a strength of ours rather than an area of weakness also has the potential to increase a sense of possibility.
Many of my coaching conversations resolve around dysfunctional or undesirable behaviour, either of someone else or the coachee themselves. I have a theory that every dysfunctional behaviour is a symptom of an unmet need and if we can identify the unmet need then we might not even need to tackle the behaviour itself. This coaching question can help shift attention from the surface-level presenting behaviour and look at where it may be coming from. This may be a question that you don’t even ask out loud but rather consider yourself. This is especially useful if looking to influence management. For more on that, check out this post.
Obviously we all operate within constraints. I don’t have a magic wand. I don’t have unlimited money or an irresistibly persuasive demeanour. However, starting with no constraints helps us focus on possibility and we can then look at some of the factors that may (or may not) need to be overlaid on to that fantasy scenario to make it more realistic. One by one we can analyse them, potentially debunk them and maybe mitigate them.
I do have a soft spot for this coaching question because, on the face of it, it’s just plan wrong! If I’ve got someone struggling with how to make progress why would I encourage them to make things worse?
Well there are two reasons really. One is we often find it easier to think destructively than constructively so at least we start coming up with answers to our own questions again – new aspects to the situation. And that can often lead naturally into constructive ideas (almost by accident).
And the second reason is that if nothing else we can remind ourselves that things are already better than they could be and we also now have the ingredients for a plan to (if nothing else) stop things from getting worse. Check out my video on the Psychopath Approach for more on this.
Ultimately a very simple question but with a couple of nuanced twists. Rather than looking at solutions, I’m instead asking for perspectives, different interpretations or points of view. The other nuance here is that I’ve asked for more than one. This, in itself, sows the seed that there are multiple interpretations and they might not stop at two, whereas if I ask for one, the chances are I will get “the other side to the story”.
Sometimes this could be coupled with a kinaesthetic angle, asking people to move to different parts of the room and look at “the situation” from another angle, it could be different people’s perspectives, it could be temporal or emotional perspectives.
I would deliberately stress the word *might*. This is a gentle inquiry about what “might” be a false assumption we are holding. This could be an assumption about the situation itself, one person’s intentions, the consequences of an action we are considering taking. I’m not saying that I think they have a false assumption but I’m inviting them to do a quick sanity check of their assumptions and explore the possibility that there is another possibility somewhere.
If you would like to watch this blog post instead of reading it, here’s a video:
Want to know what to read next? How about my Top Ten Tips To Make Your Retrospective Meetings Great Again