Many years ago, I was assigned a business coach as part of my professional development plan. At first I didn’t really think that I needed a coach to help me grow and develop in my career aspirations. Then one day when things were not going particularly well, she asked me, “If you could paint a picture for me of how you are feeling at this moment, how would it look?” I thought for a minute, and then responded, “I guess I feel like there is an elephant sitting on my chest.” She responded, “And that elephant is crushing your efforts in what ways?” My answer to that question surprised me as I identified a number of issues and mindsets that were hindering my success.
One of the things that effective coaches do is to ask questions that lead an individual to increase their learning, improve their performance, and achieve the desired results. When I say, “increase their learning,” I am focused on the learning that comes from within the person. Answering thought-provoking questions heightens awareness of the thoughts and actions that are creating current results.
Although there are any number of different types of questions you might ask, I have found questions that increase awareness, initiate thinking, move one to action, and strengthen resolve to be the most effective types of questions when coaching others.
Awareness questions. The purpose of awareness questions is to help individuals gain a more accurate view of their reality. If an individual can’t see themselves in the current situation—what they are doing, saying, feeling, and thinking—then they may be stuck, or at least they will likely have a difficult time changing.
Once an executive I was working with asked me how he thought his presentation to 400 of his company employees had gone. During the presentation he said something like this: “Well, seeing how earnings are down by 40%, I guess I had better let 40% of you go. Am I wrong?” As soon as he said that, no one else asked a question for the rest of the meeting. People were looking down during his presentation and avoided looking at him. After he left, everyone started talking about what they needed to do to find another job. When I saw him a while later, he asked me how I thought his presentation had gone. Rather than answer his question, I asked him a series of questions to heighten his awareness, such as, “What happened after you said you might let 40% of them go?” “Did anyone agree that you should let 40% of the audience go?” “What do you think they were thinking?” “What would you have thought if your president said that?”
Awareness-building questions might include any of the following:
· “What results do I have?”
· “What did I do that contributed to or created those results?”
· “What barriers are in the way?” or “What didn’t work as planned?”
· “What did I want to achieve?
· “What do I think I know?” or “What don’t I know?” or “What do I need to know?”
Thinking questions. Often when things don’t turn out as we plan, we ask questions that force people to defend themselves. For example, the question, “Why did you do that?” forces the person to review their past thinking and then to offer a justification for their thoughts or actions. These types of questions do not move the person forward nor does this line of questioning cause them to think differently about the situation.
Changing the question to something like, “What would you do differently next time?” forces the person to put aside their justifications and think about the challenge, learn something from the event, and make recommendations for the future. This tactic is much more effective at improving future results. Additionally, you will learn a lot about them and their thinking process based on the way they answer your questions.
Thought-provoking questions might include any of the following:
· “What did you learn that would make a difference going forward?”
· “What would you do differently next time?”
· “What one thing might dramatically change your results?”
· “How did your thinking create your results?”
Action questions. The purpose of these types of questions is to help individuals identify what they will do, what their next step might be, or what options are worthy of their consideration. When looking at challenges or problems to be solved, these questions will help the person make a deliberate decision about their next action.
When you ask the individual to identify an action, their response will reveal a lot about their thinking process and their experience level. If the way a person answers reveals a lack of judgment or experience on their part, then you will need to help them identify their next action. If this is the case, don’t forget to explain why you are asking them to do what you need them to do.
Examples of action questions would include the following:
· “What one thing would improve your results?”
· “What is your most powerful next step?”
· “What would your wisest self do?”
· “What one thing takes priority over all others?”
Resolve questions. These types of questions are intended to strengthen the resolve of the individual and their commitment to do something. Such questions remind me of the sales questions where the salesperson might offer something to a potential buyer and then withdraw the offer. The withdrawal has the effect of increasing the resolve of the person who might have been equivocating about making the purchase.
Using such questions will increase the commitment level of the person who is to take action.
Resolve questions might include any of the following:
· “On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to your action? Why or why not?”
· “Are you ready to take this on? What makes you say that?”
· “Are you prepared to make a change? How do you know that?”
Notice that all of these questions have a follow-up question which helps people to identify the thinking to strengthen their resolve and move them to action.
Questions have many uses. They can be used to check understanding, create respect and trust, demonstrate interest, and facilitate learning. When coaching others, questions can also be used to create self-awareness, initiate thinking, move people to action, and strengthen resolve. Taking the time to ask such influential questions requires preparation and careful listening. Asking these types of questions will help others to be more effective in the achievement of results.