The key to coaching lies in the power of asking great questions

The importance of asking questions (…the right questions) is key to successful coaching. A close second is the importance of listening. Jim Hendrix once said, “knowledge speaks, wisdom listens”.

Understanding when to adopt a coaching approach versus a mentoring approach can make a significant difference in fostering growth and development among team members. Coaching focuses on guiding individuals to discover their own solutions, mentoring means sharing personal experiences to offer knowledge. 

The choice of questions for a coach is infinite. We’ve honed these down to five areas to get the impact needed out of your coaching.

Opening questions. The key to great coaching is asking the right questions. Try opening with something simple such as, “What’s on your mind?” As a starter question this is powerful for any conversation whether it is a coaching, mentoring, career, or performance conversation. It’s an open question and therefore allows the conversation to meander and explore. It is informal in nature and allows the person in front of you to say what they have in their mind.

Once you use this question, the agenda’s firmly set on the coachee. “What’s on your mind?” starts a mood that is all about the coachee. Michael Bungay Stanier, a coaching expert, says his favourite question is the AWE question, “And what else?” following the “What’s on your mind?” question. This allows the coachee and the coach to get all the thoughts of the individual on the table. The AWE question leads the coachee on a journey to maybe the 11th, 12th, or 13th thought where the crucial things are going on. 

Focus questions. Once both coach and coachee are exploring a topic, it is a useful to nail down the focus of the conversation with a question such as, “What is the real issue here?” Subtle variations can be used to probe deeper. For example, “What do you feel the real issue is?” The use of different views and different styles to explore around the views that the coachee holds is useful for their thinking. This stage of questioning is about nailing down the mindset and the mood for the coach and the conversation.

Tell me, show me. Using questions such as, “Tell me about that” or “Tell me more” can allow the conversation to travel in interesting directions. A powerful prompt is the, “Show me” question. Observations of what people show you leads to greater insights. Often our work is habitual, and we are unaware of how we do things or even what we do. For managers there are huge assumptions of how their team work and conduct themselves. Sometimes getting a team member to show you their thinking or how they would do something, is a powerful way of unlocking their methods.

Choice questions. Once you are into the meat of the conversation, there are moments when decisions need to be made. To help those decisions there are several questions that provide focus to the coachee. The first is a statement followed by questions. For example, you could ask, “What are all the options you can think of?” Once you’ve got the options, there’s a follow-up question, “See, a pattern here?” followed by, “And what else?” This provides a brainstorming platform to explore all possibilities for the coachee. 

Learning and closing questions. As we come towards the end of a conversation, there are two types of questions worth using. The first type is the learning questions focused on the conversation, “What was most useful?” or “What have you learned?” These are great questions for measuring the power of the coaching for both the coach and the coachee. The second type of question is around actions, “What will you do?” or “What actions are you taking from the conversation?” We should have a mindset that this conversation is the start of a future conversation where the relationship is ongoing.

You now know the importance of questions – now it’s time to experiment. Find your questions. Find the ones that work for you to bring a conversational style to coaching. Ultimately, the person being coached should be aware you are testing them but also adding value and providing a structure and a process to allow them to release their potential.

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