Socrates has a lot to answer for! He’s credited for the notion of ‘ask don’t tell’ that is so central to coaching. It was Socrates’s view that everyone should be able to challenge anyone else with a question. This idea also serves us well in a coaching context, where the job of the coach is to challenge people to move forward and make changes for themselves – rather than instruct, teach, guide or advise.
Normally people ask questions to get answers. But coaches do not always get answers. The biggest indication that a coach’s question has given a coachee some fresh insight may be a wry smile, a shake of the head, a far-away look or complete silence. Perhaps there is another reason then for coaches to pose questions.
The beauty of using questions in coaching is in their power to promote thought. Our ability to think is what distinguishes us from other species. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, we humans have a moment to think between stimulus and response; a moment in which we’ll make a choice about how we are going to respond in any situation.
It follows that if we can increase our quality of thinking, we might improve the quality of the end result or decision.
Coaching – particularly asking questions – produces a higher than normal quality of thinking. As coachees become more aware of the variables in any given situation and their feelings about them, they begin to understand things better and move more naturally towards change.
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A simple example may help. Years ago, when she was little, I coached my daughter to ride her two-wheel bike in about 20 minutes using these principles. We took the stabilisers off and she had a first go. “I didn’t like that Daddy, “she said, “it felt all wobbly.”
“How do you want it to feel?” I asked.
After a moment’s thought she said “Balancy!”
We had a few more tries and on each occasion I asked her: “How balancy does that feel?” After just a few more minutes she was riding comfortably, simply because my questions had directed her attention towards an appropriate variable (and her mind was now too occupied to worry about falling off).
Here are some quick tips to help pose great coaching questions:
Constructing the questions
Ask open questions as these tend to require more thought before answering. For example, if I ask ‘Is it raining?’ you don’t have much to weigh up. But if I ask ‘What’s the weather like?’ now you’ve got to do some evaluating in order to give an answer.
Having said that, there is a place for closed questions when appropriate, to get coachees to confirm specific facts or commit to a particular course of action. For example: “Are you going to talk to your boss next Thursday as we’ve discussed?”
Following a process
The process is very simple. The coach asks the question and then notices the response by way of listening carefully to the content of the answer and by monitoring the accompanying body language.
The coach then asks follow on questions, until it is clear that the coachee has arrived at some insight and is showing signs of wanting to move the conversation on.
Choosing a framework
Finally we need to look at what questions to ask and in what order. A lot of coaches use some variation of the mnemonic GROW which divides a coaching session into four main areas:
Goal What do you want?
Reality What’s happening now?
Options What could you do?
Will What will you do?
This model is useful in guiding a coachee from a broad understanding of what they’re trying to achieve long-term, to a clear plan of action with detailed process steps. However, experience suggests that things are rarely quite so straightforward and coaches need to be very flexible in using the model and be prepared to bounce back and forth as they follow the coachee’s thinking. It’s a big mistake to follow the GROW model slavishly.
There are lots of other models out there, but in all cases we must recognise that they are simply useful memory aids.
Frankly, anyone could reel off the questions found in any of the good coaching books and gaze in a semi-interested way at the coachee as they answered them. This is not good coaching and I doubt whether the poor person being coached would rate such an experience as helpful in any way. Coaching questions must raise awareness, promote choice and build trust. These are three key principles, and without them no model will succeed.
About Matt Somers
Matt Somers is the founder and Managing Director of Coaching Skills Training Ltd, a specialist training consultancy focused on the idea of the leader as coach. It operates throughout the UK and beyond, working in partnership with clients to ensure that what is intended is achieved. It has a wide and varied client list including charities.
As advocates of the coaching approach Matt works hard to make sure clients are able to continue developing the skills learned long after any initial project has finished.
He is a leading voice on training and coaching in the UK publishing Coaching at Work in 2006 and Coaching in a Week in 2016. He holds an MSc in Human Resource Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD.
Find out more at: https://www.mattsomers.com/
Read Matt’s previous coaching blogs here:
- Coaching is not the same as instructing
- A coaching approach to performance reviews
- The power of people’s potential
- Tips for coaching teams
- Getting around coaching roadblocks
- Improving morale in a crisis
- What does coaching really mean?
- Moving from trainer to coach