Coaching: three powerful questions to challenge your learnersby
Leaders who coach have a powerful advantage of those that don’t at the moment – but successful coaching comes down to asking the right questions.
One of the effects of the pandemic has been to make leadership by ‘command and control’ virtually obsolete overnight. How can you tell your people what to do if all your hard-won experience is no longer relevant? How can you keep their noses to the wheel if your interaction is now limited to a Zoom call once a day? (By the way, you shouldn’t have been leading that way anyway). How are you going to enable them to work in a world forever changed when you don’t know any more than they do quite how things are going to turn out?
We may hold the belief that when our people come to us with problems, we’re supposed to supply them with the answers. Sometimes this may be true, in an emergency being the prime example, but all too often when we do this we’re just reinforcing a sense of dependency.
Leaders who coach don’t have these problems because they have the skills, tools and techniques to enable their people to figure it out for themselves and be constantly learning from their own experience. Prime amongst these skills is the ability to ask provocative questions (and to listen actively to the answers but that’s a subject for another day).
I want to outline three powerful coaching questions here that, whilst they’ll be very familiar to professional coaches, are less commonly used by leaders and managers that like to take a coaching approach. I have found them to be particularly useful through the years, however, and well worth adding to your question bank after a bit of practice.
Question one: ‘what else?’
Experienced coaching style leaders are adept at avoiding two common pitfalls:
- Stopping at the first answer
- Stopping at the ‘right’ answer
The first of these pitfalls is usually because the inexperienced coach is busy formulating their next question or wanting to make sure they follow the GROW model or whatever questioning sequence they’ve been taught.
The second happens when the leader has a strong sense of what the person they’re coaching ought to be doing, and they just keep going with their questions until ‘bingo’, their coachee arrives at the ‘right’ answer as they see it.
Asking, ‘what else?’ guards against these pitfalls. It encourages the coachee to go again, to think some more and to reconsider how thoroughly they’ve thought things through. At the same time it provides an opportunity for the coach to pause and think too. I have found ‘what else?’ to be useful throughout a coaching conversation at all stages. If we look at it through the lens of the GROW model for example:
Setting out coaching questions on paper like this always makes them look a bit artificial, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Question two: ‘how do you know?’
My years of practising with the coaching approach have taught me time and again just how much people rely on assumption and presupposition. They’ll say…
- I can’t do that
- It won’t work
- Management won’t support that plan
- I’m too old/young, over-qualified/under-qualified, senior/junior
…and so on.
None of these statements are facts and I find the gentle rebuff of, ‘well, how do you know?’ very effective at teasing out just how little factual evidence people have for the assumptions they hold.
I coached a leader last year who wanted to improve his self-confidence. He had noticed that he had a tendency to mumble and stumble a little bit as he grappled to sometimes find precisely the right word for what he wanted to convey.
“People think I’m an idiot.” He told me gloomily.
“Really? How do you know that?” I asked in return.
It turned out that nobody had ever said anything, he’d never actually noticed any adverse reaction, and it had never been picked up by his peers or his bosses.
After we first discussed it, he went and sought some feedback on his concerns and people had no idea what he was talking about and couldn’t imagine why he was concerned.
In terms of the GROW sequence, this is about getting an accurate picture of the R for reality. It’s about checking assumptions and exploring whether there is any evidence to back up or challenge people’s initial perspectives.
Question three: ‘what would you do if I wasn’t here?’
I love this one. It gets right to the heart of the coaching principle of generating responsibility. I like to define responsibility, in the coaching context, as a person’s choice to own a task and see it through.
It follows that a good coaching question then will be one that encourages this kind of ownership and responsibility.
Unfortunately, our leadership style might inadvertently work against this. We may hold the belief that when our people come to us with problems, we’re supposed to supply them with the answers. Sometimes this may be true, in an emergency being the prime example, but all too often when we do this we’re just reinforcing a sense of dependency. It’s the equivalent of continuing to tie our children’s shoelaces for them instead of teaching them to do it for themselves.
Asking, ‘what would you do if I wasn’t here?’ is not an abdication of leadership responsibility; quite the reverse. Neither does it mean any loss of control for the leader because you’ll hear the answer to the question that you can then accept or challenge as you see fit. In my experience, however, what the individual is proposing in their own head is usually quite correct and the same thing I would do. In fact, on many occasions, their answer would reveal something quite new, novel and probably better than what I might have suggested.
Once again, for the GROW aficionados, this is a question designed to generate more ideas at the O for options stage.
The three questions outlined here may need rephrasing to sound a bit more like you but I hope you can see the positive response they can generate.
Always remember that it is the answer that is most important, not the question, so if you need to give yourself a bit more time to think about what they’ve said, just ask, ‘what else?’
Interested in this topic? Read How to ask effective coaching questions.