The Art of Asking Effective Questions


By Dr. Nancy Zentis, CEO Institute of Organization Development


The key to effective coaching starts with asking good questions.  The question is often referred to as the hook.  Experienced coaches skillfully ask open-ended questions to help the client gain deeper insight into their current challenges.  Learning to ask effective questions takes preparation and experience.

Here are some guidelines for asking effective questions:

What are Open-Ended Questions?

An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a single word or phrase such as “yes” or “no”

  • Open-ended questions begin with the words “What, Where, Why, When and How? – 5W’s and an H.”
  •  Clarifying questions – “Are you saying that…?”
  •  Trying gain understanding – “Could you explain so and so a bit more…?
  •  Building on a previous thought – “You said a moment ago that…. If that’s the case, what would happen if…?”
  •  Mirroring – “So what you’re saying is…?”
  •  Open up thoughts- “Have you explored/thought of…?” or “Would …. be of any help?”
  •  Challenging – “What do you feel most uncomfortable about?” or “What do you feel most challenged by?”
  • Elicit honesty – “Do you feel you’re making any impact – if not, what can you do about it?”
  • Peel back the layers, to dig deeper – “And then what happened….?”
    • To check out – “Are we asking helpful questions?” Or “What haven’t we helped you with yet?”

In order to gain understanding and add depth to the clients progress, a coach needs to know how to use three words to draw out greater information.


  • Describe -”Can you describe how you handled this situation?”
  • Tell – “Could you tell me more about that situation?”
  • Explain – “Please explain why the new system is not working, what is happening?”

Probing Assumptions – Probing of assumptions makes the client think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument.

  • What else could we assume?
  • You seem to be assuming … ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how … ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What would happen if … ?
  •  Do you agree or disagree with … ?

Clarification Questions – Asking questions to clarify what was said. Could you give me some specific examples?

  • Why are you saying that?
  • What exactly does this mean?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What is the nature of …?
  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Are you saying … or … ?
  • Can you rephrase that, please?

Probing Rationale, Reasons and Evidence – When they give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given.

  • Why is that happening?
  • How do you know this?
  • Show me … ?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you think causes … ?
  • What is the nature of this?
  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • Would it stand up in court?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • How can you be sure of what you are saying?
  • Why is … happening?
  • Why? (keep asking it)
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning Viewpoints and Perspectives – Most arguments are given from a particular position. Question the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

Another way of looking at this is …, does this seem reasonable?

  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
  • Why it is … necessary?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • What is the difference between… and…?
  • Why is it better than …?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are … and … similar?
  • What would … say about it?
  • What if you compared … and … ?
  • How could you look another way at this?

Probing Implications and Consequences – Probe the decision to identify the implications and identify possible consequences of the decisions. Define the impact of the consequences.

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could … be used to … ?
  • What are the implications of … ?
  • How does … affect … ?
  • How does … fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is … important?
  • What is the best … ? Why?

Asking a question about the question – You can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court.

  • More importantly, how do you think it’s going?
  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does that mean?

Coaches must remain neutral in content and proactive in structure/process.  If the question relates to structure/process, answer it.  If the question relates to content, redirect it.

  • More importantly, what do you think others think about that?
  • What do you think is the next step?


  • When the coaching needs closure or clarification to the discussion, ask for clarification and use feedback questions.
  • “Let me see if I understand what you’ve said.”
  • “Can you clarify what we’ve just discussed concerning the root cause?”

When to ask Close Ended Questions?

Asking close-ended questions is helpful when trying to gain closure to a discussion or to lead to a decision point.

  • “Are there any more issues to be discussed?”
  • “Do you disagree or agree with the actions we discussed?”
  • “Did we cover all the agenda items in today’s meeting?”
  • Bring it back to the discussion.

Questioning Guidelines

Helpful and challenging questions are the key to effective coaching.  The aim of asking questions is to help the coach uncover what is happening in the coachees world.  Questions need to be asked in the right spirit – not aggressively.  The major difference between asking questions and asking them in other settings is that in coaching, questions aren’t seeking answers.  They are seeking to help their coachee go deeper, understand, and respond to what is being asked- to give it thought. The second part of asking effective questions is to determine how to phrase them effectively so that the client remains focused.



Dr. Nancy Zentis is the CEO of Institute of OD, offering online certification programs for those interested in Organization Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching, and OD Advanced Skills courses for ongoing learning.  She can be reached at  For more information about our certification programs and short courses, visit our website


IOD offers an Executive Coaching Certification Program online to help coaches advance in their career and build their reputation as an effective coach. This program provides participants with the tools and skills needed to develop an integrated executive coaching strategy.

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