The Art of Asking Effective Questions in Coaching
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, so I wanted to share some guidelines to help you ask more effective questions in your career.
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 prompt the beginning of a longer conversation by asking questions that begin with the words, “What, Where, Why, When, and How?” (5 W’s and an H).
- Clarifying questions – “Are you saying that…?”
- Trying to 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 client’s 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 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 … ?
Ask questions to clarify what was said, such as “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 the client gives a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. Probe their reasons by asking questions such as:
- Why is that happening?
- How do you know this?
- Can you 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?
- 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.
- What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
- Why 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?
- Another way of looking at this is … does this seem reasonable?
Probing Implications and Consequences
Probe the decision to identify the implications and possible consequences of the decisions. Define the impact of the consequences. The argument that the client gives 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 and use the client’s attack against themselves. In other words, 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, such as:
- 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 can be helpful when trying to gain closure to a discussion or to lead to a decision point. Closed-ended questions are questions that can only be answered by selecting from a limited number of options, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’, multiple-choice, or a rating scale (e.g. from strongly agree to strongly disagree).
- 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?
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 coachee’s world. Questions need to be asked in the right spirit – not aggressively. The major difference between asking questions in a coaching setting versus asking them in other settings is that in coaching, questions aren’t seeking answers. They are seeking to help the 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.
IOD offers an online Executive Coaching Certification Program (ECCP) to help coaches advance in their career and build their reputation as an effective Executive Coach. The ECCP program provides participants with the tools and skills needed to develop an integrated executive coaching strategy.
About the Author:
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.