The Secret is in the Questions

It was Rudyard Kipling that said in the Elephant’s Child …

I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

Questions that begin with those words are the key to effective questioning in coaching conversations – with the exception of, “Why”. Although it may be reasonable to think that asking “Why” is acceptable, this type of question can and very often is perceived as accusatory and judgmental. Wherever possible try and use an alternative.

For example, instead of asking:

Why did you do it that way?” you could ask What were you hoping for by taking that approach?”

The difference may be subtle, but the latter is more likely to be perceived as genuine interest rather than being judgmental. Many people when confronted with “Why” can become immediately defensive.

The way we ask a question; the way we look; the tone of our voice or emphasis on specific words will have a significant impact on how our question is received. It may be unintentional on our part, but it is extremely important that we are aware of how we might be coming across. The questions we ask should be totally and exclusively relevant to the purpose of the coaching conversation – how will the question help the individual to move forward?

When we construct our questions based on what is happening in the conversation rather than relying on pre-prepared questions, we demonstrate that we are listening.

For example, the individual might be dwelling on a negative experience that they can’t get past. A useful approach is to stop and say something like, “Can I just check my understanding of this?” and, for example, “So what I’m hearing is…” Avoid saying “What you said is…” because it might be taken as criticism.

Then summarise that part of the conversation using as many of the individual’s own words as you can.

Often, when we feed back a person’s thoughts to them, they are hearing those words out loud for the first time and it can help them to see how their current mindset is stopping them from moving on. It becomes a ‘light bulb’ moment. Then rather than dwelling on the problem, simple questions can get them thinking of possible solutions and shift their focus onto the future. For example:

“What would it be like if you could put this in the past?”

“What needs to be in place for that to become a reality?”

“What could you do to help that come about?”

‘What is the first thing you could do?”

Instead of concentrating on the next question, just use good listening skills and the question will come naturally. Practice using Kipling’s honest serving-men” – well perhaps five of them!

Be wary of lists of pre-prepared coaching questions. Dont try to out-think the individual, you cant possibly know what they are thinking – unless they tell you!

Here are some behaviours that will improve your coaching conversations:

  • Show unconditional positive regard for the individual – do not judge!
  • Be genuinely interested in them.
  • Use good listening skills – listen to understand instead of listening for an opportunity to interrupt.
  • Summarise often to check your understanding – “Can I just check with you my understanding so far?”
  • Ask for permission before you offer ideas.
  • Resist expressing your opinion. It is about what the other person thinks – not you.
  • Never ask a question if you don’t know why you’re asking it.
  • Look for signs in the other person – be on their wavelength.
  • Listen for the way they say something, or the way they look when they say it. Pick up on it when it is appropriate to do so …” I noticed when you talked about … you seemed … how were you feeling when…?”
  • Use closed and open questions to help guide the
  • You should be in control of the process – the individual should be in control of the content.

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