What is the best coaching question ever?

What is the best coaching question ever?

These days, coaching people at work ought to be an everyday occurrence. Why? Because most people want to come to work and be the best version of themselves. Coaching is a cost-effective way of improving everyone’s performance regardless of their abilities.

So what’s stopping us from coaching others at work?

First of all, let’s understand what coaching is and what coaching isn't. Coaching is not training. Coaching builds on training. Training is mostly one-way traffic in terms of communication. However, coaching requires far more two-way communication. Whereas training provides the answers and solutions (for example binary or black or white responses),coaching is far more subjective. Coaching builds on training, enabling the person being coached to explore the answers rather than be told. If training is giving people a fish so they can eat for today, coaching is very much teaching people how to fish so they can eat for the rest of their lives. Coaching is where the coach helps their team member explore the options they have to improve and offer suggestions as required. It is not telling. That’s training. Although training and coaching are learning, it’s all about the emphasis – either giving an answer or arriving at a solution.

So, if coaching is so important when and where can coaching take place?

Coaching can happen anytime and anyplace. Sure, coaching can take place at a predetermined time such as a performance review meeting or one-to-one session. But coaching can also happen spontaneously, in the moment. Problems happen, conversations spark up, things come to light. Sometimes the most effective coaching takes place in the here and now, dealing with questions when they are most fresh. However, whether undertaken planned or instinctively, coaching needs to be a private conversation focused on improving a situation. Seek to minimise the mental and physical barriers and maximise the focus and attention spans.

When coaching use open questions whenever you can. Why? Well, open questions literally open up the conversation, normally beginning with:

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • Where
  • When
  • How

For example:

  • 'How easy do you find coaching?'

Closed questions do the opposite. They close down the conversation as they normally get a one-word response such as a yes or a no.

For example:

  • Do you find coaching easy?

As coaching is a two-way conversation then focus on using as many open questions as you can and only use closed questions to clarify points or restrict the responses. Got it? (closed question). Thought so.

It is important to acknowledge that words change minds. And this brings me to the crux of this blog article. Not just how we ask questions is important. It’s also the questions we ask when coaching that is important.

Time for another example. Please compare the following questions:

  • ‘How easy do you find coaching?’
  • ‘How difficult do you find coaching?’

Both questions are valid and seek the same outcome. However, each will get a different response. It’s rather like me saying to you:

  • ‘Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant. Don’t think of a pink elephant’.

Our brains can often defy logic. Our consciousness doesn’t hear the words ‘don’t’ or 'do not'. So, as a coach you can pick whichever words you choose (e.g. ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’) and you receive the response you asked for. The skill is to ask the right question as the meaning of communication is the response you get. I recommend that you choose to use positive words and phrases rather than negative versions. This is because reframing situations in a positive way often gets the most positive mindset to solving problems.  

Another top tip when coaching is to use the word ‘feeling’ rather than ‘thinking’. Here’s another example:

  • ‘What do you think about the situation?’
  • ‘What do you feel about the situation?’

This subtle difference often gets a very different response. Try it. Experiment and observe what differences you get.

This brings me to what I believe to be the best question you can ask when coaching someone. Here goes:

  • ‘What’s stopping you?’

Why do I like this question so much? Well, for me it works so well because:

  • First of all, it’s an open question. It’s very difficult to answer with a yes or a no response.
  • Secondly, this question identifies the barriers that are getting in the way. If these barriers are real then they are outed – they become open for discussion. However, if the barriers are not real or only imagined then they can be challenged (in a supportive way, of course). Either way, by asking ‘What’s stopping you?’ enables you to get to the heart of the matter and begin to identify the steps needed to be taken to move forward.
  • Finally, remember to pause for a while after you have asked this question. Give the person that you are coaching time to reflect on something they may never have been asked before or need time to gather their thoughts and feelings on. Avoid jumping in with your views at all costs.

To summarise

So, there you have it. What I feel is the best coaching question is:

  • ‘What’s stopping you?’

It’s certainly not going to ever be the only question that you’ll need when coaching. However, it could be your most effective one. You may want to ask this question in your own preferred way such as:

  • 'What’s getting in the way?’
  • ‘What are you concerned about?’
  • ‘What is holding you back?’

Whichever version you choose, the sentiment always remains the same. As a coach your intention is to challenge and probe in a supportive and inquisitive way. So, use your coaching questions to enable you to do so. At the end of the day, what’s stopping you?

Paul Beesley
Director and senior consultant, Beyond Theory
5 October 2020

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