Coaching questions are the stock and trade of professional life, business, and executive coaches. Knowing what to ask, when to ask, and how to ask coaching questions is a major part of becoming an effective coach. But there are certain types of questions that tend to be frowned upon, because they often yield poor results.
Those include "leading questions" that back clients into corners, as well as "closed-ended questions" that reduce curiosity, and then there are "Why questions" that slow down the process.
The ICF Core Coaching Competencies encourage a different type of question, what coaches sometimes call "powerful questions", or "awareness-building questions". These can often be spotted by the words they start with: What, When, How, Who, If.
Some powerful awareness-building questions:
- If you had everything you need, what would you do?
- Who would you have to become to succeed?
- How could you do it?
- When have you been in a situation like this, before?
- What does this mean to you?
Questions like these help to open up a client's awareness of who s/he is and what's really possible. They take coaching to a higher level and help clients expand their impact in more ways than just goal completion. They also make coaching more fun.
So why shouldn't coaches ask, Why?
Sorry, I couldn't resist that one. Here are some reasons:
- Why questions encourage analysis of the situation and you'd be surprised at how little analysis helps in coaching.
- Why questions often lead to interpretations that may or may not be true, but more importantly, usually aren't helpful.
- Why questions can turn the client's focus on the past, rather then the present and future, where the action really is.
I used to discourage Why questions until I listened to an advanced coaching session in which the student-coach asked her client several carefully-worded questions that focused on analyzing and interpreting the past, but avoided the word, Why.
Example: What do you think the reason is that you have this problem? Which is gobbledygook for: Why do you have this problem? Not surprisingly, the session wasn't successful.
That said, I've heard dramatic turning points in coaching sessions when coaches asked Why questions. As I tell my coaching students, if it works for the client, it works for me, because ICF coaching may be powerful, but it's not the only way to coach. So if you feel compelled to ask Why, just ask Why.
What makes some Why question work in coaching, instead of just slowing things down?
Ah, I thought you'd never ask! Here's why:
WHY matters more than anything else in coaching!
You read that right. That poor little much-maligned word, WHY, matters more than all the Who, What, When, Where, and Hows. Those still matter, but not as much.
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
Viktor was an incredibly wise man. As much as I love How questions (and I truly love How questions) they are pointless until you get the Why. In fact, What, When, If, and even Who don't make total sense without the Why.
Here are some Why questions you MUST ask:
- Why does this matter to you?
- Why is this important, right now?
- Why does this mean so much?
Powerful Why questions uncover what the client most values.
Values are the Why.
Our most important personal values are the driving force behind everything we do. As sociologist, Paul Ray says, values determine our behavior more than anything else. More than demographics, education, strengths, needs, you name it.
Values are what matter most.
Asking about values in a coaching session is like asking Google an important search term. Within a few moments, you get a useful answer. But invite Google to analyze and interpret the past, and it might reply, "Well I was going to answer, but I wasn't feeling well, plus my boss is mad at me and I had an argument with my wife, plus, plus, plus... Not useful.
So should coaches ask Why questions? YES.
Focus Why questions on values, not analysis, interpretation, or the past. My 2 cents.
Positive psychology coaching tends to focus on strengths, which are the HOW of coaching. At School of Coaching Mastery, we focus on strengths and also emphasize values, because we are all about making coaching as powerful as possible. Two modules that will help you master values are the Psychology of Values and Coaching Values, Needs, and Strengths. Both are included in the Certified Positive Psychology Coach® program.
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