Questions about questions

If there is a question a coach can ask that qualifies as the most irritating to clients, it would surely be: “If you did have the answer, what would it be?” It’s probably ingrained, like the writing in a stick of rock, in the bones of robotic coaches. Of course, there are times when it’s appropriate and helpful, but with overuse it becomes a caricature of clueless coaching – “I don’t know what to ask next, but if throw the ball back to you, maybe you’ll have an idea.”

When I asked a group of coachees in a public sector organisation in Scotland, what they most appreciated and disliked about coaching, their response to the greatest dislike was managers, who bat every question by the coachee straight back, with “What do you think the answer should be?”

A more respectful and productive approach is to ask instead: “What thinking have you done about this already?”. Which can lead gently, if required, to: “What is it you are hoping I will be able to say that will help?” Sometimes the client needs the empathy of knowing that someone else has been through similar experiences. In which case, it is appropriate for the coach share, albeit with the caveat that his or her experience is not necessarily a template for anything the client may wish or decide to do. It’s important that the client feels the coach is being as helpful as possible, even if they are not providing answers.

I have observed that coaches and mentors, who are good at managing questions from the client – exercising delicacy, concern for the client and a gentleness in how they help the client refocus on their own thinking – also tend to be effective at asking questions about questions. Here are some examples:

  • How does this question      make you feel?
  • What would need to change      for you to find this question easier to answer?
  • What is the alternative      question that has meaning for you?
  • Who else has asked you      this question without being listened to?
  • Where does this question      lead you?
  • Who else does this      question apply to?
  • What prevented you asking      this question of yourself?

Asking questions about questions can take people to a much deeper level of reflection. In a sense, it’s like being in a hall of mirrors. Deconstructing a question can also be helpful in uncovering layers of meaning. Consider, for example:

  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?

The words are the same, but the meaning a client may attach to them, depending on the emphasis given.

So what’s the lesson? Whether it is a case of responding to a client’s question, or of a client’s reaction to a question from the coach, sticking with the question and exploring its hinterland may sometimes be much more productive than moving on to a different one.

© David Clutterbuck, June 2011

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