Imagine your client is facing a tough decision, and they’re unsure of which path to choose. In moments like these, the power of questions becomes apparent. Are you asking questions that truly inspire exploration and insight? Are your questions encouraging introspection and helping your clients uncover their goals and aspirations? In this article, we delve into the art of asking empowering questions and explore seven essential techniques to master the skill. For a deeper exploration of this subject, tune into Episode #1021 of the Arete Coach Podcast where we explore powerful questioning and the use of questions in executive coaching situations.
The power of asking the ‘right’ questions
The value of a question lies in its ability to contribute meaningfully to a conversation. Powerful questions have the potential to inspire clients, align with their goals, and guide them towards their fullest potential. These questions tap into their aspirations, such as asking where they see themselves in the future, and allow clients to articulate their own path to success. For example, consider the following story:
Once upon a time, in a mountain village, lived the wise old man Master Cheng. Known for his ability to ask the right questions, he encountered a curious traveler named Li Wei. Seeking the secret to true happiness, Li Wei approached Master Cheng. Instead of providing an immediate answer, Master Cheng posed a question in return: "What does true fulfillment mean to you?" This unexpected inquiry prompted Li Wei to reflect deeply on his own understanding of happiness. Through introspection, he realized that genuine happiness lies in living authentically, aligning actions with personal values, and finding joy in the present moment. Inspired by this newfound wisdom, Li Wei embarked on a transformative journey, embracing the power of asking the right questions to uncover his own path and inspire others to do the same.
The story above highlights Master Cheng's ability to ask the right question and its impact on Li Wei's search for happiness. It emphasizes the importance of introspection and self-discovery through asking meaningful questions. By focusing on powerful questions that ignite further thought, we can foster purposeful dialogue and elevate conversations to new levels of meaning and significance.
Why are powerful questions useful?
According to Terry Heick, “The right question at the right time can make a learning experience, because more than anything read, drawn, or even written, a question is acute and properly troubling. It creates a needle-point of light even as it suggests darkness” (2021).
Questions serve as powerful tools for executive coaches to gain deep insights into their clients and to stimulate new thought patterns. Yet, if clients have never been directly asked about their ultimate goals, they may have never truly explored this fundamental aspect of their lives. By vocalizing their thoughts, clients can unlock a deeper understanding of their aspirations and receive invaluable feedback, direction, and insights from their executive coach. In the words of Heick, renowned in the field, these thought-provoking questions play a pivotal role:
As executive coaches, it is our duty to empower clients to unleash their full potential. This demands a profound understanding of what that potential truly entails, a shared understanding achieved through the art of skillful questioning. By timely responding to these inquiries and embracing moments of silence, we create an environment ripe for growth and self-reflection. In the stillness, clients discover boundless opportunities to evolve and transform.
7 Types of Powerful Questions
Understanding By Design, a comprehensive work by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, identifies seven essential principles of powerful questions (2004-2012). These principles can be applied by executive coaches in their sessions to further their client’s learning and growth to their fullest potential and best self.
Open-ended questions provide the client with the opportunity to engage in a dialogue of their choice, without a definitive or predetermined answer. Similar to brainstorming, these questions foster creativity and allow the client to freely express, elaborate, or clarify important topics. They facilitate the client's learning through reflection and enable the coach to gain insights from client-led revelations. Unlike closed questions, open-ended questions avoid bias and social desirability by giving the client the freedom to articulate their beliefs.
Coach: “How do you feel about your employee’s behavior in the office?”
Client: “I feel like it was justified, but still inappropriate for the workplace. I think I will need to take disciplinary action regardless.”
Coach: “What do you think the best outcome would be for the situation?”
In the example above, the coach effectively utilized open-ended questions to delve deeper into the subject matter. The conversation initially revolved around an employee's behavior, but the coach skillfully prompted the client to contemplate their desired outcome. This open-ended discussion not only helped the client gain clarity on their objectives in the given situation but also provided the coach with valuable insights into the client's needs and aspirations. Armed with this understanding, the coach was able to offer more tailored and effective support to the client.
“What is the best outcome that you believe could come from this situation?”
“Can you explain…”
“Tell me more about…”
“How will you know if this implementation is on track?
“What would success look like…?
Insightful questions ignite lively discussions and encourage the client to challenge their perspectives on goals and beliefs. They serve as catalysts for intentional action, guiding the client towards thoughtful decision-making rather than impulsive reactions. David Wind, CEO of Eduflow, suggests “the ability to consider many possible solutions instead of just one” is a valuable way to invoke thought, and that goal of these questions is to move the client from “passive receptor” to “active participant” in the creation of their own goals, the development of their best self, and the understanding of their “unique perspective” (2020).
Tell me what you think your employee’s stance on this issue is?
Have you considered…?
I’m puzzled about ____, can you tell me more about…?
Higher-order analysis based questions
Higher-order analysis based questions encourage clients to engage in higher-order thinking by reflecting on their career journey, interactions with their coach, and external resources provided (Wind, 2020). They leverage what Wind refers to as "causal reasoning" to prompt clients to connect their existing knowledge with real-life applications. For instance, a question like, "Considering the reading assigned since our last session, how might you modify your daily practices?" prompts clients to consider the cause-and-effect relationship between the reading material and their life. By intentionally posing analytical questions that explore information and prior learnings, clients develop a greater ease in evaluating their current situation in light of new insights and experiences.
Based on your previous experience with this individual, what do you think…?
In our last session, we talked about teaching independence. What do you think a good outcome of that discussion was?
Questions that focus on important ideas
Powerful questions directly address important ideas, cutting through the noise. Whether asked by new or experienced coaches, these questions may initially seem challenging, as they confront issues and inconsistencies head-on. However, it is crucial to approach such questions with tact, considering their value to the client's growth and development. Vanderbilt University's McDaniel (2021) advises coaches to carefully evaluate the impact of discussing potentially sensitive topics, ensuring they will propel the client towards their highest self and inspire positive action. This purposeful navigation of difficult conversations is essential, as progress often requires confronting challenges directly. Embracing the potential for growth and change, coaches can choose to focus on pertinent subjects and ask relevant questions that encourage transformative self-reflection.
“There can be no progress without head-on confrontation” - Christopher Hitchens
You recently stated that you are interested in a new business venture, what are some concerns that are holding you back?
What is the most important goal you have right now?
Can you tell me more about how this goal is important to you?
Follow-up questions provide valuable reflection time and reinforce initial ideas and concerns. These questions, also known as additional questions, go deeper into the client's goals and address the issues raised in their initial responses. Winston Resources suggests three key principles for effective follow-up questions: (i) asking the original question in a new way, (ii) linking the client's answers together to paint a more detailed picture and allow for correction, and (iii) exploring the ramifications of their answers for further analysis and goal alignment. Silence between answers and questions is encouraged for deeper reflection.
What kind of effect do you think this decision will have on others?
Can you clarify your goal in this situation for me?
Questions that need additional support
Questions that require additional support often involve seeking a client's opinion or beliefs about specific situations. Engaging in discussions with clients about their reasoning and justifications for their actions and behaviors enables coaches to foster more purposeful actions aligned with the clients' desired goals. This reflection process can lead to a deeper understanding of the gaps between the clients' current reality and their aspirations. Answers that necessitate evidence and information to substantiate claims serve to strengthen the clients' arguments or prompt them to address any potential misconceptions or logical errors they may hold.
Why do you think this is your best course of action?
How will this lead you to your overall goal?
Repeated questions enable both client and coach to monitor progress and growth after sessions. Coaches should keep notes on assigned goals and actions, revisiting them to celebrate successes or address issues. By reflecting on why previous plans may not have worked and exploring alternative strategies, clients can stay on track towards their goals. Celebrating achievements reinforces the value of coaching and boosts client confidence.
How has your goal of … been going?
What are some differences you’ve made this past month to help you reach your goal?
Arete Coach Podcast, e:1021, “Exploring Powerful Questioning,” 3/29/21, with podcast host Severin Sorensen.
Mcdaniel, R. (2021, February 18). Difficult Dialogues. Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/.
Schuman, H., & Presser, S. (1979). The Open and Closed Question. American Sociological Review, 44(5), 692–712. https://doi.org/10.2307/2094521.
Why Follow-Up Questions are Important. Winston Resources. (2014, December 11). https://www.winstonresources.com/2014/12/11/why-follow-up-questions-are-important/#:~:text=It%20lets%20the%20person%20know,of%20learning%20more%20about%20them.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2004-2012). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wind, D. K. (2020, September 28). How to Write Discussion Questions That Actually Spark Discussions · Eduflow blog. RSS. https://www.eduflow.com/blog/how-to-write-discussion-questions-that-actually-spark-discussions.
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