From long experience as a coach trainer, here’s my personal list of the top five asking mistakes coaches make (excerpted from the book, Coaching Questions by Tony Stoltzfus).
Asking Mistakes #1: Closed Questions
Number one on our list of asking mistakes is—closed questions! Open questions are powerful questions and have two important benefits: they let the coachee direct the conversation (you can answer in many different ways) and they make the coachee think by eliciting more than one-word answers. While most people will answer the occasional closed question as if it were open, too many will shut people down.
To convert closed questions to open ones, first become aware of what you are asking. If you catch yourself before you’ve finished asking, you can simply restate the question. You’ll know you are asking a closed question if it can be answered with a simply “yes” or “no”, like these examples:
- “Is there a way to do that and still keep evenings for family?”
- “Can you realistically take that on too?”
- “Could there be any other ways to approach that?”
- “Do you have any other options?”
If you catch yourself in the act of asking a closed question, here’s a quick technique for readjusting: just start again with the word “what” or “how”. Here are the closed questions above, made open:
- “What could you do to still keep evenings for family?”
- “How would your life change if you take that on, too?”
- “How else could you approach that?”
- “What other options do you have?”
Asking Mistakes #2: Solution Oriented Questions
A special kind of closed question is the solution oriented question. SOQs are pieces of advice with a question mark pasted on. We want to tell the client the answer, but we remember we are supposed to be coaching, so we give our solution in the form of a question:
- “Shouldn’t you check in with your boss before you act on this?”
- “Could you do your jogging with your spouse?”
- “Do you think that affirming the person would give you a better result?”
- “Can you give her the benefit of the doubt on this one?”
“Should you, could you, will you, don’t you, can you, are you”—if the second word in the question is “you”, you’re in trouble. First, let go of fixing, reaffirm to yourself that you believe in this person, and begin again by asking the coachee for a solution. On a practical level, SOQs usually originate in an intuitive insight: something the person says makes us curious, so (all in our own heads) we proceed to identify what we think the underlying problem is, create a solution, and then offer it to the person. The trick is to go back to the thing that made you curious in the first place, and ask about that. Often this involves broadening our SOQ (which focused on one potential solution) into an open question with many possible solutions. For instance:
- Our insight on the first question listed above was wondering what the channels of authority in this organization are. So we might ask, “In your company, what kind of channels do you need to go through before you act on this?” (Notice how this question allows for other answers than just talking to the boss.
- On the second question, our intuition noticed that the client is an extrovert, yet all the potential exercise options were done alone. So you might say, “I noticed that all your exercise options involved you doing it alone. How could you involve other people in your exercise routine?” What would happen if you mentioned that to the boss?
Asking Mistakes #3: Seeking the “One True Question”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for beginning coaches is the quest for the Holy Grail: the question that will unlock the secrets of the universe for the client. Before each question there is a long, awkward pause while we search our mind for just the right thing to say—and meanwhile the momentum of the conversation is lost.
It’s not the perfect question that makes the difference: you just need to help the person you are coaching think a little farther down the road than they can on their own. Trust the process to help the person, not the greatness of your insight. One excellent technique when you are starting out as a coach is to lean on a very simple question, like, “Tell me more,” or “What else?” The benefit of these short-and-sweet queries is that they don’t interrupt the person’s thought process at all. Another great tool is the Observation and Question technique. Pick out the most significant thing the person said, repeat their exact words, and ask them to expand on it, like this:
- “You mentioned that ___________. Tell me more about that.”
By varying the question (instead of “Tell me more…”, try “Say more,” or “Expand on that,” or “What’s going on there?”) you can use this technique over and over without sounding stilted. It’s a great way to keep the focus on the client and not on your greatness as a coach.
Asking Mistakes #4: Rambling Questions
A variant of the “One True Question” problem is the rambling question. Some coaches can’t stop themselves from asking the same question in three different ways, while stringing together five different nuances or potential answers along the way. By the time the coach has finally articulated the question, the client is confused about what to answer and any conversational flow is lost.
The propensity to ramble can usually be overcome in one of two ways. First, some coaches do this because they are still figuring out what they want to ask while they are asking. The solution is simple: allow it to be silent for a moment or two while you formulate the question. Our uncomfortableness with silence is leading us to jump in before we are ready to ask. When you start doing this, you’ll often find that a little silence will lead the client to continue to process without you asking any question at all.
The second common cause of rambling is that we are overly concerned that our question be fully grasped. Our need to be understood comes from unconsciously trying to lead the person down a particular path we want them to go on. In other words, we are in telling mode. Let go, stop ask the question once and stop, and see where the person chooses to take it. Often the most exciting coaching moments come when the client doesn’t understand what you were asking for!
Asking Mistakes #5: Interpretive Questions (Not Using Their Own Words)
Closing out our top five asking mistakes is Interpretive Questions. Sometimes just by asking a question we put a spin on what the client is saying. For instance, a client says, “I’m finding it tough lately to want to get up on Monday mornings. I’m frustrated with my current project, I’m not getting the support I need, and I keep finding myself looking at the clock and wishing the day was over.” A response like, “How long have you hated your job?” is likely to get a reaction from the client (“Wait a minute—I never said I hated my job…!”) The reason? Our coaching question reveals our interpretation of what the client said. We don’t know yet whether this person hates his job, dislikes it, or even loves it. We only know what the client says. Interpretive questions erode trust (because they put something on the client) and block the conversational flow as the person responds to our analysis.
Interpretative questions are easy to correct: simply make a habit of incorporating the client’s own words in your questions. For the example above, we might ask, “How long have you been frustrated with your current project?” or “What kind of support do you need that you aren’t getting?” or “What triggers you looking at the clock and wishing the day was over?” Each underlined section in these questions comes directly from the client’s own statements. Asking in this way prevents the client from reacting to your spin and keeps the conversation moving in a productive direction.
Correct these top asking mistakes and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great coach!
Tony Stoltzfus is a long-time coach, author and co-founder of an Encounter Coach Training School.