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Powerful questioning is both art and science, and involves open, probing, and clarifying questions. Because a single word potentially changes the meaning and the direction of the conversation, learning powerful questioning takes time. Powerful questioning is a coaching competency taught during coaching certification. Following are a few highlights.
For example, asking, “What would you do?” falls short of creating a commitment. Instead, asking, “What will you do?” invites being committed to chosen actions.
Consider for yourself how the same question asked two different ways makes a difference. Pause now and think about your answer to this question: What do you want? Consider where your mind goes initially, then give it more time and consider what additional thoughts occur. After a few minutes of thinking, change the phrasing of the question: What do you want in your relationships? Now the question directs where you focus. The same occurs if instead of relationships you are asked what you want in your life or what you want in your career. The first question is truly open; the subsequent examples are questions that give direction.
The question “anything else?” invites a yes or no answer. The question, “what else?” invites consideration of additional possibilities. Close-ended questions limit thinking by either stopping additional consideration or indicating that other thoughts are best be saved for later. With open-ended questions the individual is empowered to explore, consider possibilities, and make their own choices.
Imagine a conversation where a person states, “I am overwhelmed.” A follow-up question might be, “Are you worried that you are unable to handle it?” This interprets what is behind the initial statement and includes judgment. Instead ask, “What is going on?” The person then continues their thought process and shares what is happening. Overwhelmed could be overwhelmed with joy, concern, gratitude, tasks, priorities, etc. The first example of a response jumps to a conclusion, the second seeks clarification.
Imagine discussing a customer complaint. The question, “Do you think you should provide a written response?” gives an answer in the question and shuts down other options. This type of question limits thinking and possibilities. The question, “What are your possible courses of action?” empowers consideration of multiple options.
Tips for powerful question include:
Keep it short and simple
Ask open-ended questions
Ask questions that focus forward
Ask questions that are open to possibilities
Ask questions using words that work for the individual
Listening is one of the most important tasks to excel in: really hearing what is said and at the same time what is really meant, too. When you listen well, are open and accepting, then you are prepared to engage in a coaching culture. During coach training, specific insights and listening techniques are taught. Interesting facts about listening:
People hear one word in seven.
People only remember 25 to 50 percent of what is heard.
Only 7% of understanding is the words (55% is visual and 38% is tone / volume).
What are the techniques to move past these realities?
Listen intentionally and actively, completely focusing on the speaker.
Rephrase using the speaker’s key words and put the rest in your own words to verify understanding and demonstrate you listened.
Reflect the emotions behind the words back to the speaker to further clarify meaning and show understanding.
How does listening make a difference? Consider this brief example:
Eduardo: My inbox is overloaded!
Kelly: Are you worried you cannot keep up?
This is poor listening that includes analyzing, interpreting, and judging.
Now apply effective listening:
Kelly: Talk about your inbox.
This is opening the door to explore the situation so that the focus can be on strategizing solutions.
Friends share stories and experiences, empathize with one another, and then analyze problems and people. In conversations, friends relate to what friends say, their stories remind each other of other stories to share, plans call for input and opinion with different recommendations and advice-giving, problems call for suggested solutions.
In comparison, coaching uses listening and questioning to empower thinking, brainstorm, explore, and choose. Listening intentionally means:
Listen to what is said with a focus on understanding thought process and interests.
Hear the challenges and ask them to generate solutions.
Hear the options and ask questions to empower open thinking and broader perspective.
Silence is an important tool in conversations generally and in coaching it is essential. Coach training teaches the power of silence.
Think about it this way: how often have you asked a question and then been uncomfortable with the silence while waiting for an answer? The natural tendency is to then jump in and fill that silence by further explaining the question or giving possible answers. Explaining the question is unnecessary and indicates that perhaps the person asked is unable to figure it out for them self. Giving possible answers negates asking a question in the first place.
Alternatively, consider the other side: how often have you wanted to say something or answer a question and been unable to either because there was no silence to think and talk or because before you could answer a question more was being said? Chances are you lost track of what you did want to say or simply gave up on saying anything.
Who is uncomfortable with silence, the person asking or the person thinking about the question and their answer? Silence gives the person asked an opportunity to respond, whether it is one minute or even more. Coach training teaches that silence after a question is respecting each person in the conversation. (Silence becomes easier with practice.)
Is coaching language a science or an art? Yes! In other words, based on research and experience, it is both. Word choice makes a difference. Consider people who are labeled as toxic or charismatic; their words are a key difference in how they are perceived.
Coaching uses clear direct language and powerful questioning, and this requires an awareness of word choices developed through coach training.
How clear and direct is the word might? The expression “coulda, woulda, shoulda all over yourself” implies limitation with each of the words. Saying try is giving permission not to follow through. Saying need to creates resistance. The words in these examples emphasize a lack of confidence and a lack of conviction or personal motivation.
Replace the limiting words might, could, would, should, try with will. Change need to want or will. Say the same thing with the different words and reflect on how it feels different.
“You should apply for more jobs.” Chances are the person will defend that they are applying for many jobs and give barriers to applying for more. Alternatively, “What is your game plan for job applications?” opens the door for their proactive planning.
“I am frustrated when I feel unheard because then it seems everything gets stuck.” Using this language supports an opportunity for further discussion.
“We should take out the garbage.” Typically, this is a request for a specific though unidentified person to take out the garbage because it is a one-person job. Instead, “Please take out the garbage now,” is respectful and clear.
Words make a difference and are a powerful tool developed during coaching certification for understanding, creating clear and direct communication, supporting client focus and motivation, and asking powerful questions.
Equally significant is the absence of words – the power of silence. The next blog is on silence.
Remember times when you have been shut down and frustrated? Remember telling someone what you wanted to no avail?
Remember being asked for advice, giving great suggestions, and then learning none of your ideas were used?
There is a better way! Coach training develops skills that afford you the ability to listen effectively, understand others, flex to an approach that is effective, and enhance your communication process to create the positive outcomes you want.
Consider this conversation between friends:
Ana: Hi, how is work going?
Bill: Okay, I guess. I wish there was an easier way to coordinate everyone’s schedule.
Ana: Why don’t you just tell them the scheduled time and ask them to RSVP?
Bill: Oh no – they are required to be there, so we have to find a time that works.
Ana: So why don’t you plan it on a set schedule?
Bill: Well, with what is happening around here there is no way that would work. Thanks anyway for the idea.
What is happening? Ana is simply unaware of the nuances of the situation, so the ideas are generic in nature. With coaching, the premise is that the individual is their own best expert, so the approach is to listen and ask questions.
Ana: Hi, how is work going?
Bill: Okay I guess. I wish there was an easier way to coordinate everyone’s schedule.
Ana: How do you do it now?
Bill: I call each person and check on possible dates or availability.
Ana: What do you recommend changing?
Bill: I wish I could just talk to them all at once.
Ana: What are the options for doing that?
Bill: I don’t know – this is what I am told to do.
Ana: If it works better how will everyone feel about a change?
Bill: Good, I guess.
Ana: What kinds of changes are possible?
Bill: We could schedule the next one when everyone is together in the first place.
Ana: What else?
Bill: I could email everyone simultaneously.
Ana: What else?
Bill: I could have a calendar everyone can access.
Ana: What are you going to do?
Bill: I am going to suggest to everyone when they are together that we schedule the next time then or that we have a calendar everyone can access. I think they will go for it, and if they don’t I will ask if I can email everyone instead of having to call.
Ana: Seems like you really know your stuff – good idea.
Coaching really is this simple: instead of telling, ask.
Imagine your neighborhood association is discussing the budget and spending priorities. Without coaching skills, each neighbor voices and advocates based on personal priorities. With coaching skills, each person is asked for their ideas and thinking, pros and cons are discussed as a group, consensus is reached in most areas, and a vote is taken on a few items. Specifically, the coaching skills of exploring the options and strategizing support a neighborhood working together to achieve the best outcome for the greatest number.
A group of volunteers for a nonprofit were asked to collaborate and develop a program. To facilitate, the various sections of the program were identified, and everyone was asked to volunteer to complete some of the work. They listed individual tasks. A few volunteers then compiled the efforts of everyone into one program. One volunteer was not at the meeting and they created their own version of the program. That volunteer did not want to use the program developed by the other volunteers because they weren’t involved. The volunteers that did meet were happy with the program they created together. With coach training, the leader of the group will have the skills to engage the volunteer who missed the meeting.
These examples demonstrate the value of coaching certification. Increasingly people resent being told what and/or how to do something, and instead prefer to know the end goal and figure out how to get there independently.
Giving the plan takes the power away from individuals.
Figuring out and providing a plan assumes the individual is not capable of doing it.
Developing the plan assumes knowing better.
Coaching is based on the premise that each person is their own best expert.
While others do have insight and experience, they have not lived the individual’s life, so the insight and experience come from a different place and may not include all of the influencing factors.
Each person has different values and priorities.
An individual knows the people in their life and whether they will support a plan, fight it, or not care.
Each person knows their own skills, resources, habits, opportunities, and realities at a deeper level.
As a parent, imagine assigning specific chores for your son or daughter. Without coaching skills, you tell them what you want done and how to do it. Most of what you say goes in one ear and out the other. With coach training you learn new skills which means you recognize your son or daughter’s considerations and motivations, and then ask them how chores fit within their day and have them plan how to get it done. The coaching skills of recognizing and adjusting to different personalities combined with empowering individuals to formulate their own plan of action create the buy-in of your son or daughter to follow through.
Coaching is much like mediation in that the clients are put in charge of discovering their own solutions. The outcome from a conflict I mediated provides perspective. Five years after their divorce, a couple was still fighting and had three court cases pending. The counselor for one of them suggested mediation. The couple scheduled mediation and arrived barely speaking to one another. For two hours they talked about what they wanted and developed a plan. The couple dropped all three court cases. A year later, the counselor shared that the couple continued to communicate effectively, and their plan was working. Interesting point: the plan was essentially the same plan the judge had given them five years earlier. What changed? It was their plan.
Imagine helping with a community event where each of the volunteers has different ideas for how to do it and so go in a different direction. Without coaching skills, efforts are duplicated so the work is done several ways. With coaching skills, questions are asked about ideas, areas of interest, and work efforts to ensure each person is doing a different part, and the camaraderie is enhanced. This results in long-term passion for the organization. Coach training for community leaders means developing their skills of listening and asking questions plus adjusting to different people which supports teamwork and productivity.
How often do people use ideas suggested by others? Rarely — typically not. When asked, people will develop their own ideas. The person who creates the plan follows through.
For example, a coaching client was responsible for overseeing a specific project. One of the managers on the project was simply uninterested in completing their work. This coaching client was at a loss as to how to make it happen because without direct authority over the manager, it became a power struggle. In a coaching session, we explored the situation. Questions I asked included:
How does this manager view the working relationship?
What are the long-term benefits of a good working relationship?
How are you able to help this manager in their job or career?
What benefit is there for this manager to complete the work?
What approach have you taken in the past?
What approach will you take now?
Through answering these questions, the coaching client felt they had a better understanding of what was happening and created a plan of action to move forward. Specifically, the coaching client decided on these action steps:
Schedule time for a social lunch with the manager.
Ask the manager what they wanted to support their work and discuss ways to help.
At the next project meeting, ask each team member to list the benefits of completing the project successfully.
Ask the team to list remaining action items and create a timeline.
As a result of the plan the coaching client created, the client successfully rebuilt their relationship with the manager and saw results with the entire team.
An added bonus: during the coaching, the client experienced coaching questions learned by their coach in coaching certification and realized the value of using the techniques in their conversations. When a professional coach models skills from their coach training, the client learns new coaching skills.
Whether managing people, parenting, volunteering, or participating in community events, coaching skills make leadership easier. True leadership is about empowering others and enhancing their innate skills. While it is easy to give advice and suggestions, an individual figuring out their own answer is more effective. Coaching skills are now recognized as an essential core competency for leaders.
In the workplace talent retention employee engagement, productivity, and goal achievement are driven by the effectiveness of the leaders. Developing leadership competency in an organization calls for coaching skills training. Coaching skills support team building and spread throughout the organization, ensuring the talent and processes are in place for long-term organizational success.
Coaching helps with change. Imagine an office is going through a change in personnel that results in re-assigning duties and re-arranging work space. Without coaching skills each person focuses on telling and advocating for their ideas. With coaching skills, everyone discusses what is significant in determining work assignments and work space. In a team meeting, through questioning and sharing perspective, a coaching group explores options. Ultimately a consensus is reached so each person buys-in to the outcome. The coaching skills of understanding, asking questions, and exploring support a productive outcome.
Coaching helps deal with angry customers. Imagine someone is angry about a purchase and is vocal and disruptive. Without coaching skills, the employee explains the policy regarding the warranty and returns. With coaching skills, the employee asks the customer about their experience and what they want; if the customer wants something that is undoable, the employee asks for other possibilities. If the customer is stuck on an unreasonable option, the employee uses a technique from their coach training, “Given that I am unable to do this, what I can do is give options and let you choose what works for you now.” After providing multiple possibilities, the customer chooses an option and appreciates the outcome. The coaching skills of listening, exploring ideas, and strategizing result in calming the customer and ultimately keeping them as a customer.
Coaching supports outcomes.
The plan’s creator owns it, buys in, and follows through.
The success or failure of a plan belongs to the creator.
Remember the decision maker (parent, community leader, or boss) saying, “my way or the highway” as the standard? Then it shifted to, “I’ll say what I think, and you tell me why you like it.” The norm now is offering advice or solutions. These approaches fail to fully engage or motivate long-term results.
In a coaching culture differences are recognized. Each person is valued for their strengths and yes, weaknesses. A coaching culture creates awareness about how different people think, decide, and act, and how to work with them effectively based on who they are and their preferences. For a coaching culture, coach training empowers leaders to model the coaching approach.
Coaching enhances outcomes because people value the experience of others seeking to understand them and acting on their ideas. Individuals want to feel that they are important. A coaching leader is a strategic partner that:
Asks questions for the clarifying of goals
Explores options for moving past obstacles
Empowers the creation of action plans
Supports discovery of opportunities to achieve
Empowers decision making and action
How? A coaching leader takes time to ask about goals and actions for moving forward. The individual is empowered to think about overcoming obstacles and create their own plans so that they are engaged, and follow-through increases exponentially. The coaching leader delegates responsibility effectively and supports individual growth. The coaching leader encourages individual decision making and action. Plus, the coaching leader verbally acknowledges contributions so that individuals are aware of being valued and valuable.
A coaching culture focuses forward. Rather than talking about what happened, who did it, or who said it, ask: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? How do we prevent this problem in the future? This coaching approach, taught during coaching certification, engages people in finding solutions and creating results.