And so it has come to past that from time to time I find my self teaching groups ‘coaching skills’. Sometimes this is groups of managers, sometimes fledging professional coaches, and sometimes people with post-graduate coaching degrees or similarly impressive credentials. And yet, for all these groups, one of the hardest challenges seems to be developing the skill of asking questions rather than more tempting options like: offering solutions, giving advice, sympathising, sharing their own experience, or in some other way failing to inquire.
Inquisitive questioning - harder than it looks
Not everyone struggles, some do manage to frame questions. A lot of people have been exposed to the basic idea of the difference between open and closed questions. What people aren’t always so aware of is the difference between low information and high information questions. Without this distinction a supposedly ‘open’ question can smuggle in a clear suggestion of action for the client to engage with. This means the coach is doing the work of finding a way forward rather than the client. The coach, wittingly or otherwise, is engaging in problem-solving for the client.
‘Do you think it would be a good idea if you said something about this?’
This can be recognised as a closed question, inviting a yes or no response.
‘What do you think will happen if you say something about this?’
This is a more open question, although I can hear ‘I don’t know’ response forming in the air.
‘How about if you say something about this?’
On the surface it looks like an open question, it doesn’t invite an obvious yes or no; but look more closely and the embedded suggestion is still there.
‘I think you should say something about this, what do you think?’
Now we are clearly in the territory of advice giving.
‘If you say something about it, won’t that make it harder for them to do it again?’
This might still be a question, but now, as well as the embedded suggestion, we have the hypothesis that is underpinning the suggestion. In this way we are learning a lot about what the coach thinks, what sense they are making of the situation, but very little of what the client thinks. However you change the opening word or the grammar of the sentence, as long as it still contains the phrase ‘say something about it’ you are at the very least making a suggestion and quite possibly giving advice.
Suggestions can be helpful, but be aware of what you’re doing
Shibboleths exist to be transgressed. There are plenty of occasions when making suggestions or giving advice might be a good, helpful, appropriate therapeutic move to make within the coaching relationship. I’m interested in the difficulty people can experience when they actually don’t want to make a suggestion or offer advice, so they attempt to ask questions, and yet fall into the traps above.
This happens because it is very hard to ask a ‘content-free’ question: a question that doesn’t smuggle in the coach’s own problem solving but rather actively engages the client in finding their own way forward. And that is because we are problem-solving creatures.
The problem solving ape
We hear someone describe their problem, challenge or opportunity and ideas and emotions rush to our brain. Stimulated by what we hear, we ask ourselves how we would feel, what we would want to do, be tempted to do, feel obliged to do, who else we would tell and on our brain goes engaging with the information we are hearing. We want to attend to this information yet also bear in mind our coaching training. And many times we solve this dilemma by framing the obvious way forward that is pulsating in our mind, as a suggestion embedded in a question.
What can be done to help develop the skill of inquisitive questioning? Coaching Cubes
It seemed to me that at times, particularly perhaps when we are training coaching skills, that it might be an idea to help people with this challenge of creating content-free questions.
To this end I devised a set of coaching cubes: large squeezy coloured dice that have a content free question on each side. They are broadly based around a coaching structure that covers:
Exploring the positive aspects of the situation
Identifying key people
Creating shifts in perspective
Illuminating ideas, values and energy sources
Creating movement and identifying first steps.
The cubes are designed to help people practice inquiry-based coaching. And they seem to work.
During the debrief at a recent workshop using the coaching cubes, a woman said, with obvious sincerity, ‘it is such a gift not to have to be thinking of the questions!’
So, if you train coaching skills or if you want support in your practice to help you ask different sorts of questions, or if you just like the idea of having a tangible soft tool in your coaching session, please do investigate them further here, I’d love to hear what you make of them.
Sarah Lewis is the owner and principal psychologist of Appreciating Change. She is author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ and ‘Positive Psychology and Change’ both published by Wiley. She is also the lead author of 'Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management'.
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