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The Art of How to Ask Good Coaching Questions

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Dec 4, 2019 6:09:00 AM

jamieToday we are bringing you another recap of a presentation from the 2019 KaiNexicon event. We were delighted to draw together leaders and change agents from a wide variety of organizations to pool our collective wisdom and get better at getting better.

We were thrilled that Jamie V. Parker agreed to participate. Jamie is on a mission to make the world of work more human. She's a trainer, speaker, and mentor with over 17 hears of multi-unit operations management in manufacturing, retail, and service environments.

We received so much great feedback about her presentation that we wanted to do a recap for anyone who missed it. Of course, you can watch the video here, if you prefer.

Stop Playing Doctor

Jamie began by telling the audience, "When it comes to coaching, it is time that we stop playing doctor." She explained that the reason leaders who are excellent problem solvers should resist the urge to solve problems for everyone else is that two skills are consistent across all long-term excellent organizations. The first is problem-solving, which is necessary to be excellent in the here and now. But the next is the ability to develop people's problem-solving skills, which is essential to excellence in the future.

The distinction is vital because problem-solving is not the same skill as coaching problem-solving. In fact, the things that make people great problem-solvers can get in the way when it is time to start coaching.

The Role of Leaders

Jamie went on to describe the role that leaders play in an organization. Whether one is in a formal leadership role, or an informal role influencing others, they will still wear many hats. Leaders direct by setting goals and giving feedback. They share their experiences and stories. They teach skills like problem-solving, and they coach and connect. These roles exist on a continuum that moves from telling to listening.

For this presentation, Jamie focused on coaching.

Coaching with Intention

"The number one thing you can do right now to be a more effective coach is to set an intention to coach." Jamie explained that the goal and purpose of coaching is to develop the capabilities of others. That is achieved by allowing them to learn through doing.

The goal of coaching is not to solve the problem. Although it is tempting to jump in with solutions, the aim should instead be to transfer that critical and creative thinking to the learner. Therefore, each coaching interaction should be done with the intention to help the learner become a more effective problem-solver, and that includes allowing them to fail or to go down paths that you don't think are the best.

Stop Giving the Answers

The following advice that Jamie shared was to get stop giving the answers. We learn really early on that it is good to have answers. Even as young children, we get rewarded when we have answers. But effective leaders need to resist the urge to give the answers so that others have the opportunity to grow.

Start Asking Good Questions

Once you stop answering, you can begin to ask purposeful questions. Good questions are open-ended, non-leading, and non-judgmental. Jamie gave some examples of questions that aren't ideal for coaching.

We might say something like, "Isn't it happening because of this?" This may lead the learner to jump to the conclusion that "this" is the right answer without the opportunity to explore other possibilities or reach that conclusion on their own. A better coaching question would be, "What do you think is causing it?"

Another example is the question, "Are you sure that's going to work?" In this case, the learner may hear, "That's not going to work." A less judgmental question would be, "What do you think is going to happen when you try that?"

The next example is one that Jamie said was the hardest for her to break. "Have you thought about trying this?" The learner easily interprets that question as, "Try this." A better approach is to ask, "What have you thought about trying."

In all cases, context matters. When it comes to judgment, reality is based not on how the coach intends it; it is based on how the learner receives it. Therefore, what is a good question from one person (your doctor, for example) may not be a good question if it is coming from someone who has been judgmental of you in the past.

Common pitfalls in coaching questions include:

  • Telling the answer in the form of a question
  • Trying to guide the learner toward a particular solution
  • Jumping into the sharing role
  • Accidental judgment
  • Asking fact-finding diagnostic questions
  • Jumping to countermeasures
  • Rapid-fire questions
  • Failure to follow up
  • Coaching as a one-off
  • Inability to adjust as the learner's skills develop

The Why Guy

Jamie told the story of "Adam" who was a plant manager with exceptional skills at the 5 Whys technique. He was trying to develop his team's ability to do root-cause analysis and problem-solving. But when he would ask his team the kinds of "why" questions he would ask himself as part of problem-solving, it came across as blame, and the team got defensive. To help him become more effective, Jamie asked him to avoid "why" questions when he was coaching. Instead, she recommended asking questions that start with "what."

Good coaching questions that start with "what," include:

  • What problem are you seeing?
  • What makes this problem important to you?
  • What's at risk if we don't solve that problem?
  • What do you think is causing this?
  • What factors do you think could be contributing to this problem?
  • What have you thought about trying?
  • What do you expect to happen when you try that?
  • What have you tried already?
  • What did you learn?

Alternatives to Diagnostic Questions

Because the coach is trying to help the learner become a better problem-solver rather than trying to solve the problem, diagnostic questions aren't ideal. Jamie offered these alternatives:

  • What facts have you uncovered?
  • What facts do we still need to uncover?
  • What assumptions need to be investigated?
  • What questions could you answer to understand the problem better?
  • What information do you need to know to establish a hypothesis?
  • What do you not know that you think you need to know?
  • What diagnostic questions could you ask to understand the problem better?

The Magic Questions

Sometimes people are so focused on troubleshooting and fire fighting that they tend to jump right to countermeasures. Coaches can help learners avoid this trap by asking a couple of magic questions.

The first one is, "Tell me more." Other ways to phrase it include,

  • Tell me more about that.
  • Tell me more about what's happening.
  • Can you walk me through that?
  • Help me understand more about this.
  • Tell me more about the details here.
  • Walk me through the specifics
  • Tell me more about what you've learned.
  • Help me understand what's going on.
  • Walk me through it like I'm entirely new to the situation.

This forces the learner to keep working on the problem.

The second magic question is, "What else?" For example:

  • What other facts?
  • What else?
  • What other questions?
  • What other factors could be contributing to the situation?
  • What other ideas do you have?

Jamie did offer a word of caution on "what else," type questions. They should not be used to draw out of the learner the answer that the coach thinks is best. Remember, the goal is not to solve the problem, but to help the learner become a better problem solver.

Jamie closed by reminding the audience that when they invest in themselves to become better coaches, they can help their teams improve problem-solving skills that are critical not only in business but in life.

She quoted Eddie Robinson, who said, "Coaching is a profession of love. You can't coach people unless you love them."

Topics: Leadership

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