5 Stumbling Blocks to Asking Great Questions

The first spontaneous coaching session I ever observed revealed one of the most fundamental and powerful tools available in learning and self-development. This simple skill can be used by anyone, anywhere. It elicits insights that, along with supporting practices, lead to self-correcting behavior and greater long-term personal and professional growth.

The coachee in this particular ‘fish bowl’ session was grappling with the seemingly straightforward task of turning down a local design agency who had quoted her on a branding project for her new business. The quote exceeded her budget and yet she couldn’t bring herself to communicate this to them and had been stalling the process, leaving her in a state of agitation. A simple problem to solve, right?

Most of us newly enrolled ACC students at the Centre for Coaching in Cape Town were watching this conversation unfold, champing at the bit to jump in with solutions and advice. With a collective 200-plus years of leadership and managerial experience between the 20 or so trainer coaches in that boardroom, we thought we had it covered. The answers were blindingly obvious. We’d have the coachee free of her inertia and checking off that to-do box in no time at all.

Fortunately, we were simply the observers in this coaching conversation, and Janine Everson (Academic Director of the Centre for Coaching and an ICF-certified MCC coach) was in the coach’s chair.

So what’s the one thing that Janine did that the 20-odd professionals across multiple industries, from business and media to medicine and law, would likely have failed to get right? She asked powerful questions that prompted meaningful insights.

As it transpired, the coachee’s essential positive quality, which had become distorted and was causing her to become stuck, was her deep-seated belief that she couldn’t let people down. This self-realization was an emotionally charged ‘aha’ moment for her, and it resonated deeply with all of us who were privileged to witness it. The coaching journey was then able to move forward into a conversation for possibility and action, focusing on the person and not simply the presenting problem.

So how can you apply the power of asking the right questions to your own learning program to generate similar insights and maximize the potential of your people? What are the stumbling blocks that we all encountered as coaches in training?

Here are five of the most common questioning mistakes, and how to avoid them:

• Closed questions. Open-ended questions prompt the learner to think more deeply and generate insights based on their personal experience. If it can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it’s a closed question; rephrase your question beginning with who, what, where or how.

• Leading questions. Are you guiding the learner towards a certain answer? Then it’s a leading question. To avoid this, you need to stay open and curious, while mindful of your own beliefs and assumptions.

• Solution-oriented questions. When you’re itching to provide a solution and tag a question mark on the end, for example: “Do you think prioritizing tasks would be the answer to your procrastination?” Rather confirm your observations by mirroring what the learner has told you, followed by an open-ended question. E.g. “You’ve mentioned procrastination as one of the things that’s holding you back. What’s worked for you before to overcome this?”

• Rhetorical questions. Although phrased as a question, rhetorical questions generally infer some kind of value statement or judgment. E.g. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just pick up the phone and have the conversation?” It’s important for the coach to reflect on their own interpretation of the situation and what’s behind this, in order to avoid making statements based on their assessments.

• Rambling questions. Asking and restating a question in several different ways can confuse and mislead the learner. Rather think carefully about what you’re asking upfront and then give the learner the time they need to process and respond before rushing in to explain.

At Cognician, our elearning programs are structured like a two-way coaching session, with thoughtfully crafted questions that generate unique learner insights and prompt self-correcting behavior.

What are you doing in your learning programs to facilitate insights that drive the performance of your people and business?