What is a good coaching question?

Questions are part of our everyday lives, and it’s a challenge to communicate without them. If you have ever played those games where you have to communicate without any questions you know what a fundamental role they play. There are many types of questions, each of which has a different purpose, including (but not limited to) probing, elaborating, clarifying, and planning.

Coaching questions tend to have particular characteristics, and a good coaching question has the power to support a coachee in a range of different ways. Well-framed questions can positively stimulate thought, motivate, inspire, and help your coachee recognise their own strengths such that they remain motivated, energised and focussed.

I will now discuss some of the characteristics of a ‘good’ coaching question, but not before emphasising that effective questioning goes hand-in-hand with effective listening.

Effective coaching questions are:

  • Mostly open: Questions that start with, for example, “what”, “how”, or “if” and provide opportunities for a ‘wide’, sometimes surprising, response from the coachee.
  • Focussed on solutions: The coach supports the coachee to explore underpinning  frameworks that are influencing how the coachee considers an issue. The questions help the coachee identify options in a way that expands their thinking and ways of working (e.g. “What would you like to accomplish?”, and “What do you think you need to do to get a result that will work for you (or closer to your goal)?”).
  • Neutral: Do not contain any elements of the coach’s reaction, opinion, or concerns (e.g. “What do you feel?”).
  • Simple, short, clear and one at a time (with plenty of silence and space): Enables the coachee to focus on their thinking and ideas, rather than trying to figure out what the coach has just asked (e.g. “How could you appropriately communicate your point of view with the rest of your team?”). Multiple, rapid-fire questions can also interfere with the flow, and should be avoided.
  • Motivating: Focus on the things a coachee might do to move toward identifying and designing their own strategies and solutions (e.g. “What if you knew the answer? What would it be?”).
  • Have a positive effect on coaching outcomes: Questions that help the the coachee be creative to think of ideas and solutions that they may not otherwise have thought of (e.g. “If anything were possible, what are five possible options? What else?” And “What could you do differently?”).

These questions also map onto coaching roles, although they are not exclusive to those roles. As such, they may involve some of the following:

  • Investigator (knowledge): Who, what, when, where, why, how . . . ? Could you please describe . . . ?
  • Guide (comprehension): Would I be right in thinking…? What did you understand from…?”
  • Neutral inquirer (application): How do you feel X is an example of Y?; How would you say that X is related to Y?; Why do you feel that X is significant in your context?
  • Investigator (analysis): What are the identifiable aspects of . . . ? Would you classify X according to Y?
  • Investigator (synthesis): What are your thoughts around solutions for . . . ? What would you infer from . . . ? What are your additional reactions to . . . ? How might you go about designing a new . . . ? What could happen if you added . . . ?
  • Advisor (evaluation): What do you think about trying . . . ? What is the most important outcome for.. . ? Which would you say are the highest priority for . . . ? What would help you decide to . . . ?

Coaching questions will only really be useful if you try them out. This will provide you with opportunities to reflect on whether you felt your questions were well put together, and if they positively impacted the way your coachee was thinking. You should also consider if any of your questions were not really suitable for coaching (such as those that are closed, leading, contain your opinion, are multi-parted or wordy and difficult to understand). Effective questions are key to a coaching relationship; however, being able to craft a good question takes practice. The more you actively listen, and the more you hone your questioning skills, the more powerful the experience will be for both you and your coachee.

Image: Questions. CC ( BY NC SA ) licensed Flickr image by Tim O’Brien

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About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ (http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/). I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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