Blog Post: Do Coaches Ask Too Many Q’s?

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The International Coach Federation recently announced a change to their list of core competencies. The list and descriptions for each competency help coaches know what’s expected of a coach. The new list has eight competencies while the previous list had eleven. The only somewhat surprising change? The new list drops “Powerful Questioning”. Hmmm.

Brian Miller and I do a lot of training of coaches and support of coaches through efforts such as this blog, our podcast, webinars we present, classes we teach, and mentor coaching. We can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the most popular topic is questions. There’s such a demand for learning about questions that we even created an on-demand course on the topic. Lots of coaches want to improve their ability to ask powerful questions, but maybe we make too much of questions.

Here are three ways I believe coaches can overdo it when it comes to questions:

  1. When asking questions is pretty much all a coach does. When a coach thinks her only job is to ask the client questions, she will sound more like an interrogator or annoyance and less like a true coaching partner. Not only that, but her love of questions will prevent her from offering the other great things the client needs from her, such as active listening, providing some feedback and encouragement, and employing useful tools and resources. Asking too many questions creates a lopsided coaching relationship.
  2. When a coach geeks out about the precise wording of questions. There are bad questions a coach can ask, and in our efforts to avoid the wrong questions sometimes coaches give the phrasing of a question way too much attention. We want to ask questions that are concise, open-ended, and help explore. These question qualities support strong coaching. But some coaches overdo it – they seem to think their aim is to craft just the right combination of words such that their question amazes the client and unlocks hidden gems of awareness and action. That’s not where we should aim. After all, it is not how well-worded a question is that makes it powerful, it’s how well a question fits the client, the moment, and the movement of the coaching conversation. I’ve heard clunky, unsophisticated, grammatically incorrect questions do the job just fine. I’ve personally asked questions that are barely more than gibberish grunts promote great client awareness. We need to resist wordsmithing our questions.
  3. When a coach’s questions draw attention to the coach (or the question). Face it, we are all performers on a stage to some degree. Like a magician or a ballerina, coaches can sometimes ask questions that practically end with a “ta-da!” or a curtsy. This form of overdoing it has less to do with the words used to ask the question and more to do with the coach’s tone and intent. If we’re waiting for the client to respond with, “That’s a great question!” then our intent is way off and our coaching will suffer. Instead of drawing attention to the question or the asker, our questions should serve to shine a spotlight on the client and to generate great thinking from those we coach.

Coaches can overdo questions, but we still need to ask questions. Rightly used, questions create awareness and translate action into awareness. If you want to improve your question-asking ability immediately, here’s one simple rule to follow:

Let your question come in response to your client. Instead of judging the quality of your questions based on the client’s response, make your judgements based on how well your question comes in response to what the client just said. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest thing separating novice coaches from those who coach at a professional level. Professional coaches are so connected to the client and are such fantastic listeners that their questions pick up where a client leaves off and facilitates the client’s next step in the conversation.

Do you want to improve your questions? Follow the ICF’s lead and give less attention to the questions and more attention to all the other competencies such as coaching presence and active listening.

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