Blog Post: Powerful Questions That Get to Focus

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In coaching, the best question is usually the simplest.  With this principle in mind, it’s easy to see why the best question to ask at the beginning of a coaching conversation is “What would you like to talk about today?”  Other versions of this question are just as simple and just as effective:

  • What’s on your mind today?
  • Where would you like to focus?
  • What do you want to work on?

These are great questions to identify the coaching topic.  However, sometimes these simple questions are not so effective.  It’s not that they are too simple, it’s that they assume the client has processed things enough to have a focus for the conversation.  Sometimes that’s a correct assumption, but other times it is wrong.

Since clients often show up for coaching without a well-defined coaching topic, we have to be ready to ask some questions that support the client in getting to focus, not just naming the focus.  So, what kind of questions get to focus when the client arrives to the session without much focus?  Here are three types of powerful questions for getting to focus.

Questions that build on an activity.

Leon is a continuous improvement manager for a large manufacturing company.  Recently he arrived for coaching with plenty going on, but without a clear topic for our coaching. This isn’t unusual for him, so I was prepared with an activity designed to evoke awareness about where he could use some coaching.

I took a blank sheet of paper, wrote his name in the middle of it, slid it across the table and asked him to write the names of the people he needed to work with to get good results in his job.  I clarified that he should include people who reported to him (down), peers (beside), and those he reported to (up).  Once he listed about a dozen names, I asked him to circle the names of those with whom he had a strong working relationship.  Then, I invited him to draw a box around any names where the relationship was not strong and needed to be stronger.

Once Leon had a relationship map, we explored a bit more the lay of the land before I asked him to pick one of the relationships that most needed to improve.  He quickly identified his shipping manager, a long-time veteran employee who was resisting some of the improvement efforts.

Instead of just asking him, “What’s one work relationship that needs to improve?”, the relationship map activity stirred up some new awareness for Leon and helped highlight the need for improved relationships.

Questions can come on the heels of many kinds of awareness-evoking activities, including a quick assessment, a values card sort, or a review of recently read books.

Questions that uncover coachable topics.

Sally and I have been coaching for nearly three years.  Most of the time she has a coaching topic identified before we start.  In fact, sometimes she sends me the topic ahead of time.  But recently she showed up without a topic and not sure she had anything worthy of our attention.  Of course, I assume that unless the client has reached a state of perfection (or death), there is always something coachable.

I took out three sticky notes and wrote “Challenges” at the top of one, “Opportunities” at the top of the second, and “Priorities” at the top of the third.  I placed the sticky notes on the table in front of Sally and asked her to list three of each.  Then I stepped out of the room for a cup of coffee.

When I returned, I waited a moment while Sally completed the final sticky note, then I asked her to share her notes with me.  After some sharing and exploring, I asked her which of the nine items (3 per note times 3 notes) she wanted to address in our coaching.  She picked an item that showed up on all three notes: a public speaking engagement in three weeks.  It was a challenge (she wasn’t ready), an opportunity (it could lead to new business and a chance to grow), and a priority (she’d been procrastinating and now needed to prepare), yet she had not thought of it before our coaching session.

Some clients need the space of the coaching conversation to do their best thinking.  We can be ready to support them by having some questions that uncover coachable topics, not just invite them to share topics they’ve already uncovered.

Questions that take a step back.

Jill and I have coached for a little over a year.  Recently, she texted the morning of our scheduled session and said she didn’t have a topic and wondered if we should reschedule.  There are times when rescheduling is appropriate, but this wasn’t one, I thought.  So I told Jill that I would bring the topic today.

One way to interpret the situation of a client who doesn’t see a coachable topic, is that the client does not have vision or goal that is unrealized.  After all, coaching is about helping a client close the gap between how things are and how they would like things to be.  No topic means no gap, which in turn means no goal.  On such occasions, I like to ask questions that invite the client to step back, see the big picture, and clarify the lay of the land.

When Jill arrived, I told her we were going to do something a bit different today. I asked her to get comfortable, to close her eyes, and to mentally let go of her calendar, her to do list, and all the important things going on in life right now.  I assured her that we could pick those things back up after the session, but for now I wanted her to wipe the slate clean of all her current responsibilities and deadlines and challenges.  I invited her to take as much time as she needed and to let me know when the slate was sufficiently wiped clean.  It took two or three minutes before Jill gave us the go ahead.

Once she was ready, I asked Jill to envision someone who truly had her well-being in mind, was wise and compassionate, and who would speak a hard truth when needed.  Jill said her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Metcalf, was that kind of person.  I said, “Now, imagine Mrs. Metcalf knows everything that is going on in your life right now.  The public, the private, the personal, the professional, all of it. She knows everything and she’s not freaked out about any of it.  With all her warmth, wisdom, compassion, and love, she points to an area of your life that needs to change.  What does she point to?”

With a tear in her eye, Jill proclaimed that she needed to change her relationship with her teenage son.

Usually, the simplest question is the best and normally, we don’t want to share a big wind up before asking the coaching question.  But there are times when what makes a question powerful is the set up to the question.  I could have just asked Jill, “What’s one thing in your life that needs to change?”  But inviting her to wipe the slate clean and to imagine Mrs. Metcalf giving her advice provided the much-needed context of stepping back and seeing her life with a fresh perspective.

Finding focus is crucial for good coaching.  When your client is ready with a topic, don’t dilly dally – just get right to it.  But when your client doesn’t have a clear focus for the conversation, try these and other questioning techniques.  Experiment with your own strategies.  And be sure to adapt your technique to the person you’re coaching, with just the right combination of fitting them and stretching them to bring out the new awareness they need.

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