Blog Post: The Best Coaching Questions



Okay, so the title of this blog post is clickbait.  Coaches are crazy for questions, and we are always on the quest for a magical, miracle-working question – that question that unlocks the awareness the client really needs.  Offering readers “the best coaching question” is an overpromise of giant proportions.  Maybe I shouldn’t have told you this in the first paragraph, so don’t click away just yet.  Please!

Experienced coaches know the best coaching questions are the ones that fit the coaching moment.  This is both good news and bad news.  The good news is that you are not required to remember a list of ideal questions and make sure you word each of them just the right way.  It’s also good news that there is not ONE best question for each coaching moment; instead, there are plenty of great questions that can be asked in any given moment.  The bad news is that you have to do the work of crafting fresh coaching questions throughout every coaching conversation.  This means you must listen attentively, follow the flow of the conversation, access what you know about the client and similar clients, and consider the peculiarities (personality, story, agenda, etc.) of the particular client with whom you’re talking – all at the same time!

While it’s probably best to give up the quest for the “best” question, we can (and should) leverage patterns that predict the kind of questions for common coaching moments.  Let me share a few.

When the conversation is getting started, my advice is don’t overcomplicate things.  Just ask something along the lines of, “What do you want to get coached on today?” or “What would you like to focus on today?” or “What’s on our agenda for today?”  Don’t wait for the client to make the shift from small talk to intentional coaching.  Instead, make it obvious that it’s time to get to business and the client is the one setting the agenda.

When exploring the topic, dig beneath assumptions to help the client clarify what it is about this topic that matters to them.  You can ask, “What’s important to you about this?” or “What’s got this on your mind?” or “What’s the cost of not addressing this topic?” or “How does this connect to your deepest values?”  The purpose at this stage of the conversation is to wade through the presenting aspects of the issue to find the meaningful aspects of the topic.  For example, a client who presents the issue of time management might have the deeper interest of not feeling overwhelmed or perhaps their workload is creating tension in a relationship.  Clarifying the deeper interests for an issue avoids going in circles or establishing actions that don’t really create the forward movement the client needs.

When nearing the pinch point, invite the client to state their desired takeaway for the conversation.  You can ask, “What do you need from this conversation?” or “What can we do in this conversation that would help you with _______?” This is also a place in the conversation when it’s often permissible and even preferred to ask a close-ended question.  Based on what you’ve heard from the client, coupled with your greater distance and objectivity on the issue, and combined with your experience coaching dozens or hundreds of clients, it’s often the case that you can state the client’s desired outcome better than the client can.  Clients often want clarity or a plan, or to make a decision.  If that’s what you’re hearing, feel free to say, “It sounds like maybe you want a plan for ____.  Is that what would be helpful?”

When exploring options for addressing the pinch of the issue, it’s often best not to ask, “So what could you do?”  At least that’s not typically the best question with which to begin.  Exploring options is the time when I find it most helpful to be a bit creative and strategic.  Like a lion circling prey, it’s best to sneak up on the solution rather than brainstorm a dozen options and then narrow it down.  I often do this by inviting the client to identify the characteristics or criteria of a good solution.  For example, if a client is pinched with finding a way to talk to her teenage son about life after high school, I might ask, “What are three things you definitely don’t want to say?” or “If the conversation went very well and your son was talking to a good friend later, what would you hope to overhear him share?” or “Pretend Google Translate could turn your most blunt, harsh version into something your son could hear, what would you say?”  When you’re coaching a linear thinker (an engineer type), the brainstorm then narrow and finally decide process can be effective, but otherwise, use creative and thought-provoking questions to stir up thinking and let clarity emerge organically.

When determining next steps an important key is to never assume.  This means you will possibly feel like you are asking too many questions and that the questions feel like they have an air of suspicion to them.  You shouldn’t be suspicious, but you should be curious.  Curious next-step questions might include, “What exactly are you planning to do?” or “What’s your very first step?” or “How will you know this action is complete?”  A simple rule of thumb I use at this stage is to distinguish identifying actions from designing actions.  An action that simply is identified (“Talk to my boss”) is not necessarily designed.  A well-designed action supports the client by exploring things such as obstacles, motivation, timeline, clarity, and resources.

If you’re new to coaching, feel free to rely on lists of coaching questions as you partner with your clients.  Over time, the questions and the intent behind the questions will start to be second nature to you and you will find your own voice is asking the right question at the right time – or better said, an appropriate question.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *