Coaching 101: What To Ask?

Once upon a time I wrote an article on Coaching Approach To Leading People. Since then I shared many additional thoughts on how to lead but not that many on how to coach. So let me rectify this today with a basics of a successful coaching dialog. For you to be a successful coach you need to spend majority of the time listening and only minimum talking. At the heart of coaching is the idea that people have the resources to help themselves and you as a coach just need to trigger this hidden power. The best coaching session is the one where at the end your client gets up with a clear mind and objectives that he owns because they came from his or her heart. To get you started let me share couple of coaching questions that are always a great first move. Keep in mind that you want to stimulate discussion and you don’t want one word answers so make sure you ask open ended questions.

1. What do you want?

Before you start working on something you need to understand what it is you want to get at the end. And if you are getting coached for it then it means spending significant resources so you better be sure about what and especially why.

  • What is it you want and why do you want it? (Usually people have a good idea of what they want but very often the “why” gets the confused. You may come to me and ask you want to figure out how to get more money. If I ask you why you will probably say “so I can buy stuff”. So why do you need to buy stuff? It feels good to have a new car. Why does it feel good? Why a new car and not something else? etc. Digging into the “why” can totally change the direction and end up in another “what”. Maybe instead of wanting more money the person wants to be valued by others. And maybe there are other ways how to achieve it, ways that will be closer to the person’s abilities and desires.)
  • Is it positive? (This one may not be so obvious but it is important. If you want to motivate person and especially if you want to see positive change, new behavior and positive outcome then also the goal needs to be formulated in a positive way. For example “I don’t want to feel miserable.” Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t really answer the question what do you want. It just states what you don’t want. “I want to be happy” is much more positive though you may still need to dig deeper to figure out what “being happy” actually means for that person.)
  • Is it under your control? (Make sure your goals are achievable and under your control. There is very little sense of coming up with a goal that sounds great but assumes other people to do it for you. You would feel helpless, things could go in any way and you have no way to influence the direction or quality of the execution. Whatever your goal is it needs to be under your direct control. For example “I don’t want others to yell at me,” is a nice goal but is your boss yelling at you under your control? Not really. So try instead “I want to make it easy for others to treat me with respect.” You still cannot influence how others will behave but you can exhibit a behavior that will make it easy for others to treat you with respect and don’t yell at you.)
  • Is it aligned with your other goals? (“I want to live alone on a tropical island” is a great goal but how does it fit with your other life goals of having a family, thousands of friends, party every night and go skiing every weekend? You should always do a sanity check to ensure that the goal you want to achieve won’t have disruptive effect on your other goals and on the goals of those around you that you hold dear.)

2. How will you get it?

Now, since we know what you want we can start talking about how you get it. The goal of these questions is to identify what resources you need and how to get you started.

  • Who do you need to ask for help? (Is it really completely under your control or are there some areas where help would be welcomed? Would a chat with your spouse or your boss help you achieving those goals?)
  • Do you need any resources you don’t have today? (Do you need to buy something as a prerequisite to achieving your goal? Do you need a specific time and place to be in?)
  • What is your first step? (How you get started? What is the first step you need to take and when will you take it? And be SMART about it, or better read this article on how to define a good goal SMART Goals Are Not Good Enough.)

3. How will you commit?

Now comes the hard part. Especially for long-term goals the challenge you will face is not how to get started but how to keep going.

  • Is there anything that may prevent you from getting it? (There might be competing priorities, you might get bored, you may need support of others)
  • If yes, how will you mitigate this risk? (Have a plan for these eventualities so when they occur they don’t stop you dead in your tracks but you are ready to deal with them and push forward)
  • What other ways of getting it could work? (Have you thought about other ways how to achieve your goal that may not be so straightforward at the beginning. “You want to learn a foreign language” so you decided to “study every weekend for two hours and enroll for a lesson at local language school”. What about living abroad for a half a year? What about finding a girlfriend or boyfriend who speaks the language? There are always many options so make sure you consider what is out there before you commit to sub-optimal solution.)
  • How do you rely on others and what are the consequences for them? (We talked about who you need to help you and you have a plan to deal with drawbacks in case they are not able or willing to help. Now comes the other side. You achieving your goal and “live on a remote tropical island” will without doubt affect other people around you. Are you comfortable with that impact on your family and friends? How can you ensure you limit that impact? How will you feel about your decision in couple of months? This one is really tricky as we cannot really predict how we will feel in the future. For the reasons why, check this post Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times.)

4. How do you recognize you succeeded?

And the best at the end. If you set a goal you also need to be able to measure somehow that you reached the goal. Aside of the fact that you might be curious you also want to feel good about finishing your goals and how can you feel good about finishing when you don’t know you finished?

  • How will you track your progress? (You probably need some way how to see you are still on track to achieving your goals. Do you need a weekly follow up? Do you need a measurable small steps? Do you need a feedback from others?)
  • How will you ensure to keep your momentum? (There will be bumps on the road so how do you ensure you don’t lose the momentum? When you check your progress and you discover you are slowing down how will you reenergize yourself to push forward?)
  • How will you recognize you succeeded and achieved your goal? (How will you know you are there? “I want to learn Spanish” is a great goal but what exactly does it mean? Unless you set a clear success criteria you may never get there as it is unlikely you will ever speak like a native speaker. “I will know that I speak Spanish when I take a week vacations in Barcelona and will be able to get around, order dinner, go to the movies and speak with locals without a need to have a translator.” This is still a tall order but at least it is something you can do to verify you succeeded. For me personally the moment I considered as me being able to speak English was the moment when I stopped translating everything in my head and started to think in that language.
  • How will you celebrate your success? (Have a plan for celebration. Why? It can act as an additional motivating factor if the way you celebrate is directly related to the goal. “When I learn Spanish I will go for two weeks vacations in South America which is my lifelong dream.”

That’s it. Pretty straightforward. Most of the difficulties will be at the very beginning trying to define what the person really wants. If your client has troubles with identifying his needs and wants then you may help him out by guiding him through the Life Balance Wheel exercise to get them started.

Twitter type summary: “As a coach you don’t talk. You just listen and when required you ask questions to stimulate your clients thinking process.”

What are your favorite coaching questions? Is there something you would never ask and is there the one question that always makes the difference?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Coaching, Life

Tags: , ,

1 reply


  1. Communication Shouldn’t Be Efficient | The Geeky Leader

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