03 March 2020
Posted in by David Clutterbuck

How can I ask better questions?

Great questions make someone think. They derail expected trains of thought, opening up new tracks to follow – typically by taking different perspectives. The task of creating powerful questions is not just the coach’s. Very often, the most impactful questions arise from within the coachee. All the coach does is open a window that lets the light shine in. Generating such questions is a collaborative act between coach and coachee, built upon intense and compassionate listening. The harder you try to create a powerful question, the less likely you are to succeed. The better you listen, the more naturally the right questions will occur of their own accord.

What makes an impactful question?

In their early training, coaches are taught a number of questions that have the potential to help coachees think. In practice, these rapidly lose their impact, because:

  • the coachee has already encountered them before, in other contexts, so they lose the surprise factor
  • they encourage lazy questioning, where the coach automatically falls back on faithful standbys
  • they encourage lazy answering, because the coachee has developed a formulaic response (which they are often unaware of)

A question is only powerful or impactful if it causes the coachee to step outside of their normal narrative or self-discourse.

From analysing hundreds of coaching questions, it is possible to identify the core characteristics of an impactful question. These are:

  • Personal: the coachee feels that this question is specifically crafted or chosen for them and the situation they are in. (Example: In what ways is this your responsibility alone?
  • Resonant: in addition to any rational perspective, it carries a substantial emotional essence. (Example: How do you reward yourself?)
  • Acute and incisive: it gets right to the point. (Example: What would it be like to care just enough?)
  • Reverberant: it is not easy to answer once and for all. Any initial response is just a first take, subject to further reflection hours, months or even years later. (Example: What is the contribution you want to make to the world?)
  • Innocent: it has none of your agendas – overt or hidden – within it. (Example: What is the question you are avoiding asking yourself about this?)
  • Explicit: it is very simply expressed, as opposed to long and convoluted. (Example: What can you forgive yourself for?)
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Ohno, T (1988) Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Portland, Or: Productivity Press


David Clutterbuck

David Clutterbuck is a Visiting Professor at Henley and three other business schools. The ‘last man standing’ of the original coaching and mentoring pioneers, he was co-founder of the EMCC and is the author of more than 70 books. David has been researching the role of AI in coaching for several years, presenting and leading discussion forums around the world.

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