Saturday, April 22, 2017

Powerful questions in coaching

Powerful questions are a cornerstone of coaching. These questions are sometimes called ‘magical’ because they can support a coachee to step around perceived barriers or familiar ways of thinking into a space where they are more creative. Their concrete context (i.e. resources, issues, etc) hasn’t changed, but the way the they are thinking can become more positive, increasing motivating and boosting self-confidence.
The two types of ‘magical questions’ that I frequently use are:
  • Imagine the results, and
  • Time shift

Imagine the results
The ‘imagine the results’ questions invite a coachee to hurdle over the messiness they can see in their here and now, and to step into their world in the future where they have done the hard work and are experiencing the desired outcomes - and can see the purpose behind what they want to do or achieve.
Take, for instance, a coachee who is trying to split their department into self-directed teams, in a way that will increase efficiency and autonomy, but without losing the great sense of collaboration that the department already has. The coachee is, however, facing a range of issues and their mental wheels are spinning in the mud that these issues are creating. One way to support this coachee might be with the following statement and questions:
Imagine that your department is working in teams. Why are they working in teams? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What is different? How was it possible to achieve this?   
When I use the ‘imagine the result question’ with coachees I find that sometimes they take a while to get their head into that space, but when they do they are able to focus on what their situation would look and feel like. It helps them focus on the future, rather than barriers or issues that are in the way. Also, in some ways, by stating what they see and by understanding their purpose, it helps it feel more real, and, as a result, helps them develop a plan to move forward (they know where they want to go, so putting together the ‘map’ becomes easier).

Time shift
Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by focussing on all the things that we still need to do and the amount of effort that it is going to take to reach our desired outcomes. Sometimes it can be tough to move our focus back to the positive results we are aiming for, and thereby to muster up the energy and motivation we need to get things done.
The ‘time shift’ questions, similar to the ‘imagine the results questions’, can help a coachee look into the future - but with ‘time shift’ it asks the coachee to focus on a general point of time in the future rather than on specific desired outcomes.
Using the same scenario - the coachee who is trying to split their department into self-directed teams - I might use a statement and questions such as:
It is now August 2018. You have achieved your goals. What can you see? What happened? What did you do? What were the main steps in your plan that got you there? How did you start?
The ‘time shift’ questions helps my coachee look into the future and imagine, quite vividly what it would be like for them. They are also able to describe what they did to get there, and by the end of the session are likely to be way more motivated to jump back into their ‘to do’ list and action plan. Often, the coachee will want to revisit the structure of their existing action plan, because they have identified key priorities and steps that need to be included, or that need to be adjusted.

Leading with curiosity
The two open-ended question approaches that I have discussed can be powerful. However, you still need to make sure that you approach every session with true ‘curiosity’, and are fully present (Hess, 2010). When you ask questions because you are curious, rather than because you feel that the question is useful, it keeps everything open. Your curiosity will help you select just the right question for that coachee at that point in time, which helps avoid the possible trap of falling back on questions that you have found have worked previously. It means that you may (often) be surprised by the direction the coachee takes you with their response - and this is where such questions, I would suggest, can be magical. By leading with curiosity and selecting open-ended questions from this basis, the process can be transformational for the coachee in part because they too are surprised by the direction their response take. I have had coachee’s laugh with delight and wonder, asking ‘where did that come from? I didn’t even know I was thinking that!’.

The transformational, magic moments don’t happen every time and you can’t force them (Hess, 2010) - but by using a combination of curiosity and powerful questions, and ensuring you are fully present during a session, the likelihood of such transformational moments occurring, increases.

Hess, R. (2010.). The Essence of a Great Coaching Question. Retrieved from

Question finger 6. CC ( BY ) licensed Flickr image by Josh Tasman: