The Essence of a Great Coaching Question

I’m just back from three extraordinary days at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in beautiful Lyons, Colorado. John Prine closed out the festival with a set worthy of the national treasure he is. A lot of great lines from the old poet, but here’s the one that’s still rolling around in my head:
gathering coaching questions wisdom at Folks Fest

It’s not really a question if you already know the answer.

That’s true about the most powerful coaching questions.

Learning to draw out your client’s wisdom rather than impose your own agenda is one of the foundations of coach training. Is it time to refresh that lesson? It’s so easy to get caught up in the task list and learning curves, and forget to lead with curiosity in a coaching session.

No matter how insightful you are (and you are insightful!) the most impactful moments in coaching are drawn out of your clients themselves. There’s no formula for those moments.

That’s why open-ended questions generally work better than yes-or-no questions in coaching. They leave the field open to the unexpected. The conversation can go in any direction from an open-ended question, and that leaves space for the magic to arrive.

Coaching magic can be courted, but it can’t be forced. No list of “canned” coaching questions holds the key to that transformational shift your client is on the threshold of.

How do you call magical coaching moments into being? By being fully present with your client, ready to go wherever the moment leads.

A lot goes into that kind of mindfulness, but its essence is simple. Call it witnessing with acceptance. Call it showing up for what shows up. Or call it trust – trust in the client’s wisdom, and your own.

This kind of trust can only be learned through “live” experience coaching real clients – and the more the better. But even the most experienced coaches can’t force the magic. All any of us can do is hold space for it to appear. And sometimes experience can betray you, if it leads you to lean too heavily on what has worked before.

I have my own storehouse of powerful coaching questions, which evolves over time. The Coaching Commons has published a list of brilliant coaching questions from their readers. Maybe there are certain questions you rely on too, because they work over and over again.

Like the other tools in your coaching toolbox, these favorite questions are valuable in themselves, but they are more valuable for the experiences you went through to learn them. Whether those experiences felt positive or negative at the time, they taught you something about what you can trust, in yourself and in your clients.

So go ahead and develop your list of questions, but make no mistake – the truly great coaching questions arise in the magic of the moment.

When you have been through enough sessions where something magical happens, you’ll believe in the serendipity of it, and see how it can’t be controlled. You can open to it, but you can’t will it into being.

If you enter a coaching session like entering a performance, you will limit what can occur. Instead, read your client’s session prep before the session, let your curiosity arise, jot a question or two – but then release any attachment to your preparation, and to your ideas about what the outcome will be, so you enter the session relaxed, grounded and fully present.

Then you have done all you can do. If the moment is right, your natural curiosity will lead you to that truly great coaching question. And your client’s answer will surprise and delight both of you.

It’s your turn. Share your favorite coaching questions by commenting below.

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  • Barb Garrison

    Love this article! And love that magic! It's what makes me leap out of bed! : ) Thanks for the reminder.

  • I enjoyed your blog entry on “The Essence of a Great Coaching Question”, especially the admonition to lead with curiosity in a coaching session. For many years, I have been practicing the elements of take your pick: active listening, empathetic listening, appreciative inquiry, etc. but occasionally need someone to stick my finger in the light socket as a reminder of why I’m having the discovery conversation. Thanks, you just did that!