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Matt Somers

Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training

Founder & Managing Partner

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Ask, don’t tell: How to ask effective coaching questions

If you've never enjoyed being coached, it may be that you weren’t actually coached at all.

I undertook some primary research into coaching in organisations some years back when I was studying for my MSc. I was kindly invited by the L&D manager at a local contact centre to spend a day with them observing the coaching their team undertook with the operatives who manned their phones. He was clearly very proud of their coaching set-up and I suppose welcomed the chance to show it off.

Coaches do not ask questions to get information; it is not a diagnosis. Instead they ask questions so that the coachee has to think – and observe – before providing their response.

I was paired with a coach and she introduced me to the call operative whose customer interactions we were going to share through the headsets. I noticed that the coach had a clipboard with a pre-printed sheet on which he began to scribble furiously as the call progressed. At the end of the call – which had all been pretty straightforward as far as I could tell – we ‘paused’ the call handling system to enter the feedback stage. This entailed the coach running through her list of notes and pointing out where the operative had deviated from the scripts and missed a number of cross-selling and upselling opportunities. This is not coaching.

I’m not saying the content of this kind of exchange cannot ever be useful, but it certainly wasn’t in this case. It seemed to me that the more the coach spoke, the more deflated the operative became. The more she tried to fill his head with more rules to follow, the less likely he’d be able to act upon them. Little, if any learning had taken place. At best, this was a kind of crude feedback; at worst it was a dismantling of self-confidence.

Now, there could de dozens of aspects of a coaching relationship that could explain this, but in this article, I’d like to pick up on just one – the absence of coaching questions.

Coaching questions

Question: Why, normally, do we ask questions?

Answer: To get answers.

Coaches do not always get answers, however. In fact, sometimes the biggest indication that a coach's question has given a coachee some fresh insight  –and helped them reach the cusp of learning something vital – may be a wry smile, a shake of the head, a far-away look or complete silence. So, perhaps there is another reason for coaches to pose questions.

I believe that the efficacy of coaching questions lies in their power to promote thought. Our ability to think is surely what distinguishes us from other species. Unlike Pavlov's dogs, between stimulus and response we humans have a moment to think, a moment in which we can make a choice about how to respond in a certain situation. It follows that if we can increase the quality of thinking, we’ll increase the odds of a better end result or decision and consequently our performance.

Asking, not telling

Coaching – particularly asking questions – produces a higher than normal quality of thinking because it encourages the raising of non-judgmental awareness. As I become more aware of the variables in any situation and, just as importantly, my feelings about them, I begin to understand things better and see more options for change.

This concept can be found in many of the Eastern philosophies and is a central tenet of mindfulness. Put simply, before you try to change anything, increase your awareness of how it is now.

The main point to clarify here is that coaches do not ask questions to get information; it is not a diagnosis. Instead, they ask questions so that the coachee has to think – and observe – before providing their response.

Asking questions encourages thinking and recognises that the people whom we coach have ideas and input and, more importantly, demonstrates that those ideas are welcomed and people's input is valued.  

Telling or instructing does none of these things. It stifles creativity and innovation and encourages a culture of dependency on the leader, seeing them as the person with all the answers. If you've ever found yourself saying (or thinking) 'how many times must I tell you?' or 'if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times!' you'll know this to be true.

Asking questions will mean that coachees achieve a much greater level of understanding about the work they do and the tasks they complete. You can ask questions in advance of the task to encourage the coachee to think about how they might go about things and the obstacles they might encounter, or you can ask questions after the task to find out what went well or badly, what was learnt and what could be done differently next time.

Of course, this will demand an investment of time from the coach, time that won’t always be available, but like any sound investment, there will be a significant payback over time.

As the people you coach become more capable and confident because they're thinking so well, they'll become less reliant on you to solve problems and give direction.

Where the coachee's work involves repetition, a coaching style that makes good use of thought-provoking questions can save hours of going over the same ground and repeating the same instructions.

Asking questions will promote a level of learning unavailable from the more controlling ‘tell and instruct’ type approach.

David Kolb's learning cycle

This useful model suggests that learning occurs once we've planned an experience, had the experience, reflected on the experience and drawn conclusions from the experience. In the frenetic world of work these days we mostly just plan and do – and sometimes the planning bit gets missed! A few judicious coaching questions will ensure that we reflect and conclude without making more formal arrangements to do so.

All of this is going to lead to a much more involved and therefore motivated employee and so most importantly of all, will promote a much higher quality of task completion which can be measured and quantified in terms of money spent or time saved.

Back at the contact centre…

I might have debriefed the operative with questions like:

  • How closely were you able to stick to the script?
  • What caused you to deviate?
  • Which parts of that call were easier or harder?
  • What did you notice about the customer’s behaviour and communication?
  • Where were the main opportunities to discuss our other services?

I guess in the end it boils down to who needs to be thinking and learning from the experience. If we want it to be our team members who are thinking and learning, then those who coach need to get better at asking the right kind of questions.

If however, we feel that what’s needed is not thinking but feedback, instruction, direction and compliance then that’s fine, but please let’s stop calling that coaching.

Interested in this topic? Read How to recognise and embed a coaching culture in your organisation.

2 Responses

  1. Great article Matt. My own
    Great article Matt. My own experience is that the word ‘coach’ has been misappropriated in some areas, leading to misapplication of the fundamental principles of coaching and indeed training!

  2. An excellent piece, Matt,
    An excellent piece, Matt, setting out the best approach to coaching.

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Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Partner

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