Powerful Coaching Questions
My aim in this article is to examine powerful questioning. Put simply, powerful questions are intended to evoke a client’s awareness or insight.
It includes: challenging clients in ways that help them move beyond their current thinking; asking questions that are intended to help them shift perspectives and reframe their problems; generating ideas about how they can move forward; and exploring thoughts and feelings that have the potential to create new learning.
I have had many discussions with other coaches about what it takes to ask powerful questions, ie., questions that elicit discovery, evoke insight and generate new learning.
From a solution-focused perspective, and I’d call myself solution-focused, the starting point is that clients have everything they need to solve their own problems, if we ask the right questions.
This involves asking open-ended questions, asking clients to tell us more about their concerns, asking them to imagine their problem has already been solved and tell us what has changed, and asking them to generate options for moving forward.1
These questions are clearly important in coaching. Nonetheless in my niche, which broadly speaking is coaching involving relationships, I couldn’t help but feel something more was needed. This probably had more to do with my approach, as a coach, than the challenge of asking powerful questions per se.
Coaching, where the focus is on relationships, covers many areas. In my practice it ranges from intimate relationships through to the emotional bond that employees have with their employing organization. The following examples illustrate what I’ve learned over the years about asking powerful questions.
Some of my organizational coaching clients are referred via Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Many are employees struggling with frustration and cynicism, particularly when faced with organizational change. Having some knowledge about the different forms that employee commitment to organizations can take, helps with asking powerful questions.
Three forms of organizational commitment have been identified: affective commitment (want-to); continuance commitment (have-to); and normative commitment (ought-to).2
Affective commitment brings an employee’s sense of unity and shared values with the organization into sharp focus. And, when faced with adjusting to an organizational restructure, as an example, the perception that one is being treated fairly is paramount.
A sense of unfairness can easily trigger an emotional “threat-response”. The threat-response is a part of the approach-avoid survival mechanism mediated by the amygdala and associated neural networks.3 These networks process threats (and rewards) within a fifth of a second, providing us with a continuous stream of non-conscious “feedback”, in the form of feeling, of what is meaningful to us in any given moment. Helping clients’ see their situation from other perspectives has been shown to mitigate the threat-response to unfairness.4,5
We all know that a coaching session is not the appropriate forum to give a mini-lecture on how perceptions of unfairness weaken our attachment to organizations. Nonetheless, armed with knowledge about affective commitment enables us to ask powerful questions.
Questions that reframe clients’ concerns, such as “what has happened that has moved you from ‘want-to’ to ‘have-to’ when you think about going to work”, can, in the right circumstances, elicit discovery, evoke insight and generate new learning.
When reporting arrangements have changed and the client begins to recognize that it’s not about their ‘failings’ but more that the new manager has a different leadership style, the loss of emotional connection they feel can soften.
It’s also worth noting here that different career stages call for different kinds of psychological adjustment.6 What might be perceived as ‘fair’ at one career stage may well be perceived as ‘unfair’ at another. An example of a powerful question with this in mind might be “how unfair would this have been for you earlier in your career?”
I’ve learned a great deal from my clients and their emotional bond with their organisation asking these types of questions.
A second example relates to my work in intimate relationship coaching and the emotional bond between couples. When one person in the couple attempts a positive emotional connection with the other, eg. attention or affection, it is referred to as a ‘bid for interaction’. The second person can respond by either ‘turning toward’ their partner, ‘turning away’ or ‘turning against’.7
Powerful questioning in this context is made possible by understanding the distinction between ‘turning toward’, ‘turning away’ or ‘turning against’ - and that turning toward commences with paying attention. Client awareness and insight can be facilitated with relevant questions such as “how likely are you to ‘turn toward’ your partner when you argue?” when the subject of emotional connection with partners inevitably comes up.
Where does this leave us as coaches? Is there a formula for powerful questioning?
I doubt it. We get better at asking powerful questions as we build our knowledge and understanding over time in the niches we work in. Powerful questioning can be quite challenging to master. Nonetheless, getting better at it is worth the effort.
About The Author
Brian English, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with a Masters and PhD in applied psychology, and an MBA in the management of organizational change. Brian draws on over 30 years of experience in his coaching practice. He is ICF accredited and a faculty member of the BrainFirst Training Institute.
1. O’Connell B, Palmer S & Williams H (2012) Solution focused coaching in practice. New York: Routledge.
2. Myer JP & Allen NJ (1997). Commitment in the workplace: theory, research and application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
3. Wood, Kimberly & Hoef, Lawrence & Knight, David. (2014). The Amygdala Mediates the Emotional Modulation of Threat-Elicited Skin Conductance Response. Emotion (Washington, D.C.). 14. 10.1037/a0036636.
4. Rock, David & Ringleb, Al (2013). Handbook of Neuroleadership. 1st ed. Neuroleadership Institute.
5. Gordon, Evian & Barnett, Kylie & Cooper, Nicholas & Tran, Ngoc & Williams, Leanne. (2008). An "integrative neuroscience" platform: Application to profiles of negativity and positivity bias. Journal of integrative neuroscience. 7. 345-66. 10.1142/S0219635208001927.
6. Morrow PC & McElroy JC (1987). Work commitment and job satisfaction over three career stages. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 30 (3), 330- 346.
7. Brittle, Zach (2019). Turning towards instead of away. The Gottman Institute. Available at gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/
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