7 Powerful Questioning Practices to Maximise Your Client's Growth | By Sarah Evans, MCC

Inquiry is a core process and way of being in coaching.

In my practice I have observed that creative, generative, powerful questioning is one of coaching's greatest strengths.

Powerful questions support a coachee's learning, discovery and development. Used in conjunction with other coaching skills such as sharing observations, noticing patterns and challenging beliefs; powerful questioning is an impactful way to support a coachee's knowing of themselves and how they view their world.

When we customize our questions, including incorporating the coachee's language and meaning, we enter the coachee's way of processing their inner world of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, needs, wants, and aspirations.

Edgar Schein 1 speaks of humble inquiry as, "the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person." Inquiry from this way of being invites trust, empathy, compassion, connection and a deeper understanding of another human being.

"It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer or unleash a solution. Giving another person the opportunity to find their own way, make their own mistakes, and create their own wisdom is both brave and vulnerable. It can also mean unlearning our 'fix it' habits." Brene Brown 2

Ask, don't tell: lessons from neuroscience

Imagine asking questions that grab your coachee's attention and pique their motivation to explore, discover, experiment, learn, grow and change!

Harnessing the lessons of neuroscience in coaching and for change, there are compelling reasons to ask questions that provoke new thinking and insight.

The concept of neuroplasticity 3 teaches us that our brains can physically change to encourage creative thinking and new knowledge. Our neurons can actually move into new locations in our brain when we learn. And questions act as a catalyst for our brains to change and move forward with new insight.

What happens when we ask a coaching question, and why it matters...

First, what do I mean by a coaching question? For me a true coaching question is a creative, generative, powerful question. A coaching question is not a leading question, rhetorical question, embarrassing personal question - or a question with an embedded solution.

And the neuroscience bit:

So, when we ask a coaching question, the coachee's entire brain becomes active as it reflects, releasing serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer). This encourages gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain, allowing for more insight for the coachee than if we provide advice, answers or solutions. New neural connections begin to be made as the coachee's brain moves closer to finding their own new perspectives, answers or solutions.

As serotonin is released, a rush of energy (or insight) occurs as the brain fires up, moving ahead into discovery of perspectives, answers or solutions. The coachee who received the question has literally had their brain provoked and that rush of energy can become a motivator for action. And while the brain's burst of energy is short lived, we can help leverage that energy, new awareness and insight by asking the coachee to commit to forward momentum/action, as well as asking how they will hold themselves accountable to their commitment.

"Learn to recognize the moment when you ask the question and there's a pause, a heartbeat of silence when you can see the person actually thinking and figuring out the answer. You can almost see new neural connections being made." Michael Bungay Stanier 4

7 Powerful Questioning Practices

Β The questions we ask can literally expand what our coachees access, see and experience. Our coaching questions can:

  • Focus attention
  • Foster curiosity
  • Evoke awareness and insight
  • Invoke new perspectives or possibilities
  • Provoke new thinking and action
  • Expand potential and capacity
  • Encourage commitment

So, here are 7 powerful questioning practices to maximise your coachee's self-awareness, growth and learning:

  1. Let your question emerge organically from your deep listening, attuned curiosity and from the silence.
  2. Ask one question at a time.
  3. Pause and hold space for your coachee to 'sit with' the question. A pause is also a fertile space in which our questions can grow.
  4. Ask mostly open questions to maximise neural connections.
  5. Use closed questions when you want to invite a narrowed focus.
  6. Inquire into potential and possibility, rather than gathering information or probing for explanation.
  7. Incorporate somatic 5 questions to help coachees become more present, have access to other ways of knowing and increase their acuity of what is happening in and around them. For example, "What do you notice in your body as you are saying this?", "What comes up for you there?" or "What emotions or sensations are you noticing in your body?"

Wrap-Up

"We live in the world our questions create." David Cooperrider

I hope this article inspires you to ask creative, generative and powerful questions that foster curiosity, awareness and insight. Consider yourself an evocative, invocative and provocative coach!

References:
1
Edgar H. Schein (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.
2 Brene Brown in "Praise for The Coaching Habit". Michael Bungay Stanier (2016). The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever.
3 "Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual's life" (Wikipedia)
4 Michael Bungay Stanier (2016). The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. page 93.
5 Soma is the body as distinct from the soul or mind. Wikipedia says "...somatic psychology has been defined as: 'the study of the mind/body interface, the relationship between our physical matter and our energy, the interaction of our body structures with our thoughts and actions.' "

Sarah Evans MCC headshotContributing Author: Sarah Evans, MCC, PhD (cand.), Dip. CS, is passionate about working with visionary decision-makers and influencers inspired by the transformative potential of coaching. She is an executive leadership & team coach, facilitator, OD consultant, coaching supervisor, and mentor coach dedicated to supporting individuals, teams, and organizations lead and thrive in complexity. Her goal is to maximize human capacity, organizational capabilities, and contributions to societal well-being. Her key working themes are relationships, resilience, results! Visit her website hereΒ  and connect with her on Linkedin. Sarah is a member of the International Coach Federation, where she holds a Master Certified Coach (MCC) credential.

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Image of Coach listening to client so they can ask powerful coaching questions by fizkes via Shutterstock

16 Comments

    • Sarah Evans

      You're welcome a lot Renato! πŸ™‚ I'm pleased to hear that you liked this piece and hope you find it helpful in your practice.
      Sarah

      Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Glad you like it Linda! Do you know Sarah? She is based out of Victoria. I think you'd like her πŸ™‚ And we're very excited to be getting a monthly article in 2020 from her to help coaches grow their skills! Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
    • Sarah Evans

      Thanks Linda - I appreciate your kind feedback! There truly is an art and science to questions and to coaching, isn't there?

      Reply
  1. Sharon

    I really enjoyed reading this insightful, helpful piece. You have pulled together for us the compelling neuroscientific rationalle as to why open ended questions are so powerful and when to use one of those infrequent but useful closed question. Thank you for this!

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Sharon, you are most welcome! So glad you found Sarah's article on powerful questioning practices helpful πŸ™‚ Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
    • Sarah Evans

      Thank you Sharon! Not only do I appreciate your kind words of acknowledgement, I'm thrilled to hear that you found the neuroscience rationale compelling. I continue to be amazed at what we are learning about our brains, and how this learning can serve to strengthen our coaching.
      Sarah

      Reply
  2. Delaney Tosh

    An excellent article Sarah. You clearly highlight the fine art and the science of asking powerful questions. I'm a neuropsychologist at heart and so I like that you explain how powerful questioning alters the neural pathways, thus enhancing the learning and likelihood of forward action and change.

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Delaney, so glad you liked Sarah's article πŸ™‚ I love the science of asking questions too πŸ™‚ Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
    • Sarah Evans

      Thank you Delaney! Those connections are indeed powerful. You might be interested in exploring David Rock's work as he has been influential in the intersection of neuroscience and coaching. Another favourite is Dan Siegel.
      Sarah

      Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Kevin, glad you found Sarah's article helpful! She may yet do a more detailed article on neuroscience and coaching, so watch this space... Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
    • Sarah Evans

      Thank you Kevin. I'm pleased to hear that you found the piece helpful in understanding the science beneath the power of creative, generative powerful questions.
      Sarah

      Reply
  3. Dianne McCoy

    Great article Sarah. Loved the reference to the Brain and how powerful questions with space can provoke our clients to think deeper about what’s on their mind.

    Reply

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