Asking Sneaky Questions? With 3 Step Process to Help | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson

Coach and Client on sofa with Notebook

In this column "Heart to Heart with Julie", Julie Johnson MCC shares sample coaching conversations and situations to help us grow. These are real coaching experiences that illustrate common issues we face as coaches, and Julie also shares her learning, ideas and practical tips to help you become a better coach.

Please share your thoughts, takeaways and your own experiences in the comments below!

These articles were first posted on Julie's blog, The Coaching Cube, and have been updated for inclusion here.

Sneaky Questions...

In this article we take a look at a common challenge for coaches: asking leading questions. It's something many coaches struggle with, especially at the beginning of our coaching career.

So is this you?

Is there even a sneakin' chance that you slip in advice or suggestions by posing a leading question? If so, it could sound something like this:

  • "Have you tried talking to her boss?"
  • "Could you consider delegating more?"
  • "Might it be an idea to brainstorm with the team?"
  • "Would it be interesting to look for a new supplier?"
  • "How about if you just say 'no' to him?"

I think you get the idea.

So, why does it matter?

Well, let's take the example of "Have you tried _____?"

What often happens next is one of the below:

  • "Have you tried A?" Answer: "No, that wouldn't work because of XYZ."
  • "Have you tried B?" Answer: "Yes we tried it and it didn't work."
  • "Have you tried C?" Answer: "Aaah, errrr, no—didn't think of that." (and then they're feeling stupid)

Either way, (whether it's your intention or not) these types of questions give people the impression that you think they should take the action you're asking about.

And it's easy to run yourself ragged brainstorming solutions to suggest, while all your coachee has to do is say "yes'" or "no", over and over again.

So, here's a 3 Step Method I developed to avoid this

Here is a straightforward and empowering three-step method that helps us coaches quickly find out what our coachees have already tried, what they are trying, and what they haven't tried yet: PAST-PRESENT-FUTURE.

NOTE: It's important to use this technique in the order below: 1) Past, 2) Present and 3) Future.

Step 1: PAST

  • Ask, "What have you already tried?"
  • Followed by "What else?" "What else?" "What else?" until you have a complete list.

Other follow-up questions can include:

  • "How did that go?"
  • "What worked?"
  • "What didn't work?"
  • "Are you still doing this?"


  • Ask, "What are you currently doing?"
  • Followed by "What else?" "What else?" "What else?" until you have a complete list.

Other follow-up questions can include:

  • "How well is this working?"
  • "What kind of positive difference is it making?"
  • "What does it not address?"

Step 3: Consider the FUTURE

  • Ask, "What have you not tried yet?"
  • Followed by "What else?" "What else?" "What else?" until you have a complete list.

Amazingly, this may get them to share something they haven't dared to try yet. OR it can get them to think of things that they haven't thought of yet.

Other questions to try include:

  • "What have you not dared to try yet?"
  • "What have you not thought of yet?"

Here's my take

We coaches need to keep stepping back so our coachees can do the work of coming up with ideas. Because it can disempowering and damage precious trust and rapport when we give the impression that we know best about our clients' lives.

So, instead use the method above to help them reflect and brainstorm past, current, and future solutions.

Let them do the thinking!

Now it's your turn

  • What did you like about the 3 step method described above?
  • When and with whom can you see yourself using it?
  • Who can you think of who you would be excited to try this method with?

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

If you liked this "Heart to Heart" column from Julie Johnson, you may also like:

Julie Johnson

Contributing Author:

Julie Johnson MCC, MIM is an Executive Coach, Coach Supervisor and Author. Her purpose is to help motivated people be at their best. She's passionate about spreading quality coaching conversations farther and wider, impacting the lives of people she'll never meet. Julie helps leaders develop an authentic Coaching Leadership Style so they grow next-generation leaders - and scale their own leadership. She also loves creating synergies by connecting 'the right people' with each other. Meet Julie in this short video here and learn more about her on her website here. You can also sign up for her monthly blog The Coaching Cube.

Learn more about Julie & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach and Client on sofa with Notebook by VH-studio via Shutterstock


  1. Haleema

    This is an excellent method. It also helps to know what answers can come up when you ask the sneaky questions described above. Thank you very much. I need more such topics to know what kind of questions can lead to solutions

  2. Ruth-Ann

    I like the wording of the suggested question for the future: "What have you not tried yet?" It's much better than "What could you try?" The version with "dare not try" invites them to voice an option they may be hiding from. I'm not sure what to expect from "What have you not thought of yet?" If a client doesn't have an answer even after a few moments of silence, how would a coach follow up? Would they re-phrase it, explain it, or leave it with the client and move on?

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Ruth-Ann,

      I've got lots of thoughts on your thoughtful reaction (no pun intended :D). "What have you not dared try?" - or some version of it - can indeed get them to go to the as yet untested territory. There IS an assumption in the question - that there IS something they haven't dared to try - yet many questions have embedded assumptions. With "What have you not thought of yet?" (this could be a great team coaching question as well, replacing 'you' with 'we') is an interesting one. I believe that because we are social animals and usually try to answer a question when asked one, that we actually try to think of something new. I call this the 'stupidest' and yet one of the most clever questions around! Because they are trying to think of something new, they'll probably need extra time. I usually insert something like "Take your time." and then (at least pretend) to be taking some notes or something.

      Greetings from The Netherlands - Julie

  3. Preston

    What did you like about the 3 step method described above? I liked that it left me with the feeling that I have the answers. What I didn't like, and and not sure where to go with, is that this question assumes that I have lived a life filled with resources (or that they have been available to me somehow) - and thus - I would be able to answer/reflect....well I have tried this and that, and here is what worked and here is what did not. While this would be great for me as a client - as a coach, and the population I deal with - this is not always the case. There must be a way to offer generic, hopefully science based tools/worksheets/concepts - that less experienced clients could choose from (sounds like this might work) - try - and then we can use the above question. I have not found any so I am creating my own. Would love any thoughts you have about that.
    When and with whom can you see yourself using it? referring to the above - we could discuss the chosen action plan selected.
    Who can you think of who you would be excited to try this method with? Same as above.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Preston,

      Indeed, there is an assumption embedded within the questions here. "What have you already tried?" assumes that they HAVE already tried something. They may answer "Well, nothing as of yet." - which suggests the tool can be adapted or not used at all. Intuition plays such a big role here - and making the decision to try this tool is definitely one of those calls. At any rate, it is usually better than "Have you tried this?", and "Have you tried that?".

      Greetings from The Netherlands!


  4. tara McAteer

    Thanks for this Julie. I am a new coach and absolutely guilty of leading questions. And making all kinds of assumptions. I didn't realize how loaded with assumptions my questions were. Thanks for sharing.


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