Inquiring Minds: Questions, Awareness & Insight (with Neuroscience!) | by Dr. Sarah Evans MCC

Happy Coach Pondering Inquiry Article

What's your favourite colour?

What are you immediately thinking about? While the question is simple, what just occurred in your brain has profound implications.

What happens when you're asked a question…

What just occurred when you read this question is that your thought process, and whatever you were thinking about before, was momentarily hijacked and became focused on your favourite colour.

Perhaps you found that you were also thinking about items of that colour or memories connected to that colour. Or, in my wonderful hubby's case when I asked him this question, while a colour came immediately to mind, he also began thinking, "I like blue, but I also like other combinations of colours; it depends…"

You didn't consciously tell your brain to think blue, green or, in my case, yellow; it did so automatically.

Imagine what can be possible when you ask your coachees open, generative and powerful questions from a spirit of inquiry and possibility—questions that cause them to pause, or literally stop in their tracks? It can dramatically change what happens next for them.

What happens next: the neuroscience

As David Hoffeld writes in his 2017 Fast Company article Want to Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears a Question? 1 questions trigger a "mental reflex known as 'instinctive elaboration.' When a question is posed, it takes over the brain's thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can't contemplate anything else."

In a previous article with 7 powerful coaching question practices, I shared that when a coach asks an open, generative coaching question, the coachee's entire brain becomes active as it reflects, releasing serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer).

Following serotonin, the coachee's brain stimulates the release of dopamine, which triggers the instinctive elaboration reflex. The question that has been posed takes over the brain's thought process. Hijacked!

Questions evoke awareness, insight and learning

Asking questions is not only how we personally learn, but also how we evoke awareness and insight for our coachees in support of their learning and growth.

Questions encourage gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain. This allows 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 and dopamine are 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 coaches 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.

Questions open our minds, our eyes, and our hearts. With our questions we learn, connect, and create.… We shift our orientation from fixed opinions and easy answers to curiosity, thoughtful questions, and open-minded conversations, lighting the way to collaboration, exploration, discovery, and innovation. Marilee Adams 2

Here are 4 practices for opening to the power of inquiry

  1. Do as Shawn Parr 3 suggests: "Wake up stupid." Wake up every morning and live like a sponge. Approach every project, challenge or interaction with an "I know nothing; teach me" attitude. This attitude and your inquiry approach will open your mind, lead to great conversations and new ideas, and support your coachees in doing the same.
  2. Embrace an inquiring mindset. Be open, curious and flexible. Also, notice when your biases or assumptions might get in the way.
  3. Pause, hold space and leverage silence for your coachee to "sit with" a question. A pause is a fertile space in which our questions can grow.
  4. Continue to practise "I wonder _____?" and "What if _____?" questions as a way to harness the power of inquiry to support your coachee in making connections, to encourage exploration and to surface themes or patterns.


Edgar Schein 4 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.

So let's end on a question: As you embrace inquiry and an inquiring mindset, how will you embody an attitude of deep interest and curiosity for yourself, your coachees and the world?


1 David Hoffeld (Feburary 21, 2017). Want to Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears a Question? Fast Company.

2 Marilee Adams (2016). Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life. (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler.

3 Shawn Parr (December 16, 2011). How Childlike Humility And Curiosity Can Inform, Inspire, and Unlock New Ideas. Fast Company.

4 Edgar H. Schein (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.

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Sarah Evans, MCC Guest Author

Contributing Author:

Dr. Sarah Evans, PhD, MCC, 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 at Evans Leadership Group. Sarah is dedicated to cultivating resilient leaders—supporting individuals, teams, organizations and coaches 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 here and connect with her on Linkedin. Sarah is a member of the International Coach Federation, where she holds a Master Certified Coach (MCC) credential.

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

Image of Happy coach pondering at desk with pen and tablet by Mr.Whiskey via Shutterstock

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