Stop Trying to Ask Good Questions

Many leadership books and coach training programs outline rules for asking good questions. Common ones include: Don’t ask closed questions. Ask open questions that start with What, When, Where, and How. Avoid Why questions.

These suggestions are misleading.

Coaching and asking questions are not synonymous. The opposite of giving advice is not asking questions. Even just taking a coaching approach to your leadership conversation should be a process of inquiry, not a series of questions. The intent of inquiry is to provoke critical thinking to discern gaps in logic, evaluate the value of beliefs, and clarify fears and desires affecting someone’s outlook and behavior. It takes more than a series of questions to change perception and behavior.

The use of reflective statements, such as summarizing stories, encapsulating key beliefs, and sharing observed emotional shifts, can be more powerful than seeking the magical question. Restating someone’s words can be shocking, especially if they have been saying the same words for years. Sharing the contradictions in their “desires” and “shoulds” and the emotions you saw them attach to different ideas and can reveal controlling beliefs more effectively than a provocative question.

Additionally, the time you spend trying to remember or formulate a good question is time you are in your head and not present to the person you are with. You miss key statements and expressions. They may sense a disconnection. I always say, “They want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect.”

What Is True About Questions

We don’t recognize the faults in our reasoning unless someone prompts us to questions our thinking.

A good question can disturb people’s equilibrium enough to test the validity or absurdity of their thoughts. Questions help them assess their beliefs in a way they can’t do for ourselves. When a question prompts people to stop and reflect on their opinions and perceptions, they may instantly see what actions they need to take now.

What Is Not True About Questions

You might think sticking to questions when coaching keeps you from slanting the conversation with your opinions and biases. Yet even questions can be tainted by opinions and biases, leading the person you are trying to coach to your way of thinking.

Also, asking a series of questions can feel like an interrogation, damaging trust and rapport. Without reflective statements, questions feel more like an impersonal formula than a spontaneous process. Starting with a reflective statement and then asking a question about the statement makes coaching feel more natural and considerate.

Reflections Can Lead to Good Questions

Summarizing what someone is telling you—including encapsulating the major elements of their story in just a few words—and then asking a question that arises from your curiosity is an effective and effortless way to coach. Reflections are easier to formulate than questions. They are most useful when you want them to objectively observe their story so they may see beyond the limiting perspective that is directing their behavior today.

Even closed questions that follow your reflective statements such as, “Is this correct?” “Is this what bothers you most?” or “Is this what you want to change?” can be powerful clarifiers that prompt a new way of seeing and behaving.

Examples of Reflective Statements include:

  1. Summarizing their story, the dilemmas, and stated needs or goals, and offering these summaries as statements they can accept or alter.
  2. Noticing energy shifts, changes in tone of voice or pace of speech, and adjustments in posture or gestures.
  3. Paraphrasing and offering metaphors to help clients examine their thinking in a different light.
  4. Encapsulating key words and repeated phrases to pinpoint needs, conflicts, and contradictions.
  5. Bottom-lining the goal they stated they wanted or needed to attain with brief statements about the blocks they believe are getting in the way.
  6. Offering observations when clients deflect, hesitate, or show resistance.
  7. Acknowledging a willingness to be coached and progress made in the conversation to reinforce movement and growth.

Instead of trying to remember or frame your questions correctly . . . exhale, see the person with compassion and care, and then share what you hear, see, and sense to help them explore their perspective and choices.

Ideas in this post constructed from excerpts in Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC.

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC, is a pioneer in the coaching movement and a past global president of the International Coach Federation. She teaches for coaching schools and universities in 5 countries. You can find more information on Marcia’s experience, her programs, and her other books–Outsmart Your Brain, The Discomfort Zone, and Wander Woman–at You can also connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.


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