unlock answers

Foundation of Agile Coaching

Asking powerful questions over giving advice is the foundation of a coaching approach.

The days of the rambling monologue are over. Thankfully. Agile team leaders today are expected to stimulate conversation and collaboration. As Forbes Magazine describes, “today’s great leaders understand how to unlock hidden value and unleash creativity and passion with the use of well-timed questions.”

Timing of Questions

Knowing when to ask a question is a useful skill.

Knowing how to ask a powerful question is a critical skill.  

Asking powerful questions over giving advice is the foundation of a coaching approach.  Whether the coaching is a one-on-one coaching conversation or a team-coaching conversation, the belief is the same: People have their own answers within. They are naturally creative, resourceful and complete.  Leaders, like coaches, who hold this belief seek to unlock other’s perspectives, contributions and answers.   

The Role of the “Unlocker”

This starts with assuming good intent, i.e., the person is doing his or her best.  Assuming good intent is inherent to effective listening.  Effective listening will:

  • Suspend judgment and communicate curiosity and respect
  • Channel the attention
  • Bring to the surface any underlying assumptions
  • Invite new possibilities
  • Generate energy and forward movement

Ultimately, when done well, a coaching conversation using effective listening creates deep meaning and evokes more powerful questions.

Some skeptics doubt the value of powerful questions.  It could be that they don’t hold the belief that people have their own answers within.  As Peter Drucker, well-known management consultant, educator and author says, “Asking questions invites creativity, is empowering, and inspires us to consider alternatives…[it] helps us to calibrate and access our own capability to solve problems…building our self-confidence and self-efficacy.” Let’s look at what happens when we ask powerful questions.

What Makes a Question Powerful?  

  • It’s short.  It is only 7 words or less.
  • It’s open-ended. It cannot be answered with a yes or no.
  • It focuses on the future, rather than the past.
  • It starts with “What” or “How”.

What Makes a Question Less Powerful or Not Powerful At All?

  • It starts with “Why”.  To some people, the word “Why”, sounds blaming (flashback to “Why did you spill your milk?!”) and they can take a defensive stance, even without meaning to.
  • It is closed-ended or seeks to gather data that the person already knows, and doesn’t require any reflection.

          A: “How many people are on your team?”

         B: “Ten.”

         A: “How long have you been doing that?”

         B: “Two years.”

These are not inherently bad questions, but they are stronger when followed by a powerful question.  

        A: “How many people are on your team?”

        B: “Ten.”

        A: “What is your pattern with this team?” *

        B: “I tend to let the two most outspoken people dominate.”

        A: “How long have you been doing that?”

        B: “Two years.”

        A: “What works well about using that method?” *

        B: “Some team members have started coming to the meetings more prepared to speak up.”  

Notice the two questions with * are open-ended and more powerful, especially when following a closed-ended or data gathering question.  Other elements, tones, or unintended stances that a close-ended question reveals:

  • The question asker is looking for a specific answer or tone (even inadvertently).
  • The question asker stops listening and responds to his or her own question, sometimes not leaving any space for the other to respond.
             “What could we do about tomorrow’s meeting? I’m only asking because I think we should…”
  • The question is not a question at all, it’s a suggestion or disguised opinion. We call them “que-gestions!”  Beware of anybody who starts a question that way!  
             “Don’t you think you should pick this option?”
             “Doesn’t it seem obvious that you are heading in the wrong direction?”  

Instead, prepare to inspire a great conversation by having a few powerful and versatile questions in your back pocket.  Here are some to get started, but remember, the best questions come from careful listening and deep curiosity.

Powerful Questions

  • What is important about that?
  • What’s frustrating you?
  • What’s inspiring you?
  • What help do you need?
  • What makes you see it that way?
  • How could that go wrong?
  • How will you know when you’ve achieved that?
  • How will you plan for success?
  • How are others seeing the situation?
  • How will this impact others?

Practice Asking the Right Questions

As you practice using powerful questions, notice how the conversation goes. Does it feel different than other conversations? In what way? Notice how much you can learn about the other person.

Did they tell you anything surprising? Notice where the other person takes the conversation…and remain curious.

As we coaches like to say… “Notice what you notice!”

About Leslie Zucker

Leslie Zucker is a facilitator, trainer and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, and Associate Certified Coach of the International Coach Federation. Along with her private coaching practice, she has trained managers and team leaders in facilitation, training and coaching skills in over 20 countries, from corporate boardrooms of Washington, DC, to university classrooms in Costa Rica, banks in the Philippines, and remote villages of Rwanda. She lives on a river’s edge in Vermont, where she and her husband are co-developing a personal and relational awareness tool for those seeking profound personal growth and connected relationships."

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