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I’ve been wondering about the effectiveness of the sorts of questions I commonly ask during during mentoring / coaching sessions. I realise that I have a tendency to ask quite a few ‘Why?” questions.
Why do you think this (situation) is happening?
Why is …. important to you?

On reflection, this has probably come from Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ mantra, and of course Sinek’s assertion is that the ‘Why’ question is a powerful way of leading and inspiring colleagues to commit to the vision and purpose of an organisation, enterprise or business, and may not be as directly applicable to coaching.

I have encountered a number of posts and blogs recently that suggest that “wisdom accessing questions” start with ‘WHAT’. According to this wisdom, questions that start with ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ are information seeking questions (which are useful in coaching to clarify a situation), but they are not “wisdom seeking questions”. The former questions tend to elicit responses grounded in the past, and don’t produce the deeper insights that help you understand what is important to the other person or help them move forward to accomplish their goals.

Accordingly, instead of asking ‘Why is this happening?’ (an information seeking question), ask ‘What do you need to do to get through this?’. Instead of asking “How are you going to accomplish this?’, ask ‘If you had all of the time and resources you needed, what would you do?’ Instead of asking, ‘Why do you think you have this problem?’, ask ‘What can we do together to help you with this problem?’
And so on:
• What are the biggest blockers that you encounter trying to make this happen?
• What personal professional strengths can you bring to bare on this situation?

According to Jim Dryburgh, whose post I’ve based this on:
It’s been found that more than 70% of people don’t know what they want when you ask them, but almost everyone knows what they don’t want. But, if you reflect the discussion back to them with a “what” question and keep your focus on solutions and the future, they will tap into their wisdom and discover what they want.

The obvious question now is:
What do you think ? What is your wisdom on the most productive questions to ask during coaching and mentoring?

Best wishes for a successful and enriching year of mentoring.

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Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on February 3, 2017 at 15:09

This article got me thinking. I want to offer a few insights from my own experience.

Since I work with the neuro-diverse using a brain-based model, most of my clients struggle with Executive Functioning dysregulations and disorders [EFDs], I come from a very different paradigm about those "powerful questions" much of the coaching field seems to believe is the best way to structure a session. 

At the beginning of my practice I spent 7 years training "vanilla" coaches, a Senior on the CoachU trainer team (meaning the coach's client focus, regardless of their personal diagnosis or lack thereof). During that time I kept my practice as "balanced" as possible - so I can say with assurance that the concepts below worked equally well with the neurotypical (with brains unflavored by any "mix-ins" - as with ice cream)

In one of my older coaching articles [10 Essential ADD Coaching Concepts] I attempted to explain the problem with question-based coaching by comparing it to a waitress trying to take orders in a busy restaurant, with many tables waiting. 

If she's smart, she suggests and limits vs. leaving the patron to peruse a menu that might just be too overwhelming to encourage rapid decisions in the moment.  "We're known for our pasta and the lasagne is getting raves tonight." Are you thinking meat or fish? "

[ADD Coaching Hint: All questions require decisions, if only to choose among several possible responses. In ADD/EFD-land, “several” might mean “several hundred,” depending on how YOU phrase the question.  Decisions are Pre-Frontal Cortex intensive – pressure - and pressure shuts down the very part of the brain required to answer effectively ]

Here are a few tweaks from my own coaching tool box:

#1 - Avoid superlatives and comparatives - Words like best, most, biggest, first, etc. may well encourage "out of the box" thinking in what I refer to as "pure vanilla" clients.  Unfortunately, they usually send clients who are already so far out-of-the-box they need help finding the darned thing off on a hunt for still MORE information, and then they must "prioritize" to answer those kinds of questions. 

Some, like me, can sift and sort so quickly that most interviewers have NO idea how difficult that question can be - but it can derail a session with others.  The pressure shuts down their Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) - which is the very area needed to continue answering those "powerful questions." 

Many can DO it (again, like me), but the questions most certainly do not help us get there -- and some of us will often say almost anything to get back on track with what we'd hoped to discuss, so you can get get misleading info from our answers. 

When you do it with kids, whose PFC's are still underdeveloped,
you'll often get the dreaded shoulder shrug or, "I dunno" in response.

#2- Don't ask "answer-limiting" questions at all:  ONE example, A problem, etc.  Same neuro-search challenge - the brain is a pattern-matching organ, and the PFC shuts down with over-choice (similar problem with the "only handle it once" contingent, btw.)

More productive, in my experience, are items more like this:

  • Give me an example or so of something you might come up against trying to make this happen?  Whatever pops into your mind, rather than
  • What are the biggest blockers that you encounter trying to make this happen?
  • Let's review a few of your strengths to see if we can come up with some that might work for you in this situation, rather than
  • What personal professional strengths can you bring to bare on this situation?

#3 - "What you Don't Want" is pure gold!  Then we can explore "opposites" and pick through those.  My clients have loved my "Day from Hell" exercise to help jump-start life and career planning.

Thanks for giving me a chance to ring in. For still more info:

(Madelyn Griffith-Haynie -
ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
"It takes a village to educate a world!"

Comment by Hazel Owen on February 2, 2017 at 16:53

I have been mulling over your post Nick, since I read it a few days ago (and fascinating how it made me hyper-aware of the types of questions I was asking!) The distinction you describe between information seeking and wisdom seeking questions is really helpful.

In my experience, helping to reframe how someone perceives a situation from what they feel they know about it, to what they can do to influence, change, or achieve something within it, can have a huge impact. It can help someone shift from focussing on the why (i.e. the factors they feel are influencing the situation, which may be based on their own assumptions or self doubt), to instead start thinking about what strengths they bring; what they have done in similar situations; and what is available to support and help them.

In the situation where folks are focussing on what they don't want, I wonder if the what questions, as well as encouraging them to focus on solutions and the future, as you suggest Nick, can also take them back to what their underlying values and motivations are; their non-negotiables ... which in turn can be a touchstone for thinking about next steps / the future.

The other thing I really value about what questions (and yes, I do tend to ask this type of question a lot of the time in coaching sessions...but hadn't realised previously quite how often) is that when I ask a what question from the position of open curiosity (i.e. I have no idea what their response might be) I am frequently surprised. In other words, the what questions help prevent me from making assumptions, while also constantly reminding me that everyone has depths and the what question can help them explore their own depths further - sometimes also surprising themselves.

Thanks for sharing, Nick. Appreciated :)

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