22. February 2017
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Coaching questions filled with curiosity - Part I

Do you have time for an experiment? Then please ask me a coaching question!

Welcome to the first of a two part blogpost full of curiosity filled questions!

Coaching, as management practice, interests me greatly in my work life. In order to better understand my own thinking, and to share it with you, I initiated a short coaching experiment for myself. I am currently on a business trip, spending my evenings in a hotel, so I have time on my hands! Via Threema I fire out a couple of questions to a great bunch of agile minded folks I work closely with at NovaTec. Here is what I am asking them:

“Do you have time for an experiment? Would you ask me a question related to coaching, so that I can get my writing career kick started?”

Thankfully, their answer is a resounding “yes, of course”, and as you will see their help comes in abundance! The coaches amongst you will not be surprised when you see that my coaching colleagues don’t just stick to one question each!

As Agile coaches, we show our interest and our curiosity through the questions we ask. So here is what is on their minds, and I now aim to cast some more light for you, on the modern day management practice we know as coaching.

By the way, I am using the term client and coachee interchangeably, and although always in the masculine form for simplicity, I naturally consider this inclusive of our female coaches and coachees!

So here we go – the manager as coach – an exciting prospect – let the experiment begin!

Coaching questions filled with curiosity

Lutz asks: “What motivated you to become a coach in the first place?” “What makes you happy as a coach?” “What was your biggest success as a coach?”

Glenn responds: Motivation, happiness, success. Three aspects that we all strive to associate with our vocation at all times, right? (No, I won’t always start by asking you a question!).

I am pleased to say that I have achieved exactly that when considering my coaching responsibilities. My motivation comes from knowing I am able to make a positive difference for someone. It does not matter what the change is, if it is taking my coachee or client in a direction that feels good from their point of view, then we are on the right track. That is motivation for me – highly intrinsic.

As coaches, we are change agents striving for an improved and happier way of working, and do so by collaborating closely with one another. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. That is what makes me happy. That is what provides me with energy to keep going from one challenge to the next. A good day at work is one in which we can say we have learned something new from each other. Every coach should be honoured to be in this very special place, a place in which he discovers something new in every interaction with his coachee, or with his team.

My biggest success? It does not have to be big to be a success – if I have been able to positively impact how someone or a group of people – a team – can go about their working lives then that is a big success. However, if you are going to pin me down to naming the biggest success, then it is getting a call back from a client who is keen to share where they are right now, sometime after our coaching engagement. Hearing how they have been able to make a sustainable positive change for themselves. Similarly, getting a call from someone new on the basis of a recommendation from a previous client – again showing the sustainability of what was achieved – those moments are my biggest successes.    

Boris asks: “What do I need to be a good Agile coach?” “Which skills?” Which attitude?”

Lutz adds: “What makes a good Agile coach?”

Glenn’s thinking: Less talk, more engaged, inquisitive listening. Add to that well placed, simple questions that advance the conversation helping the client discover their own answers. So how do you do this? What skills and attitude does it take to make a good coach?

Let’s start with the tough part – the attitude. The coaching conversation is not about me as coach. As I recently heard in a coaching class – “as coach, it’s not my movie that is playing!” If I enact that, showing empathy and a true interest in what my client is sharing with me, then we are highly likely to get the most for our clients from the joint engagement. As is often the case the tools and methods are the easy part – just think of Scrum. The tough part is acquiring the right attitude, the right mindset, and to trust the process to lead the conversation where it needs to go.

So what are some of those skills, tools and processes? These are simply too numerous to mention, so here is a what I consider a good flow in a coaching conversation. Think of your coaching conversation as an arc, in which a healthy tension between coach and coachee is built up and released during it’s cycle.

This flow has:

  • an opening phase (getting comfortable and assuring the client)
  • a clarification phase often kicked off with a simple “how can I help?” (lots of listening here as you gain a fuller picture of the context, while helping the client identify a goal for the session)
  • a questioning phase (here is where the healthy tension builds up seeking positive aspects, challenging the client’s thinking or identifying exceptions when the problem does not actually exist)
  • a focusing phase in which coach and client close in on possible viable options (options that are challenging, although realistic from the client’s perspective)
  • a closing phase (including a commitment to work towards a short term goal on the path to the client’s longer term wish state)

These elements encompass a good coaching conversation, in which I strongly advocate the use of visualisations and pictorial metaphors to help the client to describe their needs and challenges.

In addition it is vital for a coach to remain emotionally removed from the client’s business situation. If as coach you get overly involved, you risk becoming subject to the same forces that keep the client from unlocking their full potential.

Pascal asks: “Which questions are the right ones that help?”

Glenn’s reply: “Clarifying. Open. Powerful. Exceptions. Simple, but not easy. Let me explain.”

Clarifying questions up front help the coach get a better insight into the coachee’s context. These may not necessarily be open questions as the coach is trying to get an overview of the situation at first. Open questions keep a conversation flowing, requiring the coachee to answer in more than “yes” or “no”.  For example “What could you do differently next time?” rather than “Could you do something different next time?” This is essential in order to learn more from each other, to understand the context in which the coachee is working and to explore options for potential solutions.

If an open question also drives the client to re-think their position, then you have most likely posed a powerful question. This is a question which challenges the coachee to consider new avenues, or new lines of thought. One in which current constraints are put aside in order to investigate new opportunities. An example of such a question, and one of my favorites is “What is stopping you?” or “What would an experiment look like?”

Seeking for exceptions through your questioning helps the coachee recognise that their problem does not always exist, and that there are actually instances when the problem does not occur at all. Identifying these moments through exception questioning helps bring the coachee into a solution focus moving them out of their problem fixation. A couple of examples could be “Are there situations when the problem does not exist?” or “Is this the case for all members of the team?”

Simple, but not easy, is my reminder to keep my questions short and to the point, namely simple. A question is a good one however, when although simple, it is not easy for the client to answer. The coachee is required to think through, and take time before coming to a satisfactory conclusion for themselves. This may not happen immediately. Such a question could be the point at which a coaching session adjourns, allowing the client time until the next session to consider their answer to this “simple”, although not “easy” question. Complex situations require complex solutions and this incubation period provides the necessary thinking time a client may need to discover the right answer for them self. The art here, is to help the client find solutions for complex problems by asking the right simple questions.

Wrapping up part one of our coaching experiment

So what have I learned, or had the chance to reflect upon again for myself, in this first part of the experiment?

  1. Seek happiness in your vocation! I am thankful to have found a role that truly makes me happy. A role which in turn motivates me to take on each new challenge that arises. I measure my success through the success of others, with whom I have had the opportunity to engage with in a coaching relationship.
  2. Being a good coach means mastering both mindset and methods, and in that order of priority. Empathy for the client is key as you help guide them through a coaching process. Work on your mindset, seek feedback from colleagues on how to improve this, and trust the process you have taken to guide the client.
  3. All questions are good, some are better. Keep questions open, unless you are looking for a confirmation. Use questions to find the exceptions when the client’s issue actually fades into the background. Keep questions simple, while not making them easy to answer. That way your coaching conversations will be beneficial to your client by asking what truly needs asking.

Let me now leave you with two questions for yourself:

  1. What further potential do you see from practicing coaching in your own working life?
  2. How would a coaching approach further benefit you, your organisation and your customers?

If these questions intrigue you, then watch out for second part of this blogpost, in which we will take a look at some more curiosity filled questions.

In the meantime – happy coaching!

Comment article


  1. Axel Schüssler

    That was inspiring. Thanks, Glenn!