Why some coaching questions can do more harm than good

Coaching, if we follow Sir John Whitmore’s definition that it’s “helping people to learn rather than teaching them”, is about asking questions to help the ‘coachee’ find their own answers and come up with their own solutions.

But some coaching questions work better than others. In fact, there are some commonly used coaching questions that if they are overused will actually make the ‘coachee’ (or you, if you are using these questions on yourself) less able to make good decisions and find creative solutions.

“What stops you from taking action?”

“What obstacles do you face?”

“When things are going badly on this issue, what happens to you?”

What these questions have in common is that they are all looking at the negatives of the situation.

When we focus the negatives of a situation, it triggers a ‘threat’ response. We narrow down our perception so we just see the ‘threat’ and ignore everything else. We are less able to see the big picture, and less able to put the problem in perspective.

When we focus on threats we may also miss solutions that lie outside of the problem altogether. Feeling stressed or threatened takes us out of the ‘play’ state that is essential to creativity.

So does this mean we should pretend there are not negative aspects, and look at the world through rose-coloured glasses? Not at all – there is a place for taking a clear look at problems and obstacles, as I’ll explain in a moment.

But first, let’s look at some effective positively-focused questions.

Positive questions work better

Much more effective for creative problem-solving, and for building confidence in your ability to make a difference, are positively-focused questions.

Psychologists like Barbara Fredrickson and Alice Isen have researched how a positive mood affects your thinking – it lets you take on information better, reach decisions more quickly, think more strategically, and be more resilient to setbacks. Looking at the positive aspects of any situation first help you to feel more positive about it, so you think better.

This is the state you want to be in if you want to get better, more creative, and quicker solutions to any challenges you face.

So here are some positively-focused questions you can use:

  • in any coaching session
  • in an appraisal, reviewing performance
  • or with yourself to renew your focus, improve your learning and reconnect with your values.

In each context, the questions help to create a more resourceful, effective state to solve problems and face challenges in the future.

For each type of question, I will add some explanation of why and how the questions work.

1. “Celebratory” or “appreciative” questions (where the ‘project’ is the topic of the coaching session):

  • “What’s going well?”
  • “What have you achieved (on this project, in the last time period)?”
  • “What are you enjoying / have you enjoyed (about this project)?”
  • “Tell me about (one of) your best experience(s) while you’ve been working on (the project)”?

What do appreciative questions do?

First, they invite the coachee to focus on the positives in their situation that they might normally overlook. It seems we have an innate tendency to notice negatives over positives, threats rather than opportunities (see for example Roy Baumeister’s review of research evidence Bad Is Stronger Than Good).

This being the case, when you look at a situation where some good things have happened and some good things have happened, the natural tendency is to pay more attention to the bad things.

Asking questions that direct the coachee’s attention back to the positives in the situation will redress the balance so they actually get a more realistic view of the resources and opportunities available, and put the problems in perspective.

Secondly, people open up more when they are talking about achievements, strengths and things they are proud of, than when they are being questions about mistakes and failings. They are less defensive and feel more trusting towards the person asking the questions – so the coaching session will flow more easily.

Thirdly, talking about the positives in the situation will influence the mood of the coachee towards the positive states that make them think quicker and better, and make it easier for them to come up with creative ideas.

It’s useful to guide the coachee into this positive, resourceful state at the start of the coaching session. When they come to look at problems later in the coaching session they won’t feel as overwhelmed or anxious about the problems, and will find it easier to find creative solutions.

2. “Values” questions:

  • “What’s important to you about this achievement / experience?”
  • “What does that mean to you?”

Our values are what motivate us, and they are also the criteria we use to decide if an action is right or wrong. Various studies suggest that “values affirmation” – connecting with the values that are most important to us – increases our performance and makes us more resilient.

Asking these questions also helps the coachee to get clearer about what their values are, which makes it more likely that the goals they set will be the right goals for them.

3. “Learning” questions:

  • “What have you learned from this?”
  • “What would you do differently?”
  • “What could you do to improve your performance next time?”

“Where would you rate your performance on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is as good as it can be?”
(when they answer with a figure of n) “What can you do / what will you do to bring it up to n+1?”

The purpose of coaching is to improve performance, so it’s important to ask about what the coachee has learned and what they will do differently.

The key point about these questions is that we don’t just learn from our mistakes. We can learn as much or more from what went well.

This can also open up the session to look at problems and challenges, and come up with ideas for solving them. This will be easier and more productive because the coachee is approaching the problems from the perspective of a more positive frame of mind.

4. “Support” questions:

  • “What support do you need to achieve this?” (‘this’ being the performance improvements they have identified from the previous question)
  • “Who do you need support from?”
  • “What support do you need from me / the team / the organisation?” (especially  if asking the question in an appraisal or ‘manager as coach’ role)

The cult of the ‘heroic CEO’ and the general individualist focus of most of the personal development industry can lead us to forget that to accomplish worthwhile things on any kind of scale, we need other people.

We need them to supply expertise we don’t have, to give us resources to get things done, and sometimes just to give emotional support or an extra pair of hands. Humans are social animals, and if you are trying to do everything yourself, that’s probably not the most effective way to go about things.

When to use these questions

You can use these questions for improving your own performance, in a coaching session, or an appraisal.

For an appraisal or a formal coaching session, you could give the recipient these questions about five days in advance so they can have some time to reflect on them.

Have you used this format? Let us know in the comments below.



Four Essential Questions For Coaching Yourself Or Others

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