The world's most powerful leader-as-coach questions.

Coaching is about improving performance. Leaders who coach use questions as a means of exploration and building rapport. If you are genuinely curious with your questions, the people you work with will feel valued and listened to. This, in turn, builds trusted relationships.

With a trusted relationship, you develop two things. You share personal responsibility and you build a safe space to express the truth. A leader can then shape a relationship by introducing "creative tension". Tension is that uncomfortable space that helps shift a person's belief or perspective for personal growth. Without tension, it's a fireside chat. So what does tension look like?

  1. Takes someone out of their comfort zone

  2. Unearths a blind spot

  3. Identifies things they might be avoiding

  4. Challenges and unsettles someone on a topic that is meaningful to them

The brilliant art of coaching is to safely create the right amount of tension by exploring someone's edge. If there's too much tension, the space is no longer safe and the conversation goes nowhere. Good questions create the right amount of tension to help someone make meaning about the situation they are experiencing to enable them to grow. This is experiential learning at work.

What are some useful coaching questions

A good question is something you don't yet know the answer to. I find it's helpful to respond to a statement with a good question, especially if the statement is loaded with emotion. Imagine this statement from an employee: "But we've always done it this way.”

Here are two ways of responding:

  1. Statement back: Sorry, we are doing it this way now. (from a directive manager)

  2. Question: What is the reason you've always done it that way? (from a curious coach)

The key to being a successful leader-as-coach is two-fold:

  1. Pick your moments to coach, and

  2. It's not about you.

Picking your moments means sometimes you'll need to lead, sometimes coach, and sometimes (performance) manage. Remember, the employee is the expert of their situation with the capacity to solve their own problem. It's not about you. Your job is to draw out that expertise in a collaborative and non-threatening way. If you find yourself stuck or drifting into the leader-as-expert mode, ask another question until you've gathered your thoughts.

Here's a summary of how you can ask great questions to help people solve problems for themselves.

Ask open-ended questions. These require an answer with greater depth and a lengthier response. They are non-limiting, allow creative answers, enable unexpected responses and encourage further dialogue. Open questions are useful in finding out more about a person or a situation. How, why and what questions are open.

Be wary of open-ended questions that may give a one-word response (e.g. What is your favourite ice-cream?) or can be inferred as judgemental (e.g. Why did you do allow that to happen?). How, what and why (in that order) are the three best questions start with:

  1. How - Tell me, how does that work?

  2. What - What is one thing you have tried?

  3. Why - Why did the process give you that outcome?

"How" is a really powerful way to ask a question. It is my go-to option 90% of the time.

Next, these questions are open but potentially limiting through eliciting a one-word answer:

  1. Who - Who … did that?

  2. Which - Which … one is the best?

  3. When - When … did you get there?

  4. Where - Where … is the document now?

Closed-ended questions can be answered in only one word or with a short, specific piece of information and have the potential to end a conversation prematurely. They can quickly be taken the wrong way by giving the perception a leader is insensitive or flippant. The recipient has to answer with a binary choice - usually yes or no. Avoid these types of questions as much as possible where your goal is exploration to get to the heart of the matter:

  • Have you ... tried … ?

  • Do you ... want ...?

  • Is that ...what you wanted?

  • Shouldn’t you ... do something?

  • Could you ... try harder?

  • Would you ... look into that?

  • Can you ... fix that?

  • Will you ...take the bins out?

  • Did you ... forget that?

Combined questions are a way of using closed questions to get to an open question to keep the conversation going. For example, what is your favourite ice-cream, and why?

Powerful questions are open-ended questions that:

  • minimise any assumptions,

  • are contextually relevant and

  • are asked in a way the receiver can best process it.

Here are some examples of powerful questions:

Example 1

Employee: I am disappointed the company has decided to head in this direction. I can’t see how this will be successful.

Manager: I can see this news has had a significant impact on you, what are you seeing in the direction that might have been missed?

Example 2

Employee: I have an idea and that team should do it this way.

Manager: If they changed the way they work, how would that help? What would the result be? How important is this change to you and your customers? By making this change, what might they have to say no to?

Example 3

Employee: I can't stand Billy. He's driving me crazy ...

Manager: Ok I can see your frustration. What is your biggest challenge with Billy? And what else? What do you want Billy to do differently? What help do you want from me in this situation?

World's best tension creating questions (according to me)

Before you challenge someone, assuming the moment is appropriate, I find it helpful to ask permission: "Can I challenge you right now with a difficult question?".

Here are my five favourite tension builders:

  1. What is the question you don’t want me to ask you right now?

  2. If our roles were reversed, what advice would you give yourself?

  3. What might be the most outrageous thing you could do?

  4. What needs to happen before you will do something about this?

  5. When are you at your most/least energised and engaged with your work?

And here's one bonus question. This question is often difficult for Managers to ask of their team members: "What ideas can you share now for me to be a better Manager?"

Where to from here?

Though coaching is useful, a savvy leader will recognise that not every situation is a coaching opportunity. Sometimes time is of the essence or, the other person is not open to a coaching conversation. When done well, leaders who coach create the conditions for high performance.

Being in service of others is the motive. It's not about you. By sharing personal responsibility you are building an environment of: "We are successful together" and this drives improved performance. That is the essential difference lifting a leader up and beyond a "command and control" leadership style.

Thanks for reading to here!

I hope life's great, Bruce

About Bruce Mullan

Bruce is a leadership coach integrating leadership strengths, agile disciplines and a coaching mindset to successfully navigate the growing complexity of our external world.