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Coaching the Person, Not the Problem

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Publisher: Berrett-Koehler, June 2020 

Introduction – Asking Questions Is Not the Same as Inquiry

Many popular books, leadership actions, and coaching guidelines outline rules for asking good questions. Common rules include ask open questions; start with what, when, where, how, and who; and avoid why questions.

These suggestions are misleading.

Coaches and leaders spend more time trying to remember the questions they’re supposed to ask than paying attention to the person they are coaching. They end up “checklist coaching” to ensure their questions follow the model they were taught in coaching school or a leadership workshop, which is more frustrating for the client than helpful.

Not only do coaches spend more time in their own heads than listening, they make coaching more complex than it should be. They don’t realize that being present and using reflective statements such as summarizing, paraphrasing, and drawing distinctions can be more powerful—and easier—than seeking the magical question. When a coach asks a question after providing a reflection, the question is more likely to arise out of curiosity, not memory. At this point, even a closed question can lead to a breakthrough in thinking.

Coaching should be a process of inquiry, not a series of questions. The intent of inquiry is not to find solutions but to provoke critical thinking about our own thoughts. Inquiry helps the people being coached discern gaps in their logic, evaluate their beliefs, and clarify fears and desires affecting their choices. Solutions emerge when thoughts are rearranged and expanded.

Statements that prompt us to look inside our brains are reflective. They trigger reflection. Reflective statements include recapping, labeling, using metaphors, identifying key or conflicting points, and recognizing emotional shifts. Inquiry combines questions with reflective statements.

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