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Art of the Question in Coaching Sessions

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Managers and their employees are in a partnership to accomplish the goals of the organization. Managers often feel their value in this partnership comes from having the answers to employees’ problems. When issues come up, they are often quick to offer solutions to the problem before fully understanding it’s complexity, what the employee has already tried to overcome it, and the obstacles beyond the employee’s ability to control blocking its resolution. As a result, the manager may wind up offering the most obvious ideas which are usually not all that valuable. Whether or not the employee has thought of this on his/her own solution, I’d suggest it’s a lose – lose deal.

If you have a thoughtful employee, he has already thought of the obvious ideas. He has already moved past them seeing that, for some reason, they won’t be effective. They now have to patiently (or not so patiently) wait for the manager to go through the list of these same ideas to get to the point the employee may have already arrived at – “The obvious ideas won’t work; I need to talk with my manager.” In this case, the manager may feel the employee is being difficult by negating all his/her ideas – bad attitude. This type of partnership may look more like a parent-child relationship. Remember how fun it was to listen to your parents tell you the stuff you already knew rather than taking the time to listen and helping you come to your own conclusions?  They were just trying to be good parents – as defined by having the answers they thought their kids didn’t. (This behavior often solicits the dreaded teen-age eye roll.)

If the employee didn’t think of the obvious ideas and the manager provides them, our manager is unwittingly encouraging continued dependence of the employee on her for even the simplest problems. The employee in this scenario isn’t being trained to think and become more independent and proactive. Over time, we may hear managers complaining that their employees won’t do things unless they are told, task by task, exactly what to do.

Now, no one intends to make these obvious mistakes in problem-solving discussions. These types of behaviors often don’t show up for most of us until we are rushed, pressured, stressed, upset, etc. which is never as infrequent as we or our employees would like. Maybe a paradigm shift would help, “As a manger, I am not the source of the answers – I am the source of the questions that taps the talents and ideas of my employees.”  This may help reframe your role allowing you to listen and facilitate problem-solving discussions without the pressure to be the one responsible for solving your employees’ problems – they are.

Having a series of open-ended questions in mind helps keep the ownership of the problem and its solution on the employee. This is where it belongs. It is respectful of your thoughtful employees and develops your not so thoughtful ones.

Try a few on for size:

• What have you already tried?
• What do you think would work best?
• What else might we do to deal with this?
• Tell me more about what happened.
• What else do you think you could do that would be helpful – even if the exact same situation replayed itself?

If the employee responds with, “I don’t know.” tell him, “That’s OK, we’re just doing some brainstorming. Are you willing to kick around some ideas that might work? Odds are they will say “Yes.” You can then restart the conversation by saying, “Good, I appreciate that. So what do you think might be helpful?”

Don’t get hooked into being the font of all wisdom – it’s stressful and if your idea doesn’t work, the employee may not take responsibility for the outcome. After all, it wasn’t his idea.


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