Years ago, I read a novel entitled Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. There was a passage in the book that struck me so poignantly that I copied it down and committed it to memory. It read:
“I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.”
This quote came to mind for me today as I was reading a different book on the topic of coaching. It made the point that all information resides with the coachee. The coachee is truly the only person who has the answers. A skillful coach recognizes this fact. A skillful coach helps coachees critically probe their habits of mind. A skillful coach leads coachees to their own answers by applying powerful questioning techniques.
Several of these techniques appear in the aforementioned coaching text, which is entitled Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills by Tony Stoltzfus. If you are a manager with coaching responsibilities, or if you often engage in peer coaching with your colleagues, you may want to increase your ability to ask coaching questions. Here is a brief summary of a few of Stoltzfus’ recommendations:
- Ask open questions (e.g., “What options do you have?”) versus closed ones (e.g., “Do you have other options?”)
- Pose “what” questions instead of “why” questions, which can appear judgmental (e.g., “Why can’t you ask for the sale?” to “Why do you need in order to ask for the sale?”)
- Feel empowered to challenge goals that appear too small (e.g., “What if you set out to accomplish that goal in two years instead of five?”)
- Avoid searching for the perfect question; instead, ask coachees to reflect more deeply on something significant that they have already mentioned (e.g., “What is behind that?”)
Remember to keep Ellison’s quote in mind the next time you engage in a coaching conversation with a direct report or peer. Allow the coachee to discover his/her own answers. Help the coachee discover that these answers lie within, as Ellison says, and that you are there to help unearth them.