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Powerful Questions

Rhonda G Hess

One of the most dynamic aspects of coaching is the powerful question. If well timed and phrased, a question can bring about dramatic shifts in perspective, attitude and clarity for the client. It can draw out a client's wisdom or uncover valuable data. It can elevate passion and motivate clients to action. It can even illuminate something for the coach.

Of all the coaching competencies, this one is often the most challenging to master. That's understandable. In our culture, the most often asked questions are leading and loaded. As children, and later, as employees, we hear mostly why questions or closed questions, neither of which have much value in coaching. We tend to perceive questions as tests. We may not learn how to ask a well-formed question until we learn to coach.

Remember that rare and valuable question asked by a good friend, teacher or book? They caused us to think for ourselves. And that's what we aim for when we ask our clients a powerful question.

Anatomy of a Powerful Question

What makes a question powerful?

- It is motivated by curiosity.

- It usually begins with what or how.

- It is direct, simple and open ended.

- It is generally focused on the positive, what's working.

- It generates creativity or surfaces underlying information.

- It encourages the client to be self-reflective. (Therefore, it is followed by silence to allow the client time to go within for the answer.)

- It may not be immediately answerable.

From Good to Powerful

To improve your questioning skills, play a game with yourself. Record your coaching sessions. Write down your questions and rank them as good or powerful. Pay attention to the way they landed for the client and how thoroughly they were answered. If the question was powerful, analyze what made it so. For the good questions, rephrase to a more powerful question.

In sessions, catch yourself asking good questions, and stop to formulate a more powerful question. Your client won't mind if you take a moment. They will benefit from your self-awareness and your reframe in a number of ways.

Here are good and then, more powerful versions of questions:

What are you comfortable doing now?

What next step will give you the best result? (Encouraging our clients to stay comfortable will not likely help them grow or move forward. Instead, challenge them with a positively framed option.)

Why do you feel that way?

Tell me what brought that feeling around? (Unless very carefully timed and crafted, why questions evoke a defensive and stuck response. Shift to - what - and draw out more information.)

What obstacles do you foresee in the future?

What growth opportunities are in this for you? (The word obstacle can be de-motivating. Shift to opportunities, which are motivators.)

What's wrong with this picture?

What's missing from this picture so far? (Shift focus away from what's wrong to more honoring language - missing and so far - will get the same or more valuable information.)

Are you satisfied with this session?

What insights are you taking away from this session? (The word - are - begins a closed ended question. You'll get more valuable information by framing an open ended question and using the word insights.)

Why is that important to you?

How does that align with your values and vision? (Why questions sound accusatory. With this reframe you encourage the client to qualify their answer and they may perceive an opportunity.)

I'm wondering, what do you suppose would happen if instead of creating this business now, you wait until you have the finances to give yourself a more solid start?

Given your current financial situation, what other options have you considered? (The first question is leading, complex and long-winded. There's a potentially good point aimed at the financial piece, so instead ask an open ended question crafted to consider the finances.)

What did you do in the past?

What choice would you make for your highest good now? (In general, what the client did in the past is not a good framework for the future unless they bring up the past as comparison. Instead focus them on the present and add the qualifier - highest good - or something like it, to gear them to be informed by their integrity.)

Do you want to stay home or visit your parents?

What do you want most? (Avoid asking either/or questions that limit options. Ask open-ended questions and qualify with the word - most - to get to the highest priority. You can then ask - What else do you want? - To draw out more information.)

What worries you about this?

What's at risk if you do this? (and then) What's at risk if you do not do this? (and then) What choice would bring the quality of life you want most? (This series of questions helps the client evaluate the choice in question rather than focusing on the negative. Always allow the client to fully answer before asking the next question.)

The more you play the good/powerful question game the better you'll get at asking powerful questions.

Stump the Mentor Coach

If you have a good question and you're wondering how to ask it more powerfully, send an email to and let me know if I may publish your question and mine in a future edition. I'll be in touch!

Rhonda Hess is a business success mentor coach for professional coaches and other entrepreneurs. Her new business, Prosperous CoachTM -- a professional development resource for coaches -- launches early 2007. To learn more and receive special offers, subscribe to Coaching from Center ezine

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