Seven great questions for your coaching conversations
As a manager, you don’t have to be a certified or qualified coach to have good coaching conversations with your team members. You just have to listen to people, ask good questions, and listen some more.
Before you spend money on that coaching course or register for the level 7 qualification in coaching, here are seven questions that can improve your coaching courtesy of Michael Bungay-Stanier
First, let’s list the questions:
- The kickstart Question
- The AWE Question
- The Focus Question
- The Foundation Question
- The Lazy Question
- The Strategic Question
- The Learning Question
Let’s explore each of these questions in more detail.
The Kickstart Question
Michael describes the Kickstart question this way:
“In which you discover the power of an opening question that gets the conversation happening fast and deep.”
The Kickstart question itself is:
“What’s on your mind?”
It’s a question that allows you to start a conversation. It’s open and inviting but at the same time not too narrow or closed. You can’t answer it with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Michael says that:
“…the question is focused. It’s not an invitation to tell you anything or everything. It’s encouragement to go right away to what’s exciting, what’s provoking anxiety, what’s all consuming, what’s waking them up at 4.a.m, what’s got their hearts beating fast.”
With this question, you are letting the person know that you want to talk about what matters most.
So, next time you go into a 1:1 meeting with your team member, ask them that question to tell you what’s on their agenda.
“What’s on your mind?”
And you don’t have to ask the question exactly like that. You can modify it a little. For instance:
“What’s on your mind that you want us to discuss today?”
The AWE Question
The AWE question is simply,
“And What else?”
The AWE question is a great follow-up question for the Kickstart question because it allows you to ask for more options. There’s another great thing about it – It prevents you from jumping straight into advice mode.
When you ask someone, “and what else?” after asking them ‘What’s on your mind?” you want to find out what else they want to talk about rather than giving them advice about what they told you.
To use the AWE question effectively, remember this:
- Stay curious and genuine. Ask the question with genuine interest to find out what else the person wants to talk about. Don’t ask it as a ritual. Ask it because you genuinely care.
- Ask it one more time. After the person responds, ask it again. This may cause the person to think about what else they want to discuss. Michael writes that, “Let’s start with the understanding that as a general rule, people ask this question too few times rather than too many. And the way to master this habit is to try out and experiment and see what works. As a guideline, I typically ask it at least three times, and rarely more than five.
- Recognize success. If someone says there is nothing else they want to discuss, that’s a good thing. You’ve tried to find out what they want they want to talk about and they’ve let you know there isn’t anything else. At this point, you don’t need to push it. Move on to another question.
Here are some great examples of using the AWE question from Michael.
- “When you’ve asked someone, “What’s on your mind?” and she answers, ask, “And what else?”
- When someone’s told you about a course of action she intends to take, challenge her with “And what else could you do?”
- When you’re trying to find the heart of the issue, and you ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” and he offers up a timid or vague or insipid first answer, push deeper by asking, “And what else is a challenge here for you?”
- When you start your weekly check-in meeting by asking, “What’s important right now?” keep the pressure on by asking, “And what else?”
- When someone’s nudging a new idea to the fore, exploring new boundaries of courage and possibility, hold the space and deepen the potential by asking, “And what else might be possible?”
- When you’re brainstorming new ideas and you don’t want to get bogged down, keep the energy up by firing out, “And what else?”
The Focus Question
This is a question that helps you to identify the right problem to solve instead of spending time on things that don’t matter.
The Focus question is:
“What’s the real challenge here for you?“
According to Michael:
“This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”
When you ask someone, “what’s the real challenge here for you?”, you’ve made the question personal to the person. It challenges the person to think about what the real issues are and not just any issue.
After asking Kickstart and AWE questions you may get a list of discussion topics from the person. The Focus question can help you to identify the priority out of the options that need to be explored before anything else.
Here’s a sample question from Michael which shows how the Focus question can be used to identify priorities:
“If you had to pick one of these to focus on, which one here would be the real challenge for you?”
Imagine a meeting where there is not enough time to tackle all the issues. This is a good place to ask the Focus Question so you don’t spend time on what is less important.
It’s also important to recognize when you don’t need to ask this question. There are times when what is required is instruction or advice.
Michael gives a good example:
“When someone pops his head around the door and asks, “do you know where the folder is?” tell him where the folder is. Don’t ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you” That’s just annoying.
The Foundation Question
You’ve asked questions to start a conversation, get discussion options, and identify priorities to discuss, what next?
Now is time for the Foundation question which has the aim of finding out what the person wants.
The Foundation question is simple. It is:
“What do you want?”
Michael believes that this question is important because we often don’t know what we want.
A good time to ask this question is when:
- A person has just discussed an important issue with you and you want to know what they really want in regards to the issue.
- A conversation feels stuck and you are circling through options that don’t feel right.
- Or when a person is procrastinating on the action and you don’t know why.
- You can also ask it when a conversation is going off track and you need to bring it back.
To ask this question be mindful of thinking you know what a person wants. Also, never try to impose your idea in such situations. The goal is for you to ask the question and listen.
And in the exchange make sure you tell the person what you want too but only after listening to what they want.
“The Foundation Question—“What do you want?”—is direct, rather than indirect. But it has the same effect of pulling people to the outcome, and once you see the destination, the journey often becomes clearer.”
The Lazy Question
This is another simple and direct question and it’s:
“How can I help?“
When you ask this question you are challenging someone to make a direct and clear request.
The question stops people in their tracks and causes them to really think about the help they need. When they started the conversation with you they may not even be aware of whether they need help or not or what kind of help they need.
Another benefit of asking the question according to Michael is:
…it stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and leaping into action.
This is a question that requires you to be direct. Another way of asking it is:
What do you want from me?
Michael raises a note of caution here. Our voice tone matters when we ask – what do you want from me? Because you may come across as aggressive.
He suggests making it sound softer by affixing the question with:
Out of curiousity…
The other challenge with the Lazy Question is this:
What if after asking the question the person starts asking for your advice, the very thing you are trying to avoid?
Michael provides some tips to deal with such situations.
- Instead of giving the advice, you may say something like – that’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your thoughts?
- After the person answers, you can slot in an AWE question – that’s good, what else could you do?
- After she answers, acknowledge her answer and ask another AWE question – that’s another good idea. What else can you do?
- You can keep asking questions until she runs out of ideas.
- After that, you can then contribute your ideas.
Why Is this important?
Remember you want to stop doing things for people especially when they have the ability to do it themselves with a little bit of thinking. Your questions should trigger them to think and act and over time bring little or nothing to you.
The Strategic Question
The Strategic Question is:
“If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?“
This is the kind of question you ask a team member who keeps saying ‘yes’ to tasks and projects.
Because when we say ‘yes’ to something we are saying ‘no’ to something else, and now need to find the energy and resources to do that thing we’ve said yes to.
Asking this question can help people take on less, not become overwhelmed and think about what they are about to be committed to.
And sometimes we are saying ‘yes’ to things because we struggle to say ‘no’ to.
So, here are some tips to say ‘no’.
First, learn to say ‘yes’ more slowly. Don’t say ‘yes’ immediately you are asked to do something. Become curious and ask some questions about the request. Here are some questions you can ask:
- For what reason are you asking me to do this?
- Whom else have you asked?
- What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?
Of course, there are some situations when you can’t ask questions. You just have to get on with the task.
By asking questions like this, people can either be put off by your questions or answer them thoughtfully in which case it may be a task you should take on.
The Learning Question
This is the last of the questions and it’s a great way to finish a coaching conversation. The Learning Question is:
“What was most useful for you?“
“People don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.”
So, what makes this a great question other than just asking a question like, what did you learn? A number of things really:
- The question assumed the conversation was useful. It gives you and the person an opportunity to reflect on the conversation and identify what was useful about it.
- It asks people to identify the big thing that was most useful. Therefore, the person is challenged to find the one or two key useful aspects of the conversation for them.
- Because “for you” had been added to the question, that makes it personal. Also, it is the person talking about what was useful to them and not you telling them.
- It gives you feedback. About this one Michael writes that, “listen to the answer you get, because it’s useful not just for the coachee but for you as well. It will give you guidance on what to do more of next time, and it will reassure you (if you need it) that you’re being useful even when you’re not giving advice but are asking questions instead.
- It’s learning and not judgment. You are not asking, was this useful? That is judgment which may only give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But asking “what was most useful?” causes people to extract value from the conversation.
- It reminds people how useful you are to them.