One of the most useful tools in communication is the question and yet most people fail to use this tool to their advantage. However, the right question, at the right time, asked in the right way can serve your specific purpose in a way that is both useful and productive – you can elicit information, clarify misunderstandings, guide your listeners to a conclusion, focus their attention, give them pause for thought, challenge their assumptions… it all depends upon what you want to achieve and how you ask. This means thinking before you speak. Be clear about the aim of your question as well as the impact that the most likely answer will have on the direction of the conversation.
e.g. “What are your thoughts about taking on this project?” is an open question which leaves the choice – and content – of the answer up to the listener.
whereas “Do you want to take on this project?” is a closed question which prompts the listener to give a yes or a no in response.
Employing a constructive questioning technique is instrumental for effective coaching in the workplace.
Questions in coaching: prompt for solutions
When using coaching as a management style, questions are used frequently by the manager to help unlock information, challenge assumptions and assist the employee to explore the available options. It can often be difficult for an experienced manager to resist the temptation to offer advice and to avoid using questions that sell the manager’s own solutions. This is especially true if the issue is performance-related and there is pressure to act quickly. The process does not need to be necessarily time-consuming if the manager bears in mind a simple four-step approach based on one of the most widely used coaching models (The GROW model/Sir John Whitmore). Each step contains a certain type of question which switches the focus gradually towards the next steps. Open questions work best and enable the coachee to come up with their own answers, taking ownership of any agreed action.
- Establish the goal: e.g. “What do you want to achieve?”
- Define the reality of the problem: e.g. “What is it important to know/understand about the issue?”
- Ascertain the options: e.g. “What needs to be done in order to achieve this?” and “What are the alternatives?”
- Determine what will happen: e.g. “What will you do and when?”
How to ask the appropriate question in a coaching context forms part of our Focus Area “Communication Strategies for Leaders”