Visual summary: Essential Coaching Questions
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5 Essential Questions When Coaching Your Team

Some may think that leaders should have all the answers, and asking questions is a sign of weakness or incompetence. Let me challenge that view. If you manage a team, the ability to ask questions in a way that builds trust and creates momentum is one of the most powerful skills you can develop. Questions spark curiosity, help with problem analysis, facilitate honest discussions, and open your mind to new perspectives.

This article is about the five essential questions you can use when coaching a team member, and the one question you should handle with care.

‘What’ Questions

At the beginning of the conversation, you may be presented with a range of different issues that your team member is concerned with. It can be tempting to try to address all these points in one sitting, but not every topic will have the same level of urgency or importance. You will find it more effective to focus on one main issue at a time.

“What” questions allow you and your team member to identify and agree on the most important thing to focus on in the conversation. They are about understanding the issue by reviewing what has been seen, or experienced, or accomplished so far.

Here are examples of essential “what” questions to include in your toolkit:

  • What happened?
  • What do you need help with right now?
  • What hasn’t worked so far?
  • What are the consequences if this issue is not addressed?
  • What do you want to do next?


‘Where’ Questions

While “what” questions focus on presenting the facts, “where” questions give geographical or organisational context to the specific issue being discussed. By asking “where”, you seek to understand where the problem originates, or where it has the biggest impact.

Essential “where” questions could be:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we need to go from here?
  • Where should we be focusing our attention?
  • Where are the obstacles or the gaps?
  • Where do you see the risks or opportunities for improvement?

‘How’ Questions

“How?” questions are interesting in that, on the one hand, they are diagnostic and build on the “what” and “where” questions you have already asked. They probe circumstances, responses, feelings, and are a good way to achieve valuable insights that go underneath the surface of what is visible or obvious.

On the other hand, by the time you get to “How?” questions, you may already have a pretty good understanding of the issue at hand, and are ready to explore next steps, agree on action items or finalize a decision.

Here are some smart “How?” questions to get you started:

  • How are you getting on?
  • How is the team feeling?
  • How has this issue impacted us so far?
  • How are you planning the next steps?
  • How can I help?

‘Who’ Questions

In its essence, “Who?” is a neutral question, but it is a tricky one. Asking a “who” question shouldn’t be about apportioning blame, shame or slander. Instead, we should be seeking to understand which individuals, teams or stakeholders are involved with the activities and issues that are being discussed. They could be people who are negatively impacted or perhaps they are beneficiaries, collaborators, or contributors.

Identifying these groups is an important aspect of the problem diagnosis and problem-solving process.

Here are some “Who?” questions that avoid the blame game:

  • Who needs to be involved or informed?
  • Who have you consulted so far?
  • Who else could help you with that?
  • Who isn’t yet on board with this approach?
  • Who will be making the final decision?

‘When’ Questions

“When” questions are a natural follow-up to all the other questions, as they move the coaching conversation from diagnosis and debate to commitment and a workable action plan. The straightforward answer to a “when” question could be a specific date or time. However, in situations of constant complex change, and multiple variables, it’s impossible to predict the exact moment something will happen.

So asking “where” is also about defining the things that should take place beforehand or afterwards to give further context to a specific outcome.

Essential “when” questions could be:

  • When will we know that the plan has been successful?
  • When do you plan to do that?
  • When did that start to change?
  • When does that typically happen?
  • When you do that, what will change?

And what about ‘Why’ Questions?

Beware of the question, “Why?”

But why?” you may ask. Although your intention may just be to understand the cause and effect of an issue, it’s important that the “why” is directed at the situation, not the person. Pairing the “why” with “you” is likely to sound accusatory and trigger a defensive response. Focusing on the situation instead, invites discussion and makes the “why” question more collaborative.

When coaching a team member, remember that the aim is not to blame or shame them. Instead, what you want to do is help resolve an issue, to provide guidance on next steps or validate an idea that will help the team make progress.

If you want to know why, then a “why” question may not be the best approach. Here are some alternatives:

Visual summary for Essential Coaching Questions: alternative "why" questions

Conclusion

This is not a conclusive list, and there are many other questions you could ask. But keep these essential ones in mind the next time a team member comes to you with a problem. You will probably find that they already have an idea about what they need to do. They may just be seeking validation, your go-ahead or some other kind of moral support.

Unless they explicitly ask for advice, using your curiosity and asking questions will do more to foster trust and build your leadership capabilities than being a know-it-all.

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