Managers as Coaches, Part III: Asking Great Questions

At this point in the series on managers as coaches, it’s time to remind you how important this is. My first article in the series made the case for taking the coaching approach – it just works. Now you need to also understand that if you get this whole coaching thing right, you’ll be ahead of the curve. According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD), 46% of organizations don’t incorporate coaching at all or only to a small extent, 27% incorporate it to a moderate extent, and only 27% incorporate it heavily, which means you can help pave the way to a more successful company when you push for it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 12.53.13 PMThe second major skill-set needed by managers to be coaches is asking great questions. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! By and large people are terrible at asking questions. There’s all kinds of reasons for this – we want to rush through things, we don’t want to look like we don’t know something, no one ever taught us how, and our entire educational system and most of our workplaces are designed around not asking questions but making sure you have the right answers.

A wise consultant I know from the Chicago area, Dr. Stephen A. DiBiase, has thought a lot about what goes into asking great questions. In his book, 10 Keys to Unlock Your Innovative Self, he gives the following great advice:

Great questions are empowering, selfless and supportive, insightful and challenging, and when asked effectively create learning and demand listening. Poor questions are often disempowering, clever in such a way as to deceive those involved, and often judgmental, destroying learning that comes from discovery. So how does one ask great questions? At their root, great questions have several common elements. They do the following:

  • Challenge taken-for-granted assumptions.
  • Enable people to better view the situation.
  • Cause people to explore their behaviors.
  • Are open-ended to elicit discussion.
  • Generate courage and confidence.
  • Lead to positive and powerful action.

There are several types of great questions, including the following:

  • Empowering – Focus on positive outcomes.
  • Open-Ended – Asking why (5 times).
  • Explorative – Have you thought of…?
  • Affective – How do you feel about…?
  • Reflective – What do you think of…?
  • Probing – Describe this in more detail…?
  • Fresh – Why must it be this way…?
  • Clarifying – What specifically do you mean by…?
  • Analytical – Why has this occurred…?

There are two general classes of questions: Those that empowering and those that are disempowering. Empowering questions encourage those questioned to begin thinking constructively about solutions, building self-esteem, creating trust and inviting discovery. Honest questions, which don’t accuse the individuals involved, respect self-esteem.

Disempowering questions are judgmental, focusing on blame, closing off options and learning, and often damage self-esteem either directly or indirectly. These two kinds of questions differ in subtle ways. It takes practice and skill to ask empowering questions, especially when one is under pressure. A question can be empowering or disempowering depending on how it’s phrased. Below are the characteristics of both types of questions:

Disempowering Questions Empowering Questions
Blaming Responsibility
Either/or thinking Both/and thinking
Defends assumptions Questions assumptions
Debates Dialogues
Win-lose outcomes Win-win outcomes
Protective Curious


As you can see, what goes into asking great questions all makes a ton of sense, but there’s more to it than most people might think. But it’s a skill your managers need to get right if they’re going to take the coach approach with their direct reports.

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August 18, 2015   Updated :August 19, 2015   coaching, talent management   

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