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5 Questions Professional Coaches Should Never (Ever!) Ask

Most coaches have learned that they must ask questions. The dead giveaway of a newbie coach is that they ask bad questions—questions that satisfy their own curiosity; questions they should get answered by doing their homework about the clients’ organization or industry; questions that fill the space when they have no idea what to ask. Many of the bad questions coaches ask have migrated from therapy, consulting, or counseling, possibly because many people come to coaching by way of those professions. Not all bad coaching habits stem from those disciplines, but some do.

Regardless of where they come from, there are (at least) five questions that coaches should ban from their vocabulary. 

  1. “How can I help?”

I have heard coaches open coaching sessions with this question more times than I can count. When I point out that it is a bad question, it always comes as a big surprise. The question comes from the best place—I get that. It is rooted in the obvious fact that coaching is a service to which the coach brings their servant heart, filled with the desire to help. However. This question has a very subtle effect of undermining the clients’ agency, autonomy, and capabilities. It sends the message that the client needs help—specifically, the coach’s help. That is not a message we want to send. The beauty and power of coaching is that it is a co-created space in which clients help themselves. The message we always want to convey to the client is “we are here together, as thought partners, in service to your goals and success.”

What to ask instead:

  • “What would be most useful right now?”
  • “What is best to focus on today?”
  • “How do you want to use this time?”
  1. “How does that make you feel?”

Along with its evil twin, “How do you feel about that?” this phrase has migrated from the therapeutic model and has no place in coaching. Many people have no idea what they are feeling at any given moment, but, more to the point, many do not find the exercise of trying to figure it out to be relevant to the task at hand. This is particularly true of executives, who are likely to find the question downright annoying.

Some people do suffer from alexithymia, a condition that makes it difficult for a person to identify and express their emotions. It’s not that they don’t feel emotions; rather, they find emotions hard to recognize and describe in words. This can make it challenging for them to communicate their emotional state to others or to understand the emotions expressed by others. But the work to improve one’s ability to understand one’s emotions is best done with a licensed therapist and is not within the purview of coaching. In coaching, the question will often make the client feel unsafe and will always distract from the point of the conversation.

What to ask instead: If a coach wants to get at motivation, questions to ask are:

  • “What makes that important right now?”
  • “What matters most to you in this situation?”
  • “What is the ideal outcome in this scenario?”
  1. “How is that working for you?”

No. Just no. Nope. Never.

This one was a stock phrase of Dr. Phil, who attained fame by appearing as a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show offering advice and psychological insights. I started hearing that phrase as it passed into common usage, and it always seemed cruel to me. Then I heard Dr. Phil use it on the show and it was downright snarky. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the odd bit of snark now and then, but it has no place in coaching. Dr. Phil was mocking the person he was supposed to help, and it was amazing how clearly terrible it made the person feel. One of the iron-clad rules of coaching is we never say anything that is going to make the client feel like there is something wrong with them. This phrase is straight up insulting.

What to do instead: If a coach thinks it makes sense to get the client to examine a course of action or a habitual behavior that does not seem to be useful, they should first ask for permission to open the topic for discussion: “Do you think there might be some value in finding a different way to accomplish your aim?” If the client expresses genuine interest, then the coach can ask something like “What different approach might you be willing to experiment with that might get a better result?” Even just a better, kinder version of the question is an improvement; e.g., “Is that approach getting the outcome you hoped for?”

  1. “Have you thought about…?”

This particular question is simply a variation on the many ways coaches succumb to the urge to give advice. And they kid themselves into thinking that if they frame their advice as a question, no one will be the wiser. But they are wrong. Even if the client doesn’t know exactly why their own thinking is being shut down, they will register that it has been. Advice is the consultant’s stock in trade, and it is the wise coach who treads that edge with extreme care. Thomas Leonard, one of the pioneers of the coaching profession, often said “Most consultants are not coaches,” which many consultants are insulted by, but it is the truth. Coaches who are also consultants really need to decide which hat they are wearing at any given time.

What to ask instead:

  • “What have you already thought of?”
  • “What have you already tried?”
  • “What options have you considered?”
  • “If you were asked for advice by a colleague, what would you recommend?”
  1. “Why do you think that?”

There is almost no circumstance in which a why question will generate anything useful. In every language and culture, to my knowledge, why questions, at best, send the brain away from problem solving and, at worst, put people on the defensive. Neither path will produce a good result and both will eat up valuable time. Why is this so? Honestly, who knows? No one has done the research that explains this phenomenon, but all you have to do is experiment to prove it to yourself. Simply stop and rephrase every why question with a what or how question and see what happens.

Note: I am often asked how this relates to Simon Sinek’s use of why in his Find Your Why work. Fair question. Sinek is using the term why to signify one’s fundamental purpose; the thing that will drive and motivate no matter what. It is a useful concept, and not related to the bad habit of asking why to promote clarity and discovery in coaching.

 What to ask instead:

  • “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”
  • “What is going on right now?”
  • “What is useful in all of this?”
  • “What are you thinking?”
  • “What else?”

Language matters, and in coaching it really matters. Coaches have precious little time in which to make a significant impact with a client. The client is the one talking most of the time, so it is critical that the coach choose their few words judiciously. One of the big differences between a good coach and a great one is their careful use of language and the quality of their questions.

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