Question Asking Mistakes (and How to Correct Them)

From long experience as a coach trainer I have noticed there are many question asking mistakes that can be made. Here’s two examples of asking mistakes coaches make.

Question Asking Mistakes #1. Closed Questions

Our #1 offender is—closed questions! Open questions have two important benefits: they let the coachee direct the conversation (you can answer in many different ways) and they make the coachee think by eliciting more than one-word answers. While most people will answer the occasional closed question as if it were open, too many will shut people down.

Solution: Convert Closed to Open Questions

To convert closed questions to open ones, first become aware of what you are asking. If you catch yourself before you’ve finished asking, you can simply restate the question. You’ll know its a closed question if it can be answered with a simply “yes” or “no”, like these examples:

  • “Is there a way to do that and still keep evenings for family?”
  • “Can you realistically take that on too?”
  • “Could there be any other ways to approach that?”
  • “Do you have any other options?”

If you catch yourself in the act of asking a closed question, here’s a quick technique for readjusting: just start again with the word “what” or “how”. Here are the closed questions above, made open:

  • “What could you do to still keep evenings for family?”
  • “How would your life change if you take that on, too?”
  • “How else could you approach that?”
  • “What other options do you have?”

Question Asking Mistakes #2. Solution-Oriented Questions

A special kind of closed question is the solution-oriented question. SOQs are pieces of advice with a question mark pasted on. We want to tell the client the answer, but we remember we are supposed to be coaching, so we give our solution in the form of a question:

  • “Shouldn’t you check in with your boss before you act on this?”
  • “Could you do your jogging with your spouse?”
  • “Do you think that affirming the person would give you a better result?”
  • “Can you give her the benefit of the doubt on this one?”

“Should you, could you, will you, don’t you, can you, are you”—if the second word in the question is “you”, you’re in trouble.

Solution: Follow Your Curiosity

On a practical level, SOQs usually originate in an intuitive insight: something coaching_questionsthe person says makes us curious, so (all in our own heads) we proceed to identify what we think the underlying problem is, create a solution, and then offer it to the person. The trick is to go back to the thing that made you curious in the first place, and ask about that. Often this involves broadening our SOQ (which focused on one potential solution) into an open question with many possible solutions. For instance:

  • Our insight on the first question listed above was wondering what the channels of authority in this organization are. So we might ask, “In your company, what kind of channels do you need to go through before you act on this?” (Notice how this question allows for other answers than just talking to the boss.
  • On the second question, our intuition noticed that the client is an extrovert, yet all the potential exercise options were done alone. So you might say, “I noticed that all your exercise options involved you doing it alone. How could you involve other people in your exercise routine?” What would happen if you mentioned that to the boss?

Tony Stoltzfus is a coach, author, master coach trainer and director of the Leadership Metaformation Institute.