One Question You May Not Want to Ask as a Coach

One Question You May Not Want to Ask as a Coach 150 150 Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP

What is coaching?  It is a process that uses trusting relationships to inspire insights and new options to create positive change for individuals and teams.  Ideally, it is a predictable process.  If we know what questions to ask and which to avoid, it can become more predictable.

Coaching with adults is rarely about telling them what to do (it can happen children’s sports). It is instead about asking great questions at the right time.  The purpose of asking great questions is to help people uncover new options on their own.  These new options ideally improve their ability to create positive change and/or positive performance improvement.

Asking questions like “Why did this happen?”, or “Why did you do that?” are rarely the right questions during a coaching session.  These “why” questions can lead down a confusing path which can often waste everyone’s time.

Every morning I walk our two rescue dogs. One morning I decided to take them to a new venue.  I drove in, parked and we walked for about 45 minutes. When it was time to leave, I decided to exit the parking lot from the same place I entered.  It was difficult to safely exit from that location because of a sharp curve and overgrown brush prevented me from seeing oncoming traffic from the left. I needed to make a left turn and crossing over that lane seemed unsafe.

After a moment or two of looking for oncoming traffic, I pulled out only to see a speeding vehicle headed right for my driver’s side door, I quickly accelerated.  The driver missed me by inches. He signaled his displeasure and leaned harshly on his horn.

The next day, at that same venue, I was overly cautious when leaving due to my previous experience.  After a few minutes of reflection, I realized there was another location from which to exit the parking lot.  It was hidden and therefore not obvious.  That is why I missed it the previous day.  Furthermore, there was no signage.

If I had a coach at that moment helping me with this situation, and the coach were to ask me, “Why did that near accident happen?”  I might start listing all the reasons why I was not at fault.  For example, “I could not see oncoming traffic.” Or, “The other driver was speeding!” and/or “There was the lack of signage.”  Even a simple situation like this will open the likelihood of having a blame discussion.  Blame tends to lead us into a loop of confusion and/or a lack of action.  Blame questions lead us away from choices we have control over.

What if that same imaginary coach asked me, “What can you do next time to avoid this danger?”  and, “When can you start doing that?”  These questions focus on behaviors, actions, and the choices and control I do have.  If we agree with the definition of coaching above, “a process that uses trusting relationships to inspire, insight and new options to create positive change” then asking “why” questions is very often a poor choice.  Asking “what, when, and how” questions offer much better choices for identifying positive action and new options.

Of course, there are places where “why” questions can be useful.  One popular occasion is when one is searching for root causes of poor performing processes.  There is the very useful quality improvement technique described as “asking why 5 times”.  This technique is very useful in conjunction with a cause-and-effect brainstorming session.  In this technique, for each major cause, a facilitator asks, “Why is this happening?”   Each time we ask why, in this situation, it can lead us to have a deeper understanding about what is happening in a process.  That is the main point.  In a discussion about process, “why” questions are useful. The discussion is then about the process and not about the person and/or his/her behaviors.  That’s the difference.  Once you identify a process it is useful to ask “why” questions.  Until you identify a process we want to improve, “why” questions can lead us astray.

If my imaginary coach at the dog park first asked me, “What process is not working?”  I might answer, “The process of exiting the park!”   He/she could then ask, “What is the first 15% of that process?”  My answer might be, “Deciding where to exit!”  Finally, if my imaginary coach asked, “How can you improve the first 15% of that process?” I might answer, “Search for a safer exit option!”  “When can you start doing that?” might be the next question.  This would lead me to that same insight I had already reached i.e. a new safer choice for an exit.

“Why” questions can be useful.  But, in coaching situations they can lead us down a wasteful path full of blame.  Using “what”, “when” and “how” questions are likely much more useful and less emotional. Try it.  You’ll see.

Check out the interview on C-Suite Best Seller TV to learn more about how to stop leadership malpractice and replace the typical performance review:

Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal.  Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.   Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP.  Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.