It is true that leaders who practice coaching are now distinguished from leaders who do not practice it, but the success of coaching depends on asking the right questions.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown have made the concept of “instruction and control” leadership forgotten overnight. So, how do you tell your employees what to do if all their hard-earned experience no longer makes sense? And how can you get them to keep working hard if your interaction with them is limited to phone calls you make? How will it enable them to operate in a world that has changed forever when you don't know more than they do about where things are going?
Leaders who practice coaching do not have these problems because they have the skills, tools, and techniques that enable their employees to discover solutions on their own and continually learn from their own experiences. One of these skills is the ability to ask interesting questions.
I would like to ask three effective coaching questions here, and while they are very familiar to professional coaches, they are less common among leaders and managers who want to take the coaching approach from practice.
The first question: “What’s next?”:
Expert coaching leaders are good at avoiding two common mistakes:
- Stand at the first answer.
- Stand at the correct answer.
Usually the first error occurs because the inexperienced coach is busy formulating their next question or wants to make sure they are following the GROW model or whatever series of questions they know.
The second error occurs when the leader has a strong sense of what the coaching person should do, and continues to ask their questions until the trainee arrives at the "correct" answer as they see it.
Asking "what else?" helps you avoid these mistakes, encourages the person receiving the coaching to review their answer again, to think more, and to reconsider how accurately they thought the answer. At the same time, it provides an opportunity for the coach to stop and think too. I found the question "what else?" useful throughout the coaching conversation at all stages, if we look at it through the GROW model for example:
Writing down coaching questions on paper way makes it seem a bit artificial, but it's a very useful option.
The second question: “How do you know?”:
The years of coaching have taught me over and over again how much people rely on assumptions and preconceptions. They often say:
- I can't do that.
- The plan will not work.
- Management will not support this plan.
- I am old or young, qualified or ineligible, expert or novice; etc.
None of these statements are facts, and I find the sweet rejection of "Well, how do you know that?" very effective in eliciting how little factual evidence people have for the assumptions they make.
I coached a leader last year who wanted to improve his self-confidence, and he noticed that he tends to mumble and stumble a little while trying to find the right word for exactly what he wants to express.
"People think I'm an idiot," he said gloomily.
I asked him, “How do you know that?”
It turns out that no one said anything about it, never noticed any negative reaction, and neither his peers nor his superiors noticed it.
After we first discussed it, he went and sought some feedback on his concerns, and people had no idea what he was talking about, and they couldn't imagine why he was worried.
Based on the series of questions asked about following the GROW model, it is about getting an accurate picture of reality, checking assumptions, and exploring whether there is any evidence to support or challenge people's initial views.
Third question: “What would you do if I wasn’t here?”
I like this question. It goes to the heart of the coaching principle in urging a sense of responsibility, and I like to define responsibility in the context of coaching as a person's choosing and following up on a task.
Accordingly, a good coaching question would be one that encourages this kind of sense of responsibility.
Unfortunately, our leadership style may inadvertently work against this principle. We may think that when our employees ask us to solve their problems, we are supposed to give them solutions right away, and this may be true in an emergency, but often when we do, we reinforce their sense of dependency, it's like continuing to tie our children's shoelaces instead of teaching them to do it themselves.
Asking "What would you do if I wasn't here?" It does not mean giving up the responsibility to lead. On the contrary, it also does not mean losing your control because you will hear the answer to the question that you may accept or challenge as you see fit, but in my experience, what one suggests is usually quite right and is the same thing I will do, in fact, on many occasions, their answers reveal something new and original, perhaps even better than I would suggest it.
Again, for fans of the GROW model, this is a question designed to generate more ideas at the options stage. The three questions outlined here may need to be rephrased in a way that works best for you, but I hope you can see the positive reaction they can elicit.
Always remember that the answer is the most important, not the question, so if you need to give yourself more time to think about what they said, just ask, “What else?”