“The processes used by a coach, a counselor, a psychotherapist or a guru are similar: they build the awareness and responsibility of the client.” (John Whitmore)
I was in my manager Bob’s office, and we were going toe to toe. I don’t even remember the specific issue we were discussing, but I had very firm ideas about the direction I wanted to take, and he was being equally clear that he didn’t think my plan was a good one. Finally, he stopped, looked me right in the eye, and asked, “How willing are you to completely own the outcome?” And then he went silent and waited.
That moment was probably about 30 years ago. Yet I remember it in HD quality – where we were standing in his office, and the look on his face as he leveled that question at me. It is as clear as if it was yesterday. With nine words, Bob had asked me a powerful question and was waiting for my response.
Powerful questions get their name from the idea that they evoke powerful levels of thought and produce significant clarity for the client. In that moment, Bob had let go of his strong advocacy for his approach, and just asked me how committed I was to my approach and the resulting business impact. Instead of granting permission, he was challenging me to think into the future, project the implications of my proposed path, and take full responsibility for my bet. To use Whitmore’s language, he was asking me to rethink my proposal (awareness) and then take full responsibility for it.
Here are what I have learned to be the genetic markers of an exceptional question:
It demands thought and reflection on the part of the receiver.
The best questions don’t have easy answers. They challenge the listener to go deep into their own knowledge, beliefs, values, and emotions, to respond. When we ask a powerful question, we have given our client an opportunity to become more deeply aware of all of those elements, and to process how they interact relative to the goal. Almost inevitably, that process sets off reflection and integration, will lead the client to make a connection they had not previously made. We are giving our clients a huge gift.
It is built on the foundation of a solid understanding of the big picture, critical issues, and overarching sense of purpose.
The relevance and depth of your question reveals to your client that you have done your homework and have taken in all that they told you previously. You cared enough to understand them. You’ve built on that background to frame a relevant question whose answer will deepen your mutual understanding of the issue at hand. Not only are you gathering information, but you are strengthening the level of trust that binds you and your client.
It is not driven by the consultant’s agenda.
Too often, we use questions which are leading, and which can be received as a form of persuasion through cross-examination. People are amazingly perceptive in picking up loaded questions. Two negative results occur. First, the client instinctively puts up barriers based on the level of distrust that the question engenders. The relationship between advisor and client moves in a negative direction. Secondly, the chances of having any really new or helpful insight are greatly diminished when the barriers have been thrown up.
It is short and simply framed.
Brevity comes from clarity and preparedness. When we’re not well prepared, we are crafting the question on the fly. The resulting question has multiple components, wanders, back tracks and is dumped on the plate in a heap. Great coaches like to talk about effective dialogue as a dance. With commitment, presence, understanding, curiosity and experience, we are able to sense the rhythm of the conversation and help our partner move to where the music is taking them.
Give your clients the gift of clarity and commitment by asking them powerful questions.
Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: GROWing People, Performance, and Purpose. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.