Six creative ways to use coaching questions

Originally posted Nov 21, 2022 • More resources on mentoring, coaching, & sponsoring

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My most-used tool these days is definitely this list of 20 great open questions. There are so many things it’s useful for.

If you haven’t leveraged the list yet, here are some easy ways to start using these questions!

Deliver effective feedback

Transform a feedback conversation from a one-way feedback dump into a collaborative problem-solving session with one of these coaching questions.

Use the Feedback Equation: first share your observation of someone’s behavior, and the impact of that behavior. Then ask an open question! (As the conversation progresses, feel free to use more questions from the list!)

Turn your instinct to give advice into a brainstorming opportunity

We often default to advice-giving when we’re helping somebody solve a problem, but this short-circuits the learning process for that person. Plus, each of your teammates has a unique perspective, set of skills, work context, etc., so if you give them advice based on your own experience with a similar kind of challenge, your answer might not actually be helpful to them!

If someone asks you for advice, say, “Absolutely—but first I want to ask you a few questions.” Ask three questions off this list before giving any single piece of advice! You’re reading this right—repeat the process of asking three new open questions from the list before offering any subsequent piece of advice. :)

Help your teammate feel heard

It’s surprisingly rare to feel like someone is genuinely interested in your perspective, ideas, frustrations, and challenges. So if you have a colleague working through a frustrating experience, project roadblock, or even a stretchy leadership opportunity—pull out these coaching questions!

Start at the top of the list and work your way down as they reflect, share, react, and arrive at new insights. They’ll walk away from your chat feeling tremendously supported and heard.

Invite silliness into your one-on-one

One of my coaching clients keeps the list of coaching questions printed out on her desk next to a 20-sided die. During one-on-ones, she’ll roll the D20 to choose a new question to ask her teammate at different moments in the conversation. This practice is just silly enough that laughter ensues, right before her report takes a beat to introspect about their answer to her question. Trust is built through the combined levity and authenticity of this process!

Practice beginning your one-on-one in coaching mode

Since coaching mode might be a departure from your normal one-on-one approach, tell your teammate that you’re working on practicing a few new management skills, and this means that you’ll be asking them a lot more open-ended questions than normal. You can acknowledge that this might make the conversation feel awkward or cheesy—that’s okay!

Then ask your teammate what they could use your help with today. Pick one coaching question from the right column on the list that feels relevant to their topic. After they answer, refer back to the list, and pick another coaching question!

Through this process, your colleague might start to come up with their own solution, or develop new insights, even only a few minutes into the conversation. But it’s okay if that doesn’t happen, too—if you’re feeling stuck, use a coaching reflection to reflect back what you’re hearing from them so far!

Practice staying in coaching mode

You might begin a one-on-one in coaching mode, but eventually drift back into mentorshipland. Zero shame here—it happens to all of us! If you find yourself giving advice to somebody: pause, take a breath, and then ask one of these coaching questions. Actively listen to their response, then ask one follow-up coaching question. See where the conversation goes!

In workshops, I facilitate group debriefs after folks practice this coaching skill. Multiple people have expressed gratitude that their coach paused to recalibrate partway through the conversation, catching themselves beginning to give advice, and starting a new sentence with a question. Though this process of stopping, thinking, and restarting with a question felt awkward for the coach, the person on the receiving end felt extra-supported by their effort.

So bookmark this list of 20 open questions or print it out to keep it handy during your workday. Challenge yourself to ask a new open question from the list at least once a day. You’ve got this!

Woman speaking to camera with video player buttons underneathAiming to hone your coaching skills?

Check out my new Mentoring, Coaching, and Sponsoring video course to find exercises, tips, and homework to tailor your approach as you help your teammates grow. Or hire me to train these skills at your organization!

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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