When your coaching questions freak someone out

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

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In my workshop on mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring, I talk about the difference between these three skills and how to employ each effectively. We spend a lot of time talking about what makes a good coaching question (like these 20 example questions!), like: make sure the question starts with the word “what,” be genuinely curious and open-ended (not leading), and keep it short and sweet.

There are so many positive effects of asking good coaching questions:

That said, once in a while, coaching mode can catch folks off guard. If someone has asked for advice but is met with an open question in return, it might feel like the person asking the question doesn’t really want to help them out. Or if someone doesn’t totally trust the person who’s asking them an open coaching question, they may feel threatened and get defensive, or hesitate to give a full or honest answer.

If you encounter someone who bristles at being asked genuinely curious open questions, try these two tactics.

Check your tone and body language

First, do a little head-to-toe check in. When I’m really focused on what someone is saying, I might lean in a little too intensely or have a really serious facial expression. I might have crossed my arms because I’m thinking really hard. Any of this could look to the other person like a defensive or confrontational stance!

I might also have inadvertently used a strange tone when I asked the question; it’s easy to get caught up in your own curiosity and forget to pay attention to how you’re asking a question. I’ve accidentally asked a coaching question in a way that sounded judgy, or like I think they’re doing something wrong, when really I was just extremely curious about what was going on for them!

After you do this quick check of your body language and tone, adjust to use affirming body language:

  1. Gently nod at the pace they’re talking at, or slightly slower. It shows you’re following and tracking what they’re saying.

  2. Make soft eye contact. Hard eye contact is intense, eyes wide—it’s a little creepy. Soft eye contact is more like a Tyra Banks “smize”—a subtle relaxing of your facial muscles that shows you’re not ready to pounce as soon as they’re done talking. Don’t worry about keeping constant eye contact. As Paloma taught me, research shows you can break eye contact every 3 seconds naturally, then connect again, and this still feels attentive and affirming to the other person.

  3. Lean in, but not too much. When we’re uncomfortable, we sometimes unconsciously tip away from the person in whatever way we can. Make sure you’re squarely facing the person—or if you’re on video, squarely face the camera—and lean slightly. Even as little as 1” will do the trick! If I’m on Zoom and sitting at my desk, I like to make sure my elbows or wrists are evenly resting on it.

And if you noticed your tone was misaligned to the coaching question you were asking, simply acknowledge it! “Sorry, my tone was weird there! I’m genuinely curious, [repeat your question with a brighter tone].”

Acknowledge the dynamic

If after you’ve made any needed adjustments to your body language or tone and the other person is still hesitating to answer your questions or giving some signs of defensiveness, you can acknowledge the shift in energy with them. In fact, whenever you get a feeling that a conversation is going sideways, I recommend you try to name what’s happening in the room.

For example:

The open questions themselves are still really valuable (you need their info to be able to move forward! Or you need to figure out what the problem actually is), but some folks just won’t understand why you’re asking.

It’s perfectly reasonable to hit pause, acknowledge the weirdness in the room, and reestablish your motivation for using these questions with a reason that you think they’ll care about. Like, “I want to make sure you have what you need!”

One last thing: when I’m beginning a new working relationship with someone, I’ll acknowledge up front that I’ll be asking them open coaching questions that might feel a bit cheesy. This gives them permission to side-eye the process a bit, but still move us forward together. ;)

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.


Lara Hogan

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

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