7 Questions to Improve Your Coaching!

It’s clear that effective coaching needs to be at the heart of how we develop teachers. And that’s why we at Thriving Schools have presented several conversations and resources on how best to do this (check out our pieces with Chris O’Brien, Paul Dean, and Mike McKenna). It’s in the same spirit that we present the following seven questions from The Coaching Habit. These seven questions will allow you to say less, ask more, and empower your colleagues to find the right answers on their own. And because we all put on the coaching hat at some point (as school leaders, instructional coaches, or teachers who plan together), we all could improve the questions that we ask.

In reading the seven questions below, keep in mind the following. First, advice is overrated. As much as we think jumping in and providing answers will be helpful, we have to realize that if we can get our coworkers to generate solutions on their own, the odds of affecting change increase dramatically. Next, because we’re all stretched more thinly than ever before, we need to be able to coach effectively in short periods of time (again, previous conversations with Paul Dean and Mike McKenna emphasize the importance of turning any interaction into a coaching touchpoint). Finally, the regularity with which we coach needs to increase dramatically. As the author notes, “Coaching should be a daily, informal act, not an occasional, formal ‘It’s Coaching Time!’ event.”

Here are seven questions to consider adding to your coaching repertoire:

Question 1 – The Kickstart Question – “WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND?”

Does this question sound familiar to you? It might be because it’s the “Facebook question.” It’s used by millions of people every day to cue reflection and sharing. It also turns out it’s the perfect question to start a coaching conversation. It cuts through superficial small talk while also empowering coworkers to identify pressing issues.

The book presents the following example of how this might work:

“What’s on your mind?” you ask.

“The (insert name of thing they’re working on],” they say.

“So there are 3 different facets of that we could look at,” you offer. “The project side – any challenges around the actual content. The people side – any issues with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns – if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

The key takeaway here is that this question allows you to quickly turn normal interactions into coaching touchpoints, and better yet, empowers your colleagues to identify the issue they need support on.

Question 2 – The Awe Question – “AND WHAT ELSE?”

At first glance, it might seem that this question contributes to the aforementioned small talk and takes away from precious coaching time. But it accomplishes 3 very important goals – it gives you more time to think, it prevents you from immediately providing answers (and thus, slipping into “advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode”), and it potentially gives you and your employees more options to choose from (for instance, deciding where to focus coaching time or which alternative to select). On this last point the author notes, “Research shows that decisions made from binary choices (within organizations) have a failure rate greater than 50%; having at least one more option lowered the failure rate by almost half, down to about 30%.”

Here are some examples of how you might use the awe question:

When you’ve asked someone “What’s on your mind?” and they answer, ask, “And what else?”

When someone tells you about an action they intend to take, ask “And what else could you do?”

When you ask someone “What’s the real challenge here for you?” ask, “And what else is a challenge here for you?”

If you start a weekly meeting by asking “What’s important right now?” you could ask, “And what else?”

When someone is offering new ideas and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, you could ask, “And what else might be possible?”

When you’re brainstorming anything, keep the energy up by continuously firing, “And what else?”

Question 3 – The Focus Question – “WHAT’S THE REAL CHALLENGE HERE FOR YOU?”

The purpose of this question is to uncover the real challenges that need sorting out. It’s very easy for employees to become distracted with other issues – “a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, or a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.” But again, your time for coaching is limited. You can only coach the person who is directly in front of you. “As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking.”

The author presents the following anecdote for when this question becomes really useful:

Have you ever made popcorn? One “pop.” Then another. Then another. And then the popping goes crazy. Problems proliferate in the same way. Resist the temptation to do the work and to pick one of the many challenges as the starting point (even though, no doubt, you’ll have an opinion on which one it should be). Instead, ask something like this: “If you had to pick one of these to focus on, which one here would be the real challenge for you?”

Again, the importance of this question is that you’re empowering your employees to prioritize the challenges on their plate and focus their energy on the things that are within their control.


Question 4 – The Foundation Question – “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

This is a crucial question for managers because employees and mentees have a really hard time asking for what they want. They determine that their requests are inappropriate, the timing’s not right, or the response will simply be “No.” Because of this, what we want is often left unsaid. Great coaches recognize this and won’t hesitate to ask what their employees need.

From here, the author dives into a discussion of how wants are often disguised as needs. And that coaches can improve their responses to them by understanding what the 9 universal needs are – affection, creation, recreation, freedom, identity, understanding, participation, protection, and subsistence.

Here are some examples of how recognizing the need will better help you address the want:

When someone says “I want you to talk to the VP (or other supervision) for me” he might be needing protection (I’m too junior) or participation (I need you to do your part)

When someone says “I want to leave early today” she might be asking for understanding (it’s difficult at home) or creation (I need to go to my class)

When someone says “I want a new version of this report” the base need might be freedom (I don’t want to do it), identity (I want you to know I’m the boss here), or subsistence (my success depends on your getting it right)

The Foundation Question makes it clear to our coworkers and colleagues that we care about their needs and that we’re unwilling to let important issues go unaddressed.

Question 5 – The Lazy Question – “HOW CAN I HELP?”

Notice how this question is not the first one on the list. And how all the others leading up to it are focused on the employee. This is the art of coaching – resisting the urge to immediately provide guidance and helping a mentee understand the problem at a deeper level. The power of this question is twofold. First, your colleague is forced to make a direct request. And second (but perhaps more valuably), it stops you from thinking that you know exactly what’s needed and leaping into action.

The book provides the following advice on how to make the question even more effective:

It’s hard enough, when someone starts telling you what’s going on, to resist moving into advice-giving, solution-providing mode. It feels nearly impossible when someone asks you a question that’s a direct appeal for your advice: “How do I . . . ?” or “What do you think I should do about . . . ?” Seductive and dangerous, this is the cheddar on the mousetrap, the light on the mosquito zapper, the block of chocolate in the cupboard. Before you know what’s happening, you’re giving an answer.

Say, “That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?” And when she answers, which she will, you’ll nod your head and be engaged and interested, and when she finishes, say, “That’s terrific. What else could you do?” More nodding, more being interested. Then say, “This is all good. Is there anything else you could try here?” And then, and only then, you can add your own idea into the mix if you wish.

This example also shows how these coaching questions can be used iteratively. Notice in this example how you come back to using both Questions 1 and 2!

Question 6 – The Strategic Question – “IF YOU’RE SAYING ‘YES’ TO THIS, WHAT ARE YOU SAYING ‘NO’ TO?”

This is probably the most underutilized question in education. Teachers know first-hand how easy it is to continue saying “yes” to more and more requests. But this is also how educators become overwhelmed and when exhaustion kicks in. Michael Porter has said, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” By asking this question, we put the spotlight on creating the space and focus to truly commit to the “yes.”

This discussion of a study is offered to support the value of this question:

In a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “Beware the Busy Manager,” Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal suggested that only 10% of managers had the right focus and energy to work on the stuff that matters. To be frank, 10% sounds high to me. But most likely you can think of someone in your organization who seems to be able to “hold the line” and stop the aggregation of small tasks and additional responsibilities that, for the rest of us, eventually consumer our lives. That person might not be the best-liked person in the organization . . . but she’s likely to be successful, senior, and respected. And that’s because she knows how to say Yes more slowly than you do.

It’s too easy to say “yes” to every request that comes our way. In order to provide the focus needed to produce high-quality work, we also need to learn what to say “no” to.

Question 7 – The Learning Question – “WHAT WAS MOST USEFUL FOR YOU?”

This is the feedback question. It’s how you ask employees and mentees to tell you how you can get better as a coach. The author provides several items of rationale to explain the importance of this question (and why it’s worded exactly the way that it is):

It assumes the conversation was useful (and creates a moment in which to figure out what it was)

It asks people to identify the big thing that was most useful (it’s more effective to find 1 big thing than to list 12 small things)

It makes it personal (people are telling themselves what was useful, rather than you telling them what you think was useful)

It gives you feedback (so you can keep getting better)

It’s learning, not judgement (people don’t have a choice to answer Yes/No; they must extract value from the conversation

It reminds people how useful you are to them

And there you have it – 7 questions that can improve your coaching and change the way you lead!