The heart of great coaching lies in the use of powerful questions to create insight for a client, and this insight then opens up new possibilities for exploration. One of my gurus of coaching is Jenny Rogers, who wrote a book called Coaching Skills: A Handbook published in 2004. Jenny’s belief is that coaching involves being in a constant state of ambiguity as we help clients discover things that they do not yet know about themselves. Thus coaches must be comfortable that they do not know the answers, but know how to tap into the resources of their clients to find them.
One of the cornerstones of Jenny’s book is her list of Magic Questions. These questions have a few important characteristics that are worth sharing:
- They are content-free – they do not imply any knowledge of the challenge at hand and there for free of bias.
- They are short – leading to greater focus in the answers they elicit.
- They do not use the word “I” – the focus is on the other person and their own resourcefulness, showing trust.
- They progress naturally – they provide a smooth, guided process for resolving an issue.
When I review the questions, the other thing that strikes me is how applicable they are to the discipline of leadership. Leaders can use them to enhance the performance with their teams by drawing out the full capabilities and knowledge of their teams. When used properly they help a leader shift their stance from manager to coach, and increase the likelihood of creating a high performing team.
While there are 17 questions in Jenny’s complete list, here is a subset of Jenny’s questions that, when used effectively by a leader, will guide their team to greater success:
- What’s the issue? A simple question, but one that often has to be asked more than once. The key here is to guide the person you are working with to a concise summary of the challenge they are trying to address so that the solution can have a similar degree of focus.
- How important is this on a scale of 1-10? This really is an “off-ramp” question, in that if the answer is 6 or less there is a different form of coaching to be done about being focused on those things that can add the greatest value. However, when the answer is 7 or greater the question can also serve as a catalyst for action as your team member recognizes that there is significance to their work.
- Imagine this problem is solved. What would you see, hear and feel? To me, this is the most powerful of the questions when asked properly. The operative word is “imagine”. Your intent is to activate the imaginative side of your team member’s brain. You want to coax and probe with this question until your team member can vividly sense what solved looks like and feels like, painting a picture of being in the midst of their future solution. Having this vision will create a pull for them as they work to resolve the issue.
- What’s standing in the way of that ideal outcome? Time to get real. There are always obstacles. The issue is often clarity. Your job is to clear away the undergrowth surrounding the real issues by asking clarifying questions. By bringing them out into the open and gaining clarity of the key obstacles it will be easier for your team member to see ways past them.
- What are the options for action here? Another version of this question could be “What are the most important things you can do to resolve this issue?” In asking this question, think of evoking imagination again. Help your team member create a vision of the actions that will lead them past the obstacles to the overall solution they vividly described in question 3 above. The combination of the imaginative and the logical parts of our brain is extremely powerful. If you can draw them together for your team member great things will happen!
- So what’s the first step? This question is about the present. A vision has been formed, the options and steps to get there have been contemplated and sorted through. Now it is time to ask our team member to bring the whole scenario back to the first thing they are going to do to make this a reality. Action only happens in the present, so we need to create thoughts about what can be acted on now!
- When will you take it? This is about commitment. We have helped our team member work through an entire plan right down to the first thing they are going to do. Now we’re asking them to state when it will happen. This makes it real and gives one last opportunity for them to review all of the questions, check in with themselves on whether they have it right and to say out loud when they will take action. Saying something is more powerful than thinking it, and as leaders we can use questions like this to create commitments.
Try them out! And when you do, it is important to remember to restrain any urge to add your experience and expertise to the solution. The goal here is to bring the best out of your team member, and you’ll do that best by asking powerful questions.
One last thought. What if you turned the power of these questions on yourself when you are facing a challenge? Could you use these as a self-guided approach to problem-solving? Sometimes we can get caught up in the fears and anxiety attached to challenges, and having a tool to fall back on will help us keep perspective!