7 “Magic Questions” To Build Success

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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!
  7. 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!

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

8 thoughts on “7 “Magic Questions” To Build Success

  1. I have her book and also find it extremely helpful — not just for coaching, but for my own life too! when I ask myself the questions — I am always surprised, and inspired, by the answers!

    Great post Ian.

  2. I think these can be used for myself and the hardest one of all is that last one because, when you think about it, if you do all the others and fail on that one, nothing has been achieved.

    1. I heard a great metaphor for getting started. Imagine being a tight rope walker and you are standing on the rope with your back foot on your safe platform and your front foot over the void. All your weight is on your back foot. To get started all it takes is shifting your weight onto your front foot. Sounds simple but it isn’t!

  3. I love your site! I am also grateful for Jenny Rogers! As a Hudson Coach myself, I love love love the notion of using these questions on myself. That said, I’m writing because I found your blog post when looking up some information for a quick article for a client who asked to build a set of questions for use with her teams. All kinds of “wait a minutes” went through my head – mainly that having a list of questions is not the answer to leadership. But at the end of the day I thought of Jenny’s magic questions and found your really helpful treatise and your very well pared down list of 7. I wonder if I may share the list with my client – should that become useful in a session. I would rather her write her own list, but I may want to offer this and the principles you highlighted in writing. If we come to that at all. I would point her directly to your blog page. Thought I’d let you know first. BTW – I’m Lila Pittard Levy in Sarasota Florida

    1. Hi Lila. Thanks for reaching out and I’m happy you found this resonated with you! I would love it if you would share this with your client … my purpose for writing is to express myself, share what I know and allow for “shameless stealing”!! I’ll consider this a success!

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