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Say less, ask more, and change the way you lead forever

Do you know how it feels when you are truly valued when you have the space to express, and when the inspiration you are feeling comes from being asked the right kind of questions?

Imagine, you developing and owning a suggestion or decision. Remember how it feels to be proud, confident, energized, and motivated to act. Imagine feeling connected and valued. Remember how clarity feels; knowing what to do and having structure and purpose.

We have to remember that these questions are not only attractive for us and for leaders, but also for the ones we lead. How would you like to be lead?

In coaching, we use a lot of questioning because we want to give space to our coachee. We want the coachee to be responsible for the content, decisions, and coaching topics. This inspires ownership and empowerment. This is why we offer observations only rarely and if invited. We speak not more than 10-20% of the time.

We do ask uncomfortable and important questions. We don’t avoid truths. We bring them in. We don’t pre-empt solutions, we let them develop until they are ripe.

A coaching conversation has different phases and happens in a defined time frame, say 45 minutes. Sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. Drawing from the bestselling book The Coaching Habit: say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever, we suggest different questions can be framed for opening the conversation, for getting deeper, and for creating commitment and clarity at the end.

1. Opening the coaching session

‘How do you want to use our 45 minutes?’ is a good way to set the stage and start.

‘What do you want to be coached on?’ Leads us to the agenda of the session,

‘What do you want the outcome of this session to be?’ puts the spot on the envisioned outcome of our conversation. These kick-start questions get the conversation focused and going. ‘What’s on your mind’ is another example, that is more open, inviting and informal, or ‘how do you want to use this hour we have together?’

2. Getting the topics and issues out

A question that gets out more when the conversation needs more flow, or when it is closing down too early on a single topic is ‘and what else? It’s awesome to see the words flowing and the topics expanding.

A few coaching tools are really helpful in getting out more topics. For example, you can let the coachee speak free-flow. At times it is helpful to interrupt, summarize in only one sentence what had been said, and then asking if that summary hit the nail or not. This can also include listing out different relevant topics so that the coachee has a structure to choose a topic for coaching for each session.

The time you take for getting the topics out can vary widely. Some coachees need to speak a lot before opening up and some come with a clear topic in mind already. Some coaches like crisp and short sessions and offer this structure and some coaches like to dive into the reality of a coachee with more time. Some coaching topics require more empathy and less speed than others.

3. Deepening one topic

If you sense that you are getting a lot of story-telling and you think some orientation and depth is needed, asking ‘what’s the real challenge here for you?’ is helps your coachee to focus. People find coaching helpful because they need a fresh perspective and a chance to think things through or align emotionally. This is where we want to focus on the person and the deeper life-questions, less on the story-telling. This is where we can add value as coaches.

Often coaching is about helping a coachee in making decisions, choices and discover that they actually always have choices. ‘What do you want’ is helps as a question. There might be many logical, desirable or normal answers to a problem, yet they don’t seem right to a coachee. Helping them find out what they want is our contribution. This might not be the easiest, obvious or logical choice, but it might be the one that they would actually execute with all their heart.

4. Moving into action

It’s not your job to solve the problem, but to facilitate. ‘How can I help you’ sets the roles right, and helps the coachee to formulate requests. They are the ones that have to fill their roles in an organization, live their life fully and achieve their goals. Asking this question also helps a coachee realize how the conversations have already helped, what contributed to clarity and what the next questions are. You can listen, empathize, role-play a situation or anything else – ask your coachee to request and take ownership.

One important feature of the strategy is focussing your attention and resources. ‘If you are saying yes to this, what will you say no to?’ encourages commitment and focus. It’s also about making plans realistic and feasible. Dreaming and visioning is essential but is only half the story. At this point in a coaching conversation, you want commitment and accountability to emerge.

Coaching is about learning. Learning new things about yourself and the world. Discovering values, making strategies, and trying out things. We as coaches never truly know what worked – until we ask our coachees. ‘What was most useful for you?’ brings us there. It enforces the key learning of the session, focussed again on outcomes and plans, and transforms the coachee into the role of the empowered leader.

In the end, you aim to promote accountability, so asking ‘what will you do until next week?’ helps the coachee to formulate SMART (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, and time-bound) action points as homework. ‘How will you let me know you have done this?’ helps the coach to be there after the session, and the outcome of this is accountability.

‘Before we close this session, what needs to happen?’ is the best way to find any open ends, find closure, and move out of the coaching role. It also gives the coachee the last word – and he or she should always have that.


Further reading:

About the Author:

Stefan Bannach is a Bali based consultant, trainer, and coach with more than 15 years of experience working in Germany, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. He has extensive experience in moderating and facilitating multi-stakeholder processes in a participative way, as well as setting up training modules in the fields of communication, team development, conflict management, participatory planning, and moderation.


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