Curiosity: the desire to learn or know more about something or someone; something that is interesting because it is unusual.
Intuition: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence; a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why.
You’re the coach and your client, Jim, has been with you for a month. You’re feeling good about your newly launched coaching business and this is your fifth session with Jim. Suddenly about eight minutes into this session, Jim exclaims in a fit of frustration that he’d like to bash his head against the wall. You, dear coach, can choose to:
- shout back at him, “That’s stupid!” and like Mom, tell him shame on him for wanting to hurt himself;
- refer him to a shrink down the hall because he obviously has deep psychological problems you aren’t equipped to deal with,
- or ask him powerful questions to help him gain insight to gain mastery over what’s defeating attaining his goals.
In coaching our clients, we often overlook their baggage carts of human emotions as we aim our work at getting them to their desired goals. The ideal client might be the one who gets his prep form in on time (if coaching by phone), who knows exactly what he wants of each call and who does everything he says he’ll do and is replete with sycophancy exclaiming how much you’re helping him.
Jim doesn’t fall in this category, and is not the ideal (and you’ll discover, as I’ll try to point out in this article, most of your clients aren’t.) They’re human, and they cart along with them an enormous load of human emotions.
Jim might even accuse you of making him feel like bashing his head against the wall. His failure will be all your fault, you bad coach, you.
How do you help a guy like Jim? (Notice I didn’t say “love a guy like Jim.” If you think you have to love each client you’ll wind up condemning yourself if you don’t.) Start by caring, caring enough to pour your skills, compassion and God-given gifts to help them get where they want to be. This includes both curiosity and intuition. What are Jim’s needs?
Let’s begin the process of understanding powerful questioning by looking at the needs, motives and values of the client. Use one or more of many available assessment tools* (see Resources at end of this article) to help understand the values and needs of the client and how to relate to him or her.
For example, If your client has clicked “I need what people say to me to be perfectly clear” on the assessment1, you’ll know that asking a question like, “What else?” might get you a response, “What else what?” You might notice this client asking you to re-frame your questions or often sighing quizzically, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Look for excessive affirmation needs. If your client clicked yes on the statement, “I need to be loved and I have a very hard time if I don’t feel loved enough,”2 this will include you. Before you ask, “Where has your big need to be loved gotten you so far?” (judging, accusatory), sensitively consider, by allowing more of your intuition to kick in, your client’s need to feel affirmed in your coaching relationship.
Your Client Needs to Feel You Care
Imagine you’re the client. You pour your guts out to your new coach about your needs and your failures at reaching those needs, and what comes back at you after an acceptable pause is straight out of Tony Stoltzfus –albeit ICF approved, but sprung forth from a cold and indifferent place, and you suddenly feel ashamed for having opened up as you did. Your coach wasn’t genuinely intestested in you. The coach was interested in the coach and how the coach was doing.
Speaking of Stoltzfus, in his book he quotes Bernard Baruch, “Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why.”3 Suppose Newton were your client, and suppose, as he did, he struggled with feelings of inferiority, what questions might you ask him? Would you say, with warmth in your voice, something like, “And what inside you prompted you to ask why?”
Powerful questions are prompted by your gift of caring more than following rules of coaching. The rules are already imbedded in you through your excellent coaching training. Caring you can’t learn in school. Margaret Meade said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for that’s all who ever have.” Suppose we changed that to “a few caring life coaches.”
Here’s a client who comes to you for help finding direction after a painful divorce. Right away you know he’s someone carrying emotional luggage and will need a good deal of affirmation as you work with him searching out and solidifying direction for his life. But he also has to be challenged. I had a client in this situation, a woman, and she said, moaning pitifully in one of our sessions, “Oh, I’m gonna lose the house! Since X left me, I’ll never get a job!”
I’m sure you’ve heard similar complaints from clients, the “Nobody wants me,” kind of thing. Unlike Jim, so amply gifted with volcanic eruptions, this client was ready to roll over and play dead. I said brightly, surprising myself, “So after you’ve lost the house and you’re still jobless, then what?”
Pow! You’d have thought someone took a match to her great toe. She leaped up, threw her arms in the air, and squawked, “Never! I’ll never let that happen!”
Lou Gehrig said he loved the thrill of victory, but he also loved the challenge of defeat. Can we as coaches, help our clients love the challenge of overcoming defeat? In the case of my client, I’d like to tell you she saved the house, got a great job, married the boss and lived happily ever after, but instead the little fireball moved into an apartment, went back to school and is in the process of becoming a life coach. Her niche? “Life After Divorce. ” Sigh.
I’ve focused on three elements in powerful questioning in this paper: Needs Evaluation, Affirmation and Challenge. With these three keys polished and ready to unlock your client’s best life in your coaching toolkit, you’ll be able to press ahead questioning away with great results.
Here are 15 questions for you to consider that I find to be powerful. They can hold the coach grounded in judgment-free inquisitiveness, always client centered:
- How would this action improve your situation? (the question I asked Jim when he said he’d like to bash his fist in the wall. )
- What’s great about your life this week?
- How have you grown this week?
- What are you grateful for?
- Who’s grateful for you?
- What could you be happy about if you chose to be?
- What do you see are the benefits of holding onto this problem?
- Is this a limitation or is it a strength?
- What will you have to eliminate in our life to make this happen?
- What does your intuition tell you about this?
- What’s stopping you?
- Is this giving you energy or draining your energy? (a favorite question of mine – and one I like my clients to make lists of)
- Are you using this to grow or are you beating yourself up?
- Does this empower you or disempower you?
- How can you turn this around and have better results next time?
1 Cheryl Weir and Associates: Needs and Values Program, 2000
3 Stoltzfus, Tony: Coaching Questions, 2008.
*Additional resources can be found in Gary Colllins’ book, Christian Coaching, NavPress, (2009). In his appendices, he gives indispensible assessments for identifying values, spiritual gifts, and more, which will help guide your powerful, non-judgmental questioning.
The Internet is lavish with coaching sites, such as some of the coaching questions I listed in this article. Don’t forget tools like Strengths Finder, www.strengthsfinder.com; Survey Monkey, http://www.survery monkey.com; Myers Briggs Personality Inventory, www.myersbrings.org; and MindMap, www.mindjet.com to name a few.