Questioning Skills in Coaching

A good coach and mentor will stand out by the questions they ask, the listen they demonstrate and the learning they bring out in the learner. Being able to ask purposeful, impactful, challenging yet sensitive questions is a learnt skill and very powerful. Many coaches will have honed their questioning skills and techniques through the variety of coaching situations and scenarios. They may have reflected and examined what questions work and draw information and awareness out and those that draw a blank and return little.


Learning to effectively question takes time and practice. During the process old habit will creep in, but that’s ok, many of us will have had years of unlearning to contend with. You will see that as you start to ask good questions, conversations and learners will open up and you will see the learner processing and thinking through what you have asked.


The actual basics behind good questions are straight-forward and ones which any basic communication training course will impart – open and closed questions. The difference in coaching and mentoring is the formation of the questions and how they are asked.


It is often said that there is no place for ‘closed questions’ in coaching, yet they are often the questions we find ourselves slipping into the most. Closed questions, or those questions that tend to only give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer have a firm role to play:


  • Sometimes we simply need a yes or no answer to tell us an answer
  • When you want someone’s agreement (or not) to something
  • On occasion there may well be only two choices and we need to understand what the persons choice is
  • When you are clarifying or confirming the facts over something, closed questions have a place
  •  Similarly if there is a need to check understanding of a fact or facts


‘Open questions’ on the other hand play a different and potentially more powerful role in coaching and mentoring, they:


  • Get the learner to provide more detailed information, ideas and opinions
  • Help build relationships and rapport within the coaching or mentoring relationship
  • Encourage the learner to be more involved in the conversation and engage and commit around the discussion areas
  • Give the freedom for the learner to answer more openly, in their own way expressing feelings and emotions
  • Allow the coach or mentor to get the learner to demonstrate their understanding of a decision, thought, feeling or emotion.

Most of all open questions get the learner to provide more information about themselves, the situation or development area. If they do this it helps the coach to facilitate the conversation, bring out learning and provide opportunities for change.


5 WH – what, where, who, when and how, but not why!

Traditionally those questions which start with what, where, who, when and how will illicit the information that the coach seeks and can work with for the learner.

WHAT? – a great approach for opening up conversations and beginning to draw out meaningful information from the learner. Also good for beginning the awareness raising process

WHERE? – helps to begin to get the learner to identify not only the location of causes of issues but also opportunities to apply new behaviours and skills.

WHO? – focuses the learner on identifying who might model the behaviours they seek, opportunities to gain feedback also who can support them when developing new skills and behaviours

WHEN? – like ‘where’, when helps to pinpoint both areas when there might be triggers to behaviours as well as gaining commitment to actions for change.

HOW? – this gets the learner to consider approaches to implementing their ideas, demonstrating thinking process, at the same time giving them and the coach confidence or need to explore more.


A challenge to questioning comes to the use of ‘why’ as part of the coach’s toolkit of questions. Under normal circumstances there is nothing seemingly wrong with its use, however dig a little deeper and also explore the impact of the word and as a coach you may well challenge its use.


When the word ‘why’ is used in a question it can often be interpreted as a challenge and potentially a challenge to someone’s fundamental values and beliefs. Early on in a coaching or mentoring relationship this could cause problems. The person is being asked to justify or explain their reasons for something, the foundations for their approach to work, life and relationships could be seen as under threat. Some also see the use of ‘why’ as being lazy by the coach. Far better to take time to think and create a questions which get the learner to think and move forward than feel awkward in how to answer a probing question.


Types of Questions

As well as open and closed questions within these there are different types of question that can be used in different circumstances for different reasons, also some questions which are not helpful to coach or learner.

  • Challenging – a way of getting the learner to consider ideas opportunities and perspectives outside of their normal or typical thinking or stretching them outside of their comfort zone. E.g. ‘How do you know this is the best approach to consider?’
  • Clarifying – an approach by the coach to gain information to ensure they understand the learners perspective and thinking. E.g. ‘Where did you try it?’ ‘Who did you get feedback from?’
  • Hypothetical – used by the coach to get the learner to think differently by getting them to use think in different contexts or situations. E.g. ‘What if you were leading the team, what would be your approach?’
  • Comparing – gets the learner to think about identifying different ways or approaches. E.g. ‘Out of the options, what do you think is the best fit?
  • Probing – exploring areas, or answers in more detail. E.g. ‘What were your reasons for taking that approach?’ ‘What part of the conversation did you find difficult?’


Questions commonly used by coaches but not helpful for the learner:

  • Leading – used by a coach to encourage the learner to find the answer they want or need them to. E.g. What about speaking to X person?’
  • Long – sometimes through nerves or want to ‘help’ the learner the coach will present a long sentence with a question at the end. Whilst done with the best of intent, the learner can be left not being able to remember the gist of the original sentence
  • Several questions in one – several questions in the same breath from the coach can leave the learner wondering what question it is they need to answer first and forgetting what the first question originally was.


Tell me more….

Sometimes a coach or mentor will want to encourage the learner to stick with a line of thinking or an idea. ‘Tell me more about…’ can on occasion be a useful way of further exploring rather than asking another question. It should not be a default approach as, like ‘why’ it can be seen as a little lazy on the part of the coach.


Other expressions of a similar nature are ‘explain more to me about…’ or ‘go on…’ or ‘carry on…’, but again these should be used sparingly and never to replace a meaningfully constructed question.


Developing your coach questioning skills

  • Become more aware of your approach to questions by getting feedback from peers, reports and colleagues on they types of questions you typically ask.
  • Before going into meetings or 121s prepare a set of open questions to draw information out from the meeting. The questions should reflect the purpose of the meeting.
  • Practice your questioning and become more conscious of your questioning by thinking about the questions before you ask them. Seems obvious, but try!