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In my world, YES. Within the context of being a “coach manager” (someone who not only allows others to come up with the solutions but actually facilitates others in creating the solution) you can actually do more harm than good if you ask a bad question.
What’s a bad question?
In one lunch and learn about this topic, when I asked the audience of managers “what question do you generally ask your staff?” one woman proudly said “I ask them if they understand what I want them to do and have them repeat it back to me.” I cringed deep inside because clearly I had my work cut out for me in explaining what type of question would allow her staff to excel and develop.
Imagine riding in a convertible car. You can feel the rain on your face or the sunshine if you’re lucky. You can let the wind play with your hair (if you have enough of it) and smell the skunk that just went by. This is what asking a good question, an open-ended question feels like. It lets in data and feelings that a closed ended (a regular car in the above analogy for those who haven’t had their cereal this morning) would never grant you access to.
What’s an open ended question?
Seems the answer would be intuitive, I guarantee you it’s not. An open ended good question has more than 2 possible answers. Any question that offers a limitless number of responses, I’m sure you can agree is open ended. Who, what, how are questions that are generally great for discovering information and are definitely open ended. However, any question starting with a would, should, could is not so great and is usually the beginning of a closed ended question where you’re trying to exert your answer on someone else. Bad bad manager you…
Try it on and see. Imagine your assistant is calling you and would like to know how to deal with a conflict she’s having with the receptionist (horrors!). Would it develop her skills in taking on the challenge and developing the solution herself if you were to ask “what do you think we should do about this?” versus asking “shouldn’t you be talking to her directly about this?”
In the first question, you’re honoring her in showing her that you trust her to deal with what you privately consider a time waster for you and getting her to deal with it versus giving her the solution. What happens then if your solution backfires? It’s going to be placed squarely on your shoulders and gives no accountability to your assistant who is herself embroiled in this conflict.
In coaching, questioning is the most delicate of art forms. The panel of judges who certifies a coach can instantly fail the student for asking leading and closed ended questions that try to lead the coachee to the coach’s own agenda and solution. Why should a manager get off scott free?
It is the hardest thing in the world to overcome your lifelong training to offer advice and solutions to someone’s problem who’s trusted you enough to come to you with it.
In my workshops when we do group exercises to practice coaching. I watch managers almost start to formulate their solution to the coachee’s problem in the first minute of the coaching simulation. Despite dire instructions and a list of scripted open ended questions in their hands, they are still providing answers through ‘should, could and would’ questions. It’s enough to want to hit your head on the boardroom table!
Why is it so hard to stop giving solutions?
For one thing, you’ve been paid all your life to do it. For another, it’s the way the human mind works, to try with all your being to come up with an answer when asked a question. Lastly of course is the fact that it’s quicker and easier because we don’t like to think that we don’t have all the right answers (even when we’re clueless). It takes monumental effort and self insight to take a step back and to help and allow others to come up with their own answers when confronted with an issue.
What if they give you the wrong answer?
When my client Nick (not his real name) told me that he was quitting his job to start a speed dating business, I couldn’t tell him that I thought it would end up with him on lonely street with a dime left in his pocket (even though I was dying to). As his coach, I simply made sure that he was aware of the consequences and the full situation at hand before pulling the trigger on his day job. Luckily through our work together, he realized that the speed dating business wasn’t going to get him a girlfriend like Jennifer Garner or be as lucrative as he’d imagined and together we reframed his next steps.
The point is that even though Nick did come up with the wrong answer to his life’s unfulfilled desires and despite the fact that I knew that this was the wrong answer with every fiber of my being, as a coach the only thing I could do was to help him discover more about the full scope of his solution and to offer up my 2 cents simply as a non judgmental perspective.
As I mentioned before, change is the hardest thing to achieve as human beings because we’re complex and touchy creatures. Take a small step in asking just one open ended question with everyone you speak to on the next day and one more on the next day and so on until you’re a proud card carrying member of the so called enlightened “coach-manager” club.
With kindness as always,

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