Research Paper By Katharine Britt
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
It is obvious you have no ambition or drive… (ICA Mentor coaching session May 2019)
If this peer coaching session was a teaching hospital; the coachee was dead on the table and the coach about to go through a malpractice review. That simple sentence, filled with judgment, lost the trust of the client completely, and the coach did not even seem aware.
It is vital for a coach to establish trust and safety with the coachee for a successful coaching session. Clarity, active listening, and powerful questioning are tools for creating that trust.
Clarity starts when a coach in advance shares with a client what coaching is and what it is not. Coaching is not therapy, consulting, or mentoring. The coach shares the knowledge that the coachee knows what is best for themselves more than anyone else and that the coach is a peer, there to provide support and questioning that helps the client to develop action plans to achieve their goal.
Coaching focuses on the present and future, the client’s strengths, life purpose, and goals and working with clients to create possibilities to enrich their lives. Based on the belief that all individuals are whole, capable individuals, coaching assumes the client is expert, able to determine what is best for their lives and the coach works along with them to maximize their personal and professional potentials, to close the gaps to create extraordinary lives. (Dr. Patrick Williams “Becoming a Professional Coach 2007)
A coach is clear with the coachee about the business parameters of a coaching session, like the length of a session, cost, and how to cancel the sessions. A professional coach should follow the ICF Code of Ethics and the 11 Core Competencies, which are in “four clusters” that are all “core or critical for any competent coach to demonstrate.” (The Gold Standard in Coaching-ICF Website coachfederation.org/core competencies).
The coach needs to be curious about the coachee. What the coachee wants to discuss, what the coachee wants from the end of the session, what measures of success the coachee wants to create and what it is going to take for the coachee to get there. The session is about the coachee, and the coachee is the expert.
According to the International Coach Federation:
Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful, and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:
- Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
- Encourage client self-discovery
- Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
- Hold the client responsible and accountable
Without setting a foundation for the client to understand the relationship of a coach/coachee, there can be confusion and frustration for both leading to a strained and untrusting session.
Give your coachee full, undivided attention. The shuffling of papers while searching for a next question, your phone ringing, losing your audio connection with the coachee are examples of distractions that adversely affect a session. The “Drop Everything” key to listening (Effective Coaching-Cook and Poole) is preparing for your session by creating a space for listening without disturbance. If your phone is ringing, family members popping in, television on in the background, coaching with Skype from a loud, public place, are not going to fill a coachee with confidence in a coach’s abilities.
The coaching relationship is about partnership and collaboration. The session is not about the coach’s thoughts or inputs and how to direct a client to the answer the coach thinks is best. The more a coach listens, the more they realize the capabilities of the coachee and all the information is within the coachee. A coach is recommended to listen to the coachee 80% of the time and speak 20% of the time. The active listening of a coach builds rapport and trust. Coaches listen for “greatness” (Robert Hargrove 2003). A coach listens for this greatness, which will create a moment for a well-placed question that can lead to a breakthrough for the coachee. Listening to this way is more than just paying attention to the story. As stated in “The Business and Practice of Coaching” (Lynn Grodzki and Wendy Allen) a coach listens for:
- Inherent strengths
- What is said versus what is not said
- Indications of hidden resourcefulness
- Moments of unconscious brilliance
- Repetition, stuckness, self-sabotage and unmet needs
Listening with a genuine curiosity to your coachee helps creates a strong relationship. Going with intuition with a question due to listening to what has been said. To understand what is going on with a coachee, you have to hear it, reflect upon it and respond with a question or share an observation (after asking permission) that will move the session forward. Rachel Naomi Remen says, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we can ever give each other is our attention…” (Narrative Coaching, David D. Drake 2018)
Coaching is about listening for dreams, goals, the client’s strengths and tools. A coach is not looking for solutions that distract us from our client. A coach gives feedback on what seems to be inspiring the coachee. A coach listens to help the client discover what the client wants, needs, and potential. “The coaches’ responses as listeners focus on clarifying and magnifying the clients’ desires.” (Becoming a Professional life coach Patrick Williams/Diane Menendez 2007)
A coach can worry less about what question to ask next and stay curious with what the coachee is revealing, which will move the client forward in the session. By genuinely listening to the coachee, a place of discovery can be created.
What questions should a Coach ask to build trust in the client? There is no magic list to follow, though when first learning a coach can be consumed by finding that one great question that solves the clients’ problem and misses what the client just said. A coach will build trust with the coachee by staying curious about what the coachee is saying and the emotions that are being revealed by how the words are being spoken. Our intuition and curiosity will move us to the next clear question to ask. If we are just asking questions from a list, we are not supporting our client and possibly preventing the coaching conversation from going forward to the desired outcome, just going in a circle of frustration for the coachee and the coach. Never creating the coaching agreement or a clear idea of what the client wants to accomplish can cause this to happen, which can be tracked to what the coach has asked.
A coach will ask questions for the client to establish the goal for the session. The coach will focus on the client; the client will focus on the goal and outcome. The coach will be in the “ask and invite” mode of questioning. “What” is the most powerful word in a coaching question.
- What does this mean for you?
- What is your desired outcome?
- What needs to be resolved for this to be accomplished?
- What would success look like?
According to the International Coach Federation, Competency 6, “Powerful Questioning:
- A coach asks questions about the clients thinking, beliefs, values, needs, and wants.
- A coach’s question help the client to expand their current thinking or create new thinking about themselves.
- Questions help the coachee to move toward the desired outcome.
- A coach is to ask clear, direct, and open-ended questions, one at a time that allows reflection and thought by the coachee.
- A coach will not ask leading questions that contain a conclusion or direction.
The reasoning behind a coach asking questions and not telling or advising a client is that when a coachee discovers their answer, it is so much more potent for the coachee and their desire to successfully put into action will be stronger because it is their idea, their solution. They are more committed to the outcome than if someone tells them what to do because they have had a discovery, a breakthrough to a new way of thinking. The coachee has motivation because it is their idea.
Coaching questions are asked to fill the gap between where the client is now (current reality) and what they want. The coaching conversation creates action or insight and that the client discovers they have choices. The coach uses questions to challenge and support the client. As Dave Ellis is quoted in Becoming a Professional Coach (Williams/Menendez 2007):
“ Coaching gives clients the opportunity to think what they have not thought, say what they have not said, dream what they have not dreamt, and create what they have not created.”
The coaching conversation is to move forward, not backward, for the client to become aware of current reality so they can respond not to react and to be able to see the options available to them. If a coach is asking questions that go back into the story and missing opportunities for questions that create forward momentum, the client may get repetitive and stay stuck.
Question styles to be avoided in a coaching conversation are closed questions, rambling questions, stacking questions, leading questions, rhetorical questions, interpretive questions and why questions.
Closed questions are evident because they can be answered by yes or no. “Do you have any other choices?” is a closed question that can be reframed to “what other choices do you have?
Rambling questions are so long the coachee will usually ask the coach, “What?” or a clear, “I don’t understand what you are asking me.” This question could possibly create a moment or two of doubt in the coachee. Coaches can take a moment, take a breath, and ask one question and trust the process of the coaching conversation. Stacking questions, where a coach at one time asks two or more questions also breaks the flow of a session. Stick to one question. If a coach releases the quest for the “perfect question” and listens, staying curious, the next question will occur. If it doesn’t, “tell me more” works or “what else?”
Leading questions to point the client toward the answer that the coach thinks is best and may work in a consulting or mentor relationship though it is ineffective in a coaching session. A rhetorical question is a statement disguised as a question and can be perceived as a judgment of the coachee.
Interpretive questions or feedback destroys trust because the coach has put their interpretation of the words the coachee has used (like the opening sentence of this paper). A coach uses the clients own words in a question, for example, “What makes you frustrated with the assignment?” instead of “Why do you hate your job,” where the coach assumes an emotion or opinion of what the client is feeling.
The “Why” question when asked usually puts a person on the defensive, because it comes across as judgmental and that the coach knows better. For example, a “why did you do that?” can be reframed with a “what results were you hoping for in that situation?” As a general rule a why can be replaced with what and the session keeps on going forward?
Interrupting a coachee or talking over them can also shake up the trust in a session, perhaps sending a message that the coach is discounting the clients’ thoughts and what they are saying is not important. Though sometimes if a client gets lost in the story, we need to reaffirm the coaching agreement and ask, “Are we still on track for the outcome you wanted or has the focus changed?
Goal questions, exploration questions, and action questions can be as simple as “what makes this important to you? “What else do you want?
Tim Galleway said that coaching has three levels of conversation:
A conversation for awareness (getting the clearest possible picture of current reality), a conversation for choice (getting the clearest possible picture of the desired future outcome), and a conversation for trust (in which the client gains greater access to internal and external resources in order to move from current reality to the desired future). (The Language of Coaching Williams/Menendez 2007).
The questions can be simple yet powerful, and if a coach veers off, it takes a moment to refocus on the client, hear what they are saying and be curious and ask the next question.
For a coaching session to have trust and safety, a coach will be the support that asks clear questions. The coach knows that a client is a whole person who knows the answer that is best for them and the session reveals clarity for where the client is, where they want to go, and the action steps to get there. The coachee is the decision-maker and the agenda maker with a coach as a partner who moves in the direction the coachee wants to go, developing a genuine, trusting and safe coaching conversation that moves toward insight or action.
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Modern Language Association 8th edition formatting by BibMe.org.