What's in a question?

What’s in a question?

I’ve been wondering about the effectiveness of the sorts of questions I commonly ask during during mentoring / coaching sessions.  I realise that I have a tendency to ask quite a few ‘Why?” questions.

Why do you think this (situation) is happening?

Why is …. important to you?

On reflection, this has probably come from an unconscious influence of Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ mantra, and of course Sinek’s assertion is that the ‘Why’ question is a powerful way of leading and inspiring colleagues to commit to the vision and purpose of an organisation, enterprise or business, and may not be as directly applicable to coaching.

I have encountered a number of posts and blogs recently that suggest that “wisdom accessing questions” start with ‘WHAT’.  According to this wisdom, questions that start with ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ are information seeking questions (which are useful in coaching to clarify a situation), but they are not “wisdom seeking questions”.   The former questions tend to elicit responses grounded in the past, and don’t produce the deeper insights that help you understand  what is important to the other person or  help them move forward to accomplish their goals.

 Accordingly, instead of asking ‘Why is this happening?’ (an information seeking question), ask ‘What do you need to do to get through this?’.  Instead of asking “How are you going to accomplish this?’, ask ‘If you had all of the time and resources you needed, what would you do?’ Instead of asking, ‘Why do you think you have this problem?’, ask ‘What can we do together to help you with this problem?’

And so on:

  • What are the biggest blockers that you encounter trying to make this happen?
  • What personal professional strengths can you bring to bare on this situation?

 According to Jim Dryburgh, whose post I’ve based this on:

It’s been found that more than 70% of people don’t know what they want when you ask them, but almost everyone knows what they don’t want. But, if you reflect the discussion back to them with a “what” question and keep your focus on solutions and the future, they will tap into their wisdom and discover what they want.

The obvious question now is:

What do you think ? What is your wisdom on the most productive questions to ask during coaching and mentoring?

 Best wishes for a successful and enriching year of mentoring.

Ngā mihi nui

Nick Major

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  • Kia ora Nick,

    Thank you for sharing such a thought provoking post with us. On reflecting, I think that I too ask too many Why questions and not enough What ones. I find that sometimes the best questions are the ones that aren't really asked at all but that the mentee asks themselves along the way. By this I mean, when they come along with something to discuss and after a few key words they reflect, ask deeper questions and find the answer for themselves. Powerful to watch.

    Ka kite 


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