Coaching Is About More Than Asking Questions

Goals are key to unlocking the talent around you.

I’ve seen a lot written about how important it is for managers to coach the people around them. Often, the enthusiasm about coaching is anchored in leaders asking more questions rather than telling others what to do.

Asking, not telling, is an admirable way to lead others, and is an important skill for coaching. Yet as someone who teaches leaders to coach others, just asking questions isn’t enough. You want them to set a goal and take ownership of their actions and results; simply asking questions isn’t enough for that.

What else is there? Start here:

Goals are at the heart of coaching. When the person you’re coaching declares a goal, there is something to shoot for, and a direction to your coaching conversation. If they don’t know what their goal is, ask questions that will help them to define it.

Ask  questions that are wide open. This is how you spark productive thinking in those you’re coaching. When you ask questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” the conversation ends. When you ask leading questions – those that have the answer you want embedded in them – you’ve led people down your path, not theirs. Questions like “What would you like to see happen?” are focused on their thinking and solutions.

Listen to people more than you talk. Together with asking great open-ended questions, you’ll find creative solutions. Silence is okay, since it often means someone is thinking. Don’t interrupt their thought processes by interjecting another question or (worse yet) your answers. You certainly want a two-way conversation in coaching, and you should be doing significantly less talking and a lot more listening than the other person.

And now for the hard parts:

Your mindset must be on the person you’re coaching. Seems simple, but your mind can stray when you’re listening and it’s all too easy to interject your thoughts and solutions into the conversation. Those aren’t really helpful to the other person’s ability to think. When you notice your mind straying, bring yourself back to listening. This is about them, not you.

You need to know that the person you’re coaching is capable of coming up with their own ideas. You must trust the coaching process and know that when you give someone your full presence, ask open-ended questions, and listen intently, magic can happen. Even if it doesn’t happen in that conversation at that moment, you’ve sparked something in the person you’re coaching that will bring them the wisdom they need at a later point.

A coaching conversation is a special kind of dialog that requires more of you than asking questions. When those open-ended questions are combined with deep listening, your unconditional presence, and an inner sense that they know the way forward, you will be coaching at your best. And the people you coach will have a shot at reaching their full potential.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.