Asking Questions – The Coach Approach

In our last blog we talked about using “Why?” to engage others, to learn more and to explore ideas.

We take that a step further today with asking more questions — using a “coach approach” to leadership.

Good questions often lead to amazing answers — answers that can astound you and the person you asked, and can lead to leaps in success — yours, theirs and the organization’s.

The problem is, a lot of us ask terrible questions. We talk too much and listen too little.

We’re uncomfortable with a pause in conversation, we accept bad answers or worse, no answer. We’re embarrassed to ask the tough questions.

Will we look stupid?

Will they?

Bringing a coach approach is easier than it may sound, and leads to enormous gains (just ask anyone who has an executive coach helping them to succeed).

Here’s some of the key tips:

Ask open questions — in other words, questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response. This leads to dialogue without an accusatory tone and builds a comfortable rapport. To watch this technique in action, watch an experienced journalist on a panel news discussion or watch a good talk show host interview a guest – pick your favourite, then watch the technique. (Find some links to good interviewers at the bottom of this note).

Ask questions one at a time — when we get into an interesting stream of thought, our questions pile up. But, asking more than one at once can confuse the listener, and can lead them down our path of thinking, rather than theirs.

Be curious — don’t fish for an answer. Bad questions fish for the answer you want, really good questions are based on curiosity. I find it helps to start the question in your own mind with “I’m curious about….” — that helps you come from a point of curiosity.

So when an employee is explaining how a mistake happened we might be tempted to ask “why didn’t you do it ‘this or that’ way?”

A better question might be “I see where you decided to go this way — what prompted you to choose that?”

You may learn something about your company processes that misled that employee.

You may find a gap in information sharing that left them poorly informed when making a decision. And, interestingly, you may find the option you would have chosen (‘this or that’) might not have been the best choice either.

In other words, you might learn something, the employee might learn something and the whole organization may benefit

Be comfortable with silence — being asked an insightful question often requires time to articulate an answer. Compassionate silence is ok, it leads to insight. If your question was based on curiosity, the silence will be compassionate. If the question was fishing, the silence will be accusatory

Interject with another question when necessary — sometimes you’ll face the opposite of silence — the other person will begin to ramble. Try interrupting with a thoughtful, curious question. Most people don’t mind interruptions that allow them to continue talking and help them focus on the issue.

Repeat back what you’ve heard — it shows the other person that you are engaged and listening, and it confirms you are both on the same page. This is when you may use a “yes” or “no” question to make sure you’re understanding. “So are you saying that the product you are selling will provide us with faster data on a user friendly system?”

Experienced executive coaches use insightful questions to help their clients achieve great things. Bringing a “coach approach” of asking questions to your organization can help do the same thing.

Getting There With “Why?”

A recent article in Fast Company, the innovative business magazine, got me thinking about the question “WHY?”

Anyone who has ever spent time with a pre-schooler can tell you two things about the single word question “WHY?” — it is both very effective and highly irritating.

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Well, because the oceans are reflecting the blue up to the sky.”


Hmmm, two “whys” and if you’re like me, you’re likely stumped.

And, you’re likely also thinking more deeply about something you’ve previously taken for granted.

That inherent curiosity of a pre-schooler, combined with some diplomacy and emotional intelligence in asking “why” can lead to some deeper thinking in your workplace too.

I want to talk about getting there with ‘Why?”.

Imagine you are CEO of this company and a young exec on your team comes to your office…

Him: “We need to have a presence on Facebook”
You: “Hmmm, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Why should we be on Facebook?”
Him: “Because all of our competitors are on Facebook.”
You: “That’s a good point, a lot of them are. Why are they on Facebook?”
Him: “Because they want to position themselves as forward looking and youthful.”
You: “Ahh, yes, that could be true. Why do they want to position themselves that way?”
Him: “Because they want to make more money with young people.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

A final “why” might be in order “ah ok, you might have something there.

Why do we want to make more money from young people?”

The answer may be obvious, or it might not.

Asking why will help you get there quickly and will help you decide if Facebook really is the obvious answer.

At this point you’ve achieved a couple of things in a very short time — you’ve taken the conversation far deeper than it started; you’ve inspired the young exec to identify the challenge, not just the solution and you’ve demonstrated a keen interest in his work.

Thought for the day: Are there moments in your workday when you could try “Why?” with colleagues and staff?

Asking questions like “Why” is one of the techniques coaches use to help executives and senior leaders advance their ideas. Stay tuned for our next blog on taking this concept to the next level — using curiosity to bring a coach-approach to your leadership.

How will you make 2013 your best year yet?

As the New Year starts we hear a lot about resolutions. “I’m going to lose weight, land my dream job, turn my business around.” Some people are rigorous “resolvers” on January 1st, some succeed, many don’t, some simply refuse to participate, often because “I never live up to them anyway!”

One great way to live up to them, and to achieve business and career goals that might normally be out of reach is to work with an executive coach. Coaching works under the premise that all of the answers are within you — the coach helps you find the answers, set the goals and launch yourself to success. An executive coach is like your “thinking partner” helping you to reach further than you’ve reached before. A coach will support you with:

  • Listening and Questioning: securing blocked-out time to think;
  • Vision: co-creating a plan to support your growth;
  • Accountability: keeping you aligned with your plan;
  • Support: encouraging and challenging you to step up every step of the way;
  • Celebration: marking your achievements and success, and

Perhaps most importantly:

  • Return on Investment: We will help you turn your small investment in coaching into a larger return for you and your business.

Regardless of where you stand on resolutions, the start of a new year is a time of renewal, a moment when we tend to reflect back on the last year, and look ahead to the new year. If you were to be completely honest with yourself, what is the really remarkable professional achievement you would like to achieve in 2013?  

Now how are you going to get there?

Now is the time to see if your company will cover the cost of executive coaching services to achieve great ROI and to help you reach your full potential.


As many of you know, since leaving the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I have started my own executive coaching firm — Padraig Coaching & Consulting.

My goal with Padraig Coaching & Consulting is to share some of the incredible experiences I have had in my career, to help make your job easier.

Whether that involves communicating better with stakeholders, donors, investors, government and media, or it means assisting you to make the most gains in the shortest time when starting a new leadership role, or whether it means facilitating and managing important discussions and meetings – helping you and your team or your board focus on the strategically important issues — I’m here to help.

I’ve lived these experiences (sometimes for the good, and sometimes with important lessons learned) that I can now share, to make it easier for you.

So what is this newsletter? This E-mail newsletter will come to you every 2 – 3 weeks, it will be short and to the point, and it will offer some suggestions, some tips, some tools that you can use in your daily management life, and that we use here at Padraig Coaching & Consulting.

We hope you’ll share the newsletter with others by clicking on “Forward to a Friend” in the top left of each email, “like” us and engage with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and let us follow you. Padraig Coaching & Consulting is a social medium built on making management easier, and keeping our networks informed.