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Asking Powerful Questions:

Sep 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Transformational Coaching

Asking Powerful Questions:

“The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep waters, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”                                                                  Proverbs 20:5

“The other day my son came home with a new girlfriend, Beth. They’d gone out several times, and he wanted her to meet his parents. Since it was the beginning of the school year, I asked her, “What’s going on in your life right now? Are you going back to school, or what?”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t decide whether to go back to school or keep my job or what,” she replied.

“‘Well,’ I asked, ‘Tell me a little about what you enjoy doing.’ Beth shared a number of things she enjoyed—working with her youth group, music, playing piano. While she liked her church, it was a small, declining ethnic congregation, and she felt stuck in a place with no future.

Beth must have mentioned the word “piano” about ten times in ten minutes of conversation, so I said, ‘It sounds like you really enjoy piano. Tell me more about that.’”

Her eyes lit up as she began talking about how much she loved playing and going to concerts. Clearly this was something she was really passionate about.

“Would there be an opportunity for you to pursue piano seriously—to really go after it?”

“Well, I really ought to go to school and get a career, and I need to keep my part-time job,” she temporized.

I knew nothing about her background or her abilities, so I asked, “What about your piano teacher? What does she think of your potential?”

“She gave me a great opportunity,” Beth responded, eyes sparkling. “She’s willing to recommend me to the top conservatory teacher in the whole city, if I’d commit to working on it—I’d have to practice five or six hours a day. I’d love to pursue that, but I couldn’t do it and keep my job.”

“So what would it cost to pursue that?”

“Maybe $75.00 a week for the lessons.”

“What would your folks think?”

“Well, if I really focused I think they’d support me…”

About that time my son came back in the room, and he and Beth took off for the evening. A week later I found out that she had made some big decisions. She kept her job at the clothing store, but she devoted the rest of her life to piano. Now when they have a date she’ll stop over at our house and practice for two hours before they go out! She approached the conservatory teacher and was accepted, and that became the stepping-stone for her to get into a great university piano program. She is living her dream. Her long-term goal is to teach piano—she loves to see other kids learn and have the opportunity to do what she enjoys so much.”

This was a life-changing conversation for Beth, and one of the most remarkable things was that it took place at all. How many teenagers would be willing to talk about their deepest hopes and aspirations the first time they met a friend’s parents? Questions made this conversation happen. Beth met someone who was genuinely interested in her, who took her ideas and her dreams seriously, who believed in her, who wanted to know more—and she naturally opened up. That one conversation could change the course of her whole life.

The Power of Questions

Questions are the second element of the coaching conversation [[see diagram]], the bread and butter of a coach. They are the main tools a coach uses to focus a conversation, foster exploration, push the client to dig deeper and reach higher, and ensure commitment. Much of what a coach says in a coaching conversation is in the form of questions.

Let’s debrief on the conversation with Beth to see what the coach did. There were several places where powerful questions led to breakthroughs. Beth didn’t know what she wanted to do next in life, so the coach asked her to talk about what she enjoyed. He believed that if she could discover her passion, she’d be motivated to pursue it. As the coach listened intuitively to Beth, he noticed an intuition indicator: a pattern. The word “piano” came up frequently. So he made an observation (“It sounds like you really enjoy piano”), which summarized what he heard, and then asked her a probing question about the indicator: “Tell me more about that.”

Notice that there’s nothing awe-inspiring about the question itself—it’s very simple. What makes this question powerful is that it communicates belief in what Beth is passionate about. His next question challenged Beth to take her own dreams seriously: “Would there be an opportunity for you to pursue piano?” So often in life all we hear are negative challenges—“Why did you do that?” or “You need to improve your performance to get a raise.” Even in challenging Beth, the coach communicated belief: “What if you would dare to live your dreams?”

In response, Beth voiced the standard, dream-killing obstacles she saw: I need a career, I need to keep my job and I need money. The conversation could have stopped right there. Up to this point, that’s where Beth had stopped in her own thinking. But the coach didn’t give up so easily. As he continued to ask about her potential and the possibilities, Beth began to think new thoughts and see a way to make her dream a reality.

The beauty of this type of approach is that the direction and the motivation came from Beth, not the coach. She went out and made her dream happen because she cared enough about it to actually do it. If the coach had given her advice and suggested the career path he thought was best for her, even if he was on the right track (“I really think you ought to purse this piano thing”), probably nothing would have changed. But by asking questions, the coach activated Beth’s own energies and motivation to reach the end that she wanted

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