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Great Probing Questions Are Neutral.

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

Great Probing Questions Are Neutral.

  • “Why did you ever take that job in the first place?”
  • “Tell me about how you’ve allowed your job to rob you of your personal time.”
  • “You mentioned that you loved being recognized. How has your need for recognition at work affected your family life?”

The problem here is that these questions aren’t neutral. For instance, the clear implication of the first question is, “You never should have taken that job in the first place!” The coach is not asking the client to think, or even asking for more information. The purpose of the question is to bring the client around to the coach’s predetermined conclusion about the situation. That’s not probing, it’s telling.

The use of the word “why” is also problematic. “Why” questions touch on our motives for what we do. The trouble with asking “Why?”  is that no matter how careful you are it always come out sounding like you believe the person’s motives are impure. Because it’s difficult to make “why” questions neutral, many coaches avoid them altogether.

Here’s how to rephrase the first question to make it neutral: “Tell me a little about what led you to take that position.”

The second question is (“Tell me about how you’ve allowed your job to rob you of your personal time”) is more subtle. But here again, the coach has made a judgment: the client has allowed something untoward to happen to him. The question says, “The way you are feeling is your own fault.” On the one hand, it is true that the client chose this position. On the other hand, taking this job may have been a decision God Himself orchestrated, for any number of reasons. The point is, the coach has taken it upon himself to decide what’s right or wrong. Instead, let the client make that call by asking a neutral question: “What led up to your being in this place where you’re feeling robbed of your personal time?”

On the surface, the third example (“You mentioned that you loved being recognized. How has your need for recognition at work affected your family life?”) appears to be an honest, neutral query. But on closer examination, it too is skewed: the phrase “need for recognition” gives it away. The client never talked about needing recognition. Probably what’s happened is that the coach has decided that neediness has compromised the client’s home life. This is not a neutral request for information; it’s a fishing expedition trolling for evidence to support the coach’s theory about what the problem is. A great probing question doesn’t have any judgment or pre-existing conclusion in it.

The Heart/Mouth Connection

In all these examples, the question wasn’t neutral because the coach stopped withholding judgment. When the coach quit being neutral inside, what he said ceased to be neutral, too. The reason neutrality is so challenging is that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). According to Jesus, whatever is in your heart is going to come out of your mouth, no matter how carefully you try to control it. You can know all the techniques, and offer the most skillfully crafted questions, but if you’ve decided internally that the client doesn’t have a clue, you won’t be able to hide it.

The terrible (in the sense that God’s holiness is terrible) implication of this verse for a coach is that the only way to coach well is to never judge your client in your heart. Not only can you not speak your judgments, you can’t even think them. Coaching calls you to a whole new plane in how you look at people.

This is the kind of thing Jesus was talking about in Matthew chapter five: that to look on a woman with lust in your heart is the same as going to bed with her; or to call someone a fool (the Aramaic word would probably translate well as “airhead”) carries the same penalty as murder. Sin starts in your heart, your thoughts and your intentions. When it is full-grown it comes out in words and actions, but the seed germinated and took root within. Becoming a great coach requires a fundamental change on the inside. You’ll need to be transformed into a person who can listen to another’s story and not think, “Boy, I never would have done that,” or “What was she thinking?” or even “I see your problem.” Coaches withhold judgment (consistently believe in the other person) so that every question they voice is truly neutral.

The thing that has most helped me change in this area is being wrong so often. Just today I was conversing with a client who is launching a consulting business and starting a doctoral program simultaneously. When I first heard about this plan, all the alarm bells in my head went off. I’ve started several businesses, and I know the kind of maximum effort it takes to succeed. Having two major, unrelated projects seemed like a stressful distraction—why not put off the degree until the business was up and running? So I asked him about it. However, he assured me that the time to do the degree was now. I wasn’t sure it would work, but “when in doubt, listen to the client.” So I chose to believe that he knew what he was doing and wait and see what happened.

I turned out to be wrong again. After several conversations with his thesis advisor, the client chose to do a major industry survey for his doctoral project. Doing the survey has energized him, given him new confidence as a consultant, opened doors to new business and added pizzazz to his presentations. I can easily see how this project could be the key to his future success as a consultant. It would have been a sad mistake if I had talked him out of what his heart told him was the right decision.

Many times I’ve thought a client was overreaching, taking a wrong step, violating a principle or simply being shortsighted. There are times when I’m right, but my batting average is well below .500. It is much easier than it used to be for me to believe in my clients, because I discovered that my judgment isn’t always so hot. Coach for a while, and you’ll discover that truth for yourself.

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