Core Skills – Powerful Questions

Core Skills – Powerful Questions


The ICF describes the skill of Powerful Questioning as the ability to ask questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the coaching relationship and the student.

This is what the teacher needs to pay attention to when coaching.

Ask questions that reflect your active listening and an understanding of the student’s perspective. Actually, paying attention to what the student is saying will automatically give you what you need to ask powerful questions.

Ask questions that evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action (e.g., those questions that challenge the student’s assumptions). You will notice that these questions go downwards into what’s important to the student, and forwards into the future that the student is creating. They don’t go backwards into history or explanations.

Ask open-ended questions that create greater clarity, possibility or new learning. Questions such as “What ..” will be the most frequent, “Who … ” is useful, “How … ” is good for looking at strategies, “When … ” is great for planning. “Why …” is seldom useful.

Ask questions that move the student towards what they desire, not questions that ask them to justify previous actions or look backwards. Yes indeed!

Indications of a coaching conversation
Listening to a professional coach you will hear them ask a large number of questions. Indeed this is one indication that the conversation you are listening to has coaching intentions.

So where do all these coaching questions come from, and how will you think of the right questions to ask during the coaching session when you are the coach?

My skill in asking powerful questions is one that has developed over time, and has had several distinct phases. Initially I asked open-ended questions, ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. I made note of which open questions had a strong beneficial effect on my clients. The next phase saw me using with new clients the kind of open-ended questions that were powerful for previous clients. The last phase saw me move towards focusing on questions that are powerful for the client that I had in front of me.

So let’s start there!

The aim of asking powerful questions is to reveal the information that is needed to get maximum benefit for the coaching relationship and the client. Basically that means being honest about what is going on. Immediately, without judgement, ask the question. Such as…

“How strongly will your attitude affect your chances of … reaching your goal?”

You be aiming to evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action, so it’s important to keep your own attitudes and opinions out of the tone of the question.

Often powerful questions will challenge the client’s assumptions about what is happening, and you will do well to show respect for their view of the world; at the same time as you are questioning it.

Open vs Closed Questions
The reason coaches ask open-ended questions is that open questions create greater clarity, open up possibilities or new learning. Closed questions that can only be answered with yes, or no have the effect of snding the conversation.

Mostly you will ask questions that move the client towards what they desire, rather than questions that ask them to justify themselves or look backwards at past actions.

Student’s expectations
Early in the coaching relationship and if the difference between the coach and teacher roles is not made clear, students may well expect the coach to be looking for the “right” answer to their question. They may also expect the coach to have the answers as well as questions, and to give the answers when the student cannot answer for themselves. In that case you need to make your expectations as coach clearer to the student.

Powerful questions and the client’s response
For me the only way to learn which open-ended questions worked as powerful questions was to take note of the clients’ response. When the client was lost in thought, changed body language significantly, or reported after the coaching which questions had had the biggest effect.

The effect of powerful questions on the coach
When I saw that the client seemed to have been “hit by a bomb” by one of my questions, made a breakthrough in what was vitally important to them, dramatically changed the way they thought etc I felt hugely powerful, deeply rewarded and humbled.

Corrective coaching
There are many situations in school where a coaching approach can be used in the conversation. In these situations you might be seeking to change or correct the student’s behaviour:

  • late arrival to lessons
  • disturbing other students
  • work not handed in on time
  • repeated bad behaviour

It is important to note that there are always several agendas (sets of goals). The student in question, their parents, their friendship group, the class, the teacher are a few of the people that have agendas

A step by step coaching approach that could be used:

  1. Make the agendas clear
  2. Ask for mutual respect
  3. Seek a new balance
  4. Find new behaviour to support the new balance
  5. Find resources

Making the agendas clear
How, you might ask, can you make the different agendas clear when there are just two people in the conversation, you the coach and the student

What’s the student’s agenda? Ask!
What’s the class agenda? Guess!
What’s the teacher agenda? If it’s you, tell, or ask the other teacher

Challenging the student’s behaviour
It’s always better to allow students a couple of chances to come up with their own new behaviours. A lot depends on the student’s maturity, acceptance of responsibility and willingness to change their own behaviour

  • We see that you have this behaviour….
  • What benefits do you get out of that behaviour?
  • There are side effects on me, the teacher, the class … the effects are … and we don’t want to have them
  • How can you get your benefits with less side effects?

The source of powerful questions
Recalling the questions at the start of this section “Where do all these questions come from, and how will you think of the right questions to ask during the coaching session when you are the coach?” What answer can I give?

The clue to where the questions come from lies in your thinking; or rather not thinking.

“Listen with an open mind, and allowing the questions to form in your belly”, sounds like mumbo jumbo until you have experienced it happening; and seen the effect the questions have on your client. It’s hard to formulate a better description of how the question pops out of my mouth, having been only an instinctive buzz in my stomach. The question doesn’t have time to go up to my head and be formulated, it just pops out. Well, that’s how I want to describe it for now.

This is part of a series of 12 blogs about the ICF Core Coaching Skills