June 16, 2023

Don't ask these questions -- you'll make me mad!

Ask me a question that you know the answer to, and I will respond unfavorably to say the least. This happens rarely in my life. Recently, I experienced being asked questions to which the person who was asking knew the answer to in two different contexts: one was completely ok, the other had me wishing it was socially acceptable to throw shoes.

The helpful and acceptable scenario

I am currently involved in an intensive Arabic course (you know, I am a language nerd who sits down for a good read with a grammar book). In this context, it is very helpful when the teacher repeats vocabulary with the group. What was “foreigner” again in Arabic? Arghs…. My brain goes looking for the word. It’s not that I haven’t heard it 5 times in the last 30 minutes… The teacher’s question helps me practice the process of vocabulary retrieval. If they did not ask me, I would not go looking. The practice strengthens me, there is no breach in the relationship and no consequences when I get it wrong. The teacher is simply doing their job.

The less helpful scenario

An old white man asks me a question as I was just starting to give a talk. He clearly knew the answer to the question he was asking as he was going to present on a similar topic later on. As it is, sadly, not customary to throw shoes at conferences, I swallowed my internal cringe and answered his question as if he did not know the answer. With perfect hindsight, I wish I had said something like: “Ah, can you tell me what about this is especially interesting or unknown to you?” with a curious and harmless air. But as you know, the best replies happen two days later in the shower. I don’t want to speculate about the intentions of the old white man. There are some unfavorable narratives that come to mind, but they are not helpful. What the question that the asker knew the answer to did was irritate me and almost let me lose my red thread.

What we can learn as coaches

Do NOT ask questions that you know the answer to. It turns you from a coach into a teacher at best (scenario number 1) and makes you an annoying irritation at worst (scenario number 2). As coaches, we engage with the client. We don’t want the client to give specific, “right” answers, but we are genuinely curious about what we are asking. Have a listen to your recordings – are there moments in which you think you know what the client should answer? If yes, what was going on there? How were you trying to be helpful in this moment? As coach? As teacher? As annoying know-it-all? What is in it for you when you move there?

Maybe these are useful questions to reflect on your assumptions about the client and you as a coach – maybe not. I sure don’t know the answer to them and I am glad about it 😊

If you want to ask some questions that you do not know the answer to, please join us at one of our free meetups and exchanges.

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