How to ask clear and direct coaching questions

In the updated ICF PCC markers for evaluating coaching sessions we read: “Coach asks clear, direct, primarily open-ended questions, one at a time, at a pace that allows for thinking, feeling or reflection by the client”, and “Coach uses language that is generally clear and concise”. This sounds straightforward enough, but was something that I was struggling with for a long time. In Solution Focused therapy the practitioners language is tentative (if you go to youtube and search for “de Shazer” or “Insoo Kim Berg”, you will find some examples — here is our playlist).

We try and match our language to the client’s language and when we are speaking, we see how the language seems to land with the client and self-correct. This makes for some complicated language! In fact, spoken language is that way — we don’t speak as we write. Personally, I think that conciseness is overrated. Our conversation partners are usually able to deal with much more vagueness than the PCC markers give them credit for. However, since it is part of the PCC markers, it makes sense to train ourselves to ask “clear, direct, primarily open-ended questions, one at a time etc.”. So how to learn this?

Here are a few ideas:

Clear and concise language

I would assume that a “clear question” is a question that can be easily understood by the client. Using our client’s language goes a long way. We can safely assume that the client knows the words that they are using, so using these words will make a question clear. Also, shorter questions with less subclauses are usually easier to understand. Some interesting insights in how to speak and write as understandably as possible can be found in government initiatives to create accessible documents (plain language, simple language — here is an example from the US government). Solution Focused coaching has an advantage here: we train ourselves to use client’s words, and we also try and avoid 5000$ words.

But how to learn this? I would suggest recording a coaching session and creating a transcript. Then go over your sentences and see how you could phrase things more simply. Usually, our language becomes unclear when we speak as we are thinking. What helps to generate more clarity and conciseness is if we take time to think before we speak. Depending on your habits this might be easier or more difficult to learn. Be patient with yourself, you’ll get there.

Direct questions

A direct question is a question that can be recognized as such: it has a question word (e.g. “what”) in the beginning, requires a yes/no answer or a decision. Sometimes in coaching our reflecting back what we heard and the questions can become intertwined so that it is hard to ascertain what is the question. To train yourself to ask direct questions, I would suggest you try and create a gap between your summaries and reflections and the question. Here is an example:

Coach: “Ah, so you would like to be more creative and expressing your ideas seems very important to you. Am I picking out the right things here?”

Client: “Yeah”

Coach: “Suppose you were more creative, what would you be noticing?”

as opposed to:

Coach: “Ah, so you would like to be more creative and expressing your ideas seems very important to you, so that’s kinda cool — so, I’m like wondering, I mean, you’d be noticing your creativity, right? um, yeah — what would that be?”

One question at a time

That one was a killer for me. My mind used to constantly create new questions and BETTER questions. So when I had asked one, I was immediately drawn to a correction. Boy, was that difficult to stop. What helped me was to notice when I was speaking a question mark and then refraining from saying anything else. My experience was that client’s could often use the “not-so-perfect” question just as well as the perfect ones that my mind had created in the meantime. So for practice, I’d suggest you try the same. If you hear yourself speak a “?”, shut up :-).

Hope this helps — if you’d like to discuss coaching language, try out things, learn about how we can help you get to an ICF credential, join us for one of our weekly free coaching meetup and exchange sessions:

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