The sublime art of asking a single coaching question that changes everything

The best coaches do less, not more. The more you talk, the less you learn about a client and how that person is thinking about challenges they face. The more you step in and solve the client’s problem, the less you allow the client to develop. Coaching is about building capacity and developing people, not about showing how much you know. Consider the ideal of finding just one question to ask during a coaching session – a question that somehow changes everything for the client.

Perhaps you have had the good fortune of being in a meeting with a coach or a leader who had this ability. That person patiently listens to all the points of view in the room and then asks a simple question that changes the way everyone thinks about the issue. Something like this happened in the carbonated beverage industry and changed the entire vision, strategy, and conversation among its biggest competitors. Imagine a strategic planning meeting at one of the biggest companies in the industry. As usual, everyone is talking about how the company can increase share of market among carbonated soft drinks. Suddenly, someone asks, “What would be a different way to think about market share than share of beverages sold?”

This simple question led to a massive insight: “What if we stop thinking about share of the carbonated beverage market and think about share
of stomach?” Now the people around the table see the opportunity to sell other beverages, such as sports drinks, fruit juice, and bottled water. They also see the possibility of marketing snack foods, restaurants, and anything else related to food and beverage consumption. The entire focus of the company – and soon the industry – expands dramatically, as does its growth potential. One question changes everything.

As a coach, unlike with this example, you don’t have to come up with earth-shattering questions every coaching session or even every engagement. The idea of asking one question that changes everything is ideal, but it’s not possible to do this all the time. Not every coaching session has major breakthroughs or cathartic moments, but the concept of one-question-coaching is a good one to keep in mind to make sure you are focused on listening and asking questions that bring high impact and value to the person you are coaching. The best coaching questions are often the simplest, such as “What else?” or “What would you like to explore from here?” Even asking clients for their ideas to solve a problem can open up possibilities.

As you practice coaching, think before you ask a question. Consider whether it will be beneficial for your client. Does your question have a little bit of voltage to it so that it gets the client thinking? Does it allow the client to see new possibilities, see things in a new way, and at least move on to insights and action? By thinking about these questions, you are on the path to the idea of asking one question that changes everything.

The above is an excerpt from our textbook, and one of the areas we focus on in our executive coaching certification program.

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