The myth of the perfect question - moving beyond powerful questions in coaching

18th September by George Warren

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"I just need to work on that list of perfect questions", offered a coach in a recent mentor coaching session.

"Can’t you give me a list of powerful questions?" A fellow coach was asked by a participant on a training course.

It is an understandable thought to have, especially for coaches-in-training. One of the myths swirling around the coaching world is that the primary role of a coach is to ask good questions. Clever questions. Powerful questions. Incisive questions.

In my first year as a coach, I told people that I asked questions for a living.

But a little further down the line now, I’ve changed my mind. In the mentor coaching session I offered a gentle challenge back to the coach, and enquired what they might be assuming.

The need to be (future) perfect

As discussed in previous pieces, I hold presence as the keystone competency - the one that unlocks many, many more qualities. And so much more than a competency.

What gets in the way of presence as a coach? Well, let’s call it the internal stuff. This might be a perceived need to be adding value. This might be thinking a few steps ahead already planning. A lot of us coaches spend a lot of sessions internally wrestling. Trying to think what is the ‘right’ thing to do next. What we ‘should’ say next. Trying to bring about that eureka moment for our clients.

If we are aiming to be fully there ‘with’ our client, then trying to subtly open the filing cabinet in our mind, and rummage through the file marked ‘perfect questions’ and try to recall and then select the right one…of course that special connection will be lost.

As well as constricting our own creativity, our own ‘withness’, there is a danger we transfer our anxieties into the session and subconsciously model an insecurity with not knowing, and actually bring in a need to be perfect.

The acceptance of imperfection

One of the most profoundly helpful offerings I bring into my contracting has been an invitation to not make sense. To get things wrong. To be imperfect with each other. It has always been well received, and it has always enhanced my confidence, looseness and effectiveness as a coach.

There is something so humanising and levelling about a coach saying, ‘actually - that was a crap question. Let me ask it a different way’.

There is something liberating about accepting that we will never ask the perfect question.

That we do not have one key to unlock one lock in our clients. But rather, like a murmuration of starlings dancing together, we are constantly manoeuvring, flowing, responding to all sorts of data, instincts and stimuli - and there is no one ‘right’ thing to do next.

Less is more

I have generally observed that the more experienced and confidence a coach becomes, the fewer words they speak. Their pace often slows down. They are more comfortable holding space and silence.

And the questions get less fancy. My own journey reflects something of this ‘coming home’ to the core skills. I have generally done away with reflexive, ninja style questioning and I have been enjoying so much exploration with ‘tell me more’ and ‘say a bit more’.

‘But George’, I hear you type furiously, ‘go on, tell us your favourite coaching question’.

Hopefully, if you’ve worked with me or followed my writing, you’ll know that I espouse a relational approach to coaching, and increasingly chasing the Gestalt muse, I am much more curious about the hyper-detailed present experience of my client than I am in their onward plans, ideas or any goal fixation.

I believe the primary responsibility of us coaches is evoking deeper awareness, and as such, my favourite question pops up everywhere - from Gestalt literature to the psychotherapeutic work of Bessel van der Kolk. My principle curiosity is this:

‘What are you experiencing now?’

It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that having a collection of fun, helpful, creative questions is not a useful thing in your coaching.

But to chase the perfect question’ is to fixate on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow at the cost of admiring the view. It is to chase the white whale instead of honouring the journey. It is to self-sabotage and succumb to a perceived need to be perfect.

When in fact, perhaps the greatest value you bring your client is your imperfection - and your relationship to your own imperfection.

A big thank you to coach and AoEC Faculty member - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his informative and engaging podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.