Improve Your Employee Coaching with Open-Ended Questions

October 25, 2019

Employee coaching

Do you coach your team members? You probably think you do, but most managers and leaders have an incorrect view of what employee coaching is. Here’s how: Often managers will say, “I’m coaching my employees,” but what they really mean is, “I’m telling my employees what to do and giving them advice on how I would handle a situation differently/better.”

Listen up, folks. That’s not coaching, that’s telling. Telling has its place here and there. When appropriate, you can put on your “manager hat” and tell an employee something. However, if you want team members to be more likely to accomplish their goals, then true coaching is a better way to go.

Coach employees with open mind, open questions

Your employees are human beings. As humans, we are much more invested in a solution if we come up with it. An excellent coach asks open-ended questions to help someone determine the answer that’s right for him or her, which may not be the answer we would have provided. Chances are, it’s still a great way to resolve the matter at hand.

Here’s an example. Many years ago, I had a coaching client who was working 15-hour days. Her solution was…to sell her house! I thought, Hmm, that’s not the answer I would’ve chosen, but let’s see where this goes. Her thinking was that if she lived in an area with more nature, she would be inspired to spend more time enjoying all that beauty, not inside in front of her laptop. So she decided to move, and that solved the issue. Fast-forward a year and, empowered by the first move, she moved again, this time halfway across the country. A few years later, she met an amazing guy in that new city, and last year they had the most incredible wedding overseas. How’s that for a happy ending?

You want to approach coaching with an open mind—a blank slate, if you will. Let people come up with the answer that’s right for them. This means asking no, none, zero, zilch “suggestion questions,” such as:

  • Have you thought about…?
  • Do you think you should…?

Both of those are your solutions not-so-cleverly disguised as questions. Please don’t do that. We beg of you. Instead, ask open-ended questions, which start with “how” and “what.” These will lead to robust answers the person comes up with. For example:

  • What do you want to accomplish in our discussion today?
  • How can you make that happen?
  • What was your reasoning for going down that path?

Notice that we didn’t say “why” in that last question. “Why” puts people on the defensive. Think about it: “Why did you do that?” sounds accusatory. “What was your reasoning?” is more neutral.

As a coach, you want to have a positive or, at worst, neutral tone. Tone is the vibe or mindset in a coaching discussion. It should be curious. You want to understand the person better, including two very important aspects of every human being: the emotions he or she is experiencing and the motivation for doing something. Many newer coaches skip over these crucial aspects and head straight into solution mode. Help people explore the situation in some detail before they come up with the solution that’s best for them.

Don’t ignore the employee’s emotions

If people haven’t released some negative emotions, it’s helpful to do so before they get into answer mode. When someone expresses emotions to you—explicitly or implicitly—it’s important to show that you’re listening and comment on those emotions, rather than ignore them. The best thing to do is to acknowledge and validate. A good example of A&V is:

A: I can see you’re quite upset.
V: It’s natural to feel that way. Most people in your position would be upset.

If you ignore their emotions, they will feel that you’re not listening to them. Then, they won’t share as much with you, and you can’t coach them if they don’t reveal things.

Improving your coaching skills

In AMA’s coach training courses—Coaching for Optimal Job Performance and Coaching: A Strategic Tool for Effective Leadership—we share this GUIDE on how to coach:

G—Gather data
U—Understand the impact
I—Interview to discuss actions and motivation
D—Develop an action plan
E—Execute plan; examine results

At each stage, ask your team members open-ended “how” and “what” questions to get them to come up with the best solution for them. Some good examples:

G—How are you? (A simple question like this can lead to big answers.)
U—What’s the impact of this situation on you?
I—What was your thought process in taking those steps?
D—So, what’s next?
E—What specifically will you do? By when?

One of the many cool parts about coaching is that you don’t know where the discussion will lead next. Your subsequent questions are all dependent on the person’s answer. An excellent coach exhibits powerful intuitive listening. A coach should not have a predetermined opinion on what the person should do or an agenda for where the discussion should go. As you navigate the coaching discussion, see where it leads and ask the person open-ended questions to choose the best path at that moment.

Finally, it’s important to get practice with coaching and feedback before you’re ready to coach team members.

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About The Author

Russ Terry is a life coach who helps people accomplish their goals, reach their full potential, and live a more robust, healthy life filled with family, friends, outside activities—and career satisfaction. Terry is also an AMA faculty member who teaches courses on leadership and management.

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