This month, certifying examiner Elizabeth Nofziger helps a member understand the nuances of coaching questions.
"During a coaching triad call I was part of last week, it was mentioned that IAC certifiers do not like to hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions in a recording. … Sometimes I do utilize yes or no questions with clients. This is a handy strategy to use when a client is having trouble clarifying plans or goals. My question: Is it true that a coach that poses a yes or no question to a client is not, according to IAC certifiers, displaying masterful coaching and that this can prevent a coach from becoming certified?"
As coaches dedicated to mastery, we work to refine our skills to offer the most to our clients. One of the ways we do this is by expanding their awareness to include new possibilities. Another way we do this is by helping our clients hone in, focus on and clarify what is most important to them.
As the questioner points out, it is absolutely true that yes/no questions can lead to increased clarity (Mastery #6). They can also demonstrate that the coach is listening (Mastery #3) and processing in the present (Mastery #4), all of which can also help the client to expand their potential and invite possibility (Mastery #8). A coach’s job of reflecting back to the client can be as simple as asking, "Do you agree with her opinion?"
On the other hand, that very same yes/no question has the potential to function as a closed question, which can limit the client’s responses or disproportionately influence the direction of the coaching. At worst, yes/no questions can indicate and cause judgment (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #1), and/or narrow possibilities for the client (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #8), as well as negatively affect other masteries.
Asking, "Do you agree with her opinion?" could be done less as a reflection for the client and more as a way to get the client to "see" things from the coach’s point of view (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #5), with the client sensing that there is a right or wrong answer to the question. This can close down possibility (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #8), erode trust between coach and client (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #1) and mask the true intention of the client (ineffective demonstration of Mastery #7).
So, are yes/no questions a display of masterful coaching? It depends on the situation. This invites the question, how can you tell when your yes/no questions are appropriate? And, when these questions are not the best choice, what might work even better?
There is no formula for which questions to ask and precisely when to ask them. If you rely too heavily on any one approach you risk missing opportunities that can only be found in variety! Use your coaching skills to determine: What are you hearing the client express beyond the words? How is your intuition informing you? What piques your curiosity? Are you noticing a dissonance in what your client is expressing? Is your client confused? Bored? Apathetic? What do you sense might be the most compelling direction?
And check in with your motives: Are you looking for a particular answer? Are you unduly invested in an outcome? Do you think you know what’s best for the client? These kinds of approaches will do more to shut down communication than allow expansion, and have little or no place in a coaching relationship. In the end, the client’s response is the best indicator. Observe what happens when you ask a yes/no question. How does your client respond? Do you detect an energy expansion as your client gains clarity or gets more curious, or an energy dip as your client shuts down?
If you find the latter happening, there are simple ways you can tweak questions to invite a fuller expression from your client, opening possibility and softening resistance. Here are a couple of examples:
Great coaching includes a balance of new possibilities and continuous clarification. Coaches who have integrated the IAC Coaching Masteries® into their coaching will find an ease and balance between the two, and be able to listen and sense what the client needs most in the moment. And what the client needs most in the moment is ultimately your best guide.
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