Tools for Coaching Mastery

This column is provided by an IAC Coaching Masteries®-Licensed School or Mentor.

The Question Compass
by Aileen Gibb, MCC (IAC)

Where do your questions come from when you are coaching? Where do your questions take your client?

We know that masterful questions are the touchstone for great coaching. There are questions that your client won’t ask, can’t ask or resists asking for himself. There are questions that open up new awareness, questions that uncover ideas that otherwise stay in the background, questions that strengthen your client’s resolve and questions that take your client to an edge of learning and action that she would not otherwise have reached.

In the journey of the coaching conversation, you as coach act as the compass for your client. Your own inner compass is constantly orientating the conversation, informing what question to ask next. Like a real compass, a great coaching question doesn’t tell you when you will reach your destination, or what it will be like when you get there. It simply provides an orientation of where you are in the conversation and where you are headed next.

The first orientation of the Question Compass is whether your questions are taking your client forward or backwards. The majority of coaching questions are future-focussed. Your question creates forward momentum and takes your client to her next thought, insight or action step. It propels your client to a point he had not reached before, to a viewpoint he had not seen before or to a pathway she hasn’t walked before. The question compass always wants to orient your client to look forward, rather than be stuck in the past.

The second orientation of the Question Compass is whether your question is about content or process. Your inner compass as a coach needs to be very clear on this distinction. A content question takes you into the client’s story, wanting to know or understand more. A process question moves your client’s story forward and enables you to remain neutral as an unbiased and trusting guide for your client’s journey.

These two orientations provide us with the four main cardinal points of our Question Compass: future—past—process—content. We might call these the North, South, East and West of coaching. When you can see and recognise these four points, you can get an orientation for the coaching conversation and become masterly with your questions.

Like a true compass, you can then add in further points by which to navigate the coaching conversation, giving more subtle distinctions to your question that inspire a shift for your client.

The ancient wisdom of the medicine wheel adds a layer that orients your client to what he is Feeling, Thinking, Doing or Creating. Once you discern that your client is oriented to a particular viewpoint (by listening closely to your client’s language, patterns and behaviour), you can structure your coaching question to enable your client to look at her goal from another perspective.

If you hear your client saying "I think," you can ask a question which helps him explore the feelings he may not be paying attention to.

If you hear your client expressing a lot of emotion, e.g., "I feel…" "I hate that…" or "I love to…" a question that grounds her in action can be really productive.

If your client is a busy "do-er" and always on the go, a question from the thinking point of the compass can enable her to stop and reflect on what’s really important.

And your highly creative client with all the big ideas and desire to change the world will be grateful for a question that invites him to move his ideas into specific actions and do something to make it happen.

Once you have oriented yourself to your client’s main compass points i.e., the perspective he or she usually takes, you can bring in questions from all the other points of the compass to enable a full exploration of the possible directions available for your client to choose a way forward.

The Question Compass is a great way of paying attention to your own orientation as a coach. If your own pattern is to get emotionally involved in the conversation, you can expand your mastery by using more thinking or action-based questions. If your natural disposition is to worry about small details, you can expand your own horizons, as well as those of your client, by asking more creative and expansive questions.

In this way the Question Compass serves as a tool to fuel your own growth as well as a force for change in your clients.

Using the Question Compass will enrich your awareness of where each of your questions comes from and will strengthen the power of your questions to take your clients to landscapes they haven’t travelled before.


Aileen Gibb, MCC (IAC),, connects people to their inspired future by using pure coaching in life and leadership. As Faculty Lead at the Dream Organisation, she is the world’s first Licensed Practitioner of The Archegyre, a powerful new diagnostic tool that makes sense of what drives human endeavor and success.

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