Why Not What - How Does It Relate To Coaching?


It probably won't come as a huge surprise to learn that questions are a big part of a successful coaching session. Quite often a coachee will ask the coach a question about some aspect of the situation they are in.

It can be tempting for the coach to simply answer the question they have been asked. But in fact the stronger way to progress is to respond in kind with another question. This will help the individual find more answers than perhaps they may have done otherwise, and will help the session to progress as well.

But sometimes it is not just asking questions that will be important. Good coaching can rest on making sure you ask the right questions.

Can you make good use of questions beginning with ‘What...' in a coaching session?

You can indeed. Although it's good to use questions that start with the word why, you can learn a lot from finding out what a person is interested in as well. For instance you can ask your coachee questions like these:

  • What do they want to achieve?
  • What do they enjoy about their job?
  • What kinds of problems are they experiencing in their position?

You can certainly glean a lot of information from the answers to these questions. But don't stick with using them all the time. Let's move on to see how our next question can be of more help.

How does asking questions beginning with "Why..." put you in a better position to help the coachee?

In order to help someone realize their full potential and make great strides forward in achieving more in their lives, we have to ensure that we can motivate them in some way.

Of course this might be easy to do during an actual session but the hope for every client is that they will feel just as motivated to achieve more steps forward in between the coaching sessions as well. It's one thing to gain a better understanding of why a person acts in a particular way. But it's quite another to stay focused on learning from this new information when the person does not have a coach around to remind them.

In general, questions that ask why something or someone is a certain way are more open ended questions. Let's take the questions we posed above and see what kinds of answers we might get to them first.

  • QUESTION: "What do you want to achieve?"
  • ANSWER: "A better position and more money."

Here is the second question:

  • QUESTION: "What do you enjoy about your job?"
  • ANSWER: "I enjoy meeting people."

And finally here is question number three:

  • QUESTION: "What kinds of problems do you experience at work?"
  • ANSWER: "I get bored easily."

These questions are not closed questions because they do not require a yes or no answer. But you can see that they don't exactly probe the coachee to discover more about themselves either.

In order to dig deep and encourage them to go on the journey of self discovery that all good coaching sessions produce, we have to switch to the ‘Why..." questions. These will provide us with more information about the client. There are other benefits too, namely the fact that the client is likely to understand the root of their difficulties more easily. This occurs because they are directly questioned about it. They may never have thought about why they are having problems before.

So let's see what answers we might get to the "Why..." questions. Notice that the "whys" can often lead off from the "what's", meaning that you can adjust the question slightly to build on what you have already learned:

  • QUESTION: "Why do you want to get a better position?"
  • ANSWER: "Because I feel my skills are wasted doing what I am doing now. The work doesn't stretch me. I feel I have achieved all I will ever achieve."

This would provide both the coach and the coachee with some more material to work on together. Now for question number two:

  • QUESTION: "Why do you enjoy your job?"
  • ANSWER: "I enjoy it in part because I get to meet people and interact with them. If I can solve their problems I feel like I've done well."

Most people enjoy some part of their job, even if they dislike the rest of it. If they are unhappy in their work the ‘why' question can help to identify the things they do like. This in turn will help steer them in the right direction towards another job that would be better for them.

Here is the final question:

  • QUESTION: "Why do you get bored at work?"
  • ANSWER: "I don't have enough challenges. I am good at my work and that means I often finish everything a lot faster than some other people. I'm not challenged by what I do any more and I don't have anything else to do when I have finished my tasks for the day."

You can see we have gleaned an enormous amount of information from each question in turn. As the coach you can now use this information to identify solutions to the problems that have been found. In this case the coachee may actually have outgrown their position, so instead of trying to make do where they are now looking for promotion may be the best course of action. If they agree this is the case and they want to move ahead with it, this will give them motivation for the future. Stepping stones towards their goal of getting a better position - perhaps within the same company, perhaps elsewhere - can then be worked upon.

So you can see that asking why something is the case can be a huge help on both sides. The more the coach can understand their coachee the easier they will find it to help them. The coachee in turn will also be able to understand their own feelings much better than they do now.

Derek Good
Managing Director
Rapid Results Limited



Productivity, confidence and leadership are areas Derek Good writes, presents and works with businesses to develop.

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