Last updated on | Agile

10 Deadly Mistakes We All Do With Coaching Questions

by Luís Gonçalves
coaching questions importance of coaching questions


In this blog post, I bring you ten mistakes we make when asking Coaching Questions. I want to highlight the source of this blog comes from Tony Stoltzsfus and his book, you can get it here.

In one of my previous blogs I explained how to Start Significant Conversations, but when asking questions as a coach, it’s imperative that you utilise the correct techniques, or the respondent is unlikely to open up fully, stalling the coaching process.

Asking closed questions

The very term “closed question” suggests a type of conversation which is not leading anywhere, and for a good reason: These questions tend to shut the coachee down rather than letting him or her lead the conversation.

Why? They direct the coachee to a single “right” answer, rather than allowing for multiple responses, which limits the coachee’s ability to express him or herself. (This is not to suggest closed questions never have any merit—they should just be used carefully, and sparingly.)

Solution: Revise closed questions so that they become open.

Closed questions can usually be amended to open ones, even after they have been uttered. If you find yourself asking a question that encourages a simple “yes” or “no” answer stop.

Some examples:

  • “Do you have time to complete this project by the end of the week?”
  • “Can you really take on more work right now?”.

Assess it: Can you replace the opening of the question with a “What” or a “How”? Asking a person how he or she will fit in more work that week, or finish a project on time, opens the question up to real feedback from the respondent.

Asking “Solution-Oriented Questions” (SOQs)

Solution-oriented questions are a specific form of closed question—a type which is not, in fact, really a question at all. Instead, SOQs are statements with a question mark added to them, usually intended as a form of advice.

When using SOQs, coaches are in essence steering coachees toward what they have already decided is the correct answer. SOQs usually start with phrases like “Shouldn’t you…” or “Can’t you…” or “Don’t you think…”

Indeed, almost any question in which “you” is the second word should be treated as highly suspect: Should you, could you, will you, don´t you, can you, are you, etc., are all poor ways to open coaching questions.

Solution: Retrace your steps to find why you arrived at the insight that led you to ask a SOQ

Why do we ask questions in the first place? Because we’re curious. Sometimes, however, that curiosity pushes us to leap to generate solutions before we ask any questions, and then we wind up simply feeding suggestions to whoever we are speaking to.

Not only does this imply we know better than the other person, but it also shuts down the coachee’s own desire to think and look for solutions on his or her own.

As such, you need to retrace your steps until you figure out why you wanted to ask your question in the first place, and then broaden the question so that multiple solutions become possible.

For example, if you had wanted to ask, “Shouldn’t you get your boss’s permission before you do that?”, Trace back to your core curiosity about the channels of authority one must go through before completing the task at hand, and ask the coachee what those channels are.

The answer might not, in fact, even be “the boss”.

Over-thinking questions

While it’s a wonderful quality to be thoughtful about the conversation, there’s such thing as overdoing it. If you find yourself regularly wracking your brain in pursuit of the “one true question” that will unlock the psyche of the coachee in front of you, it’s time to relax.

All that happens while you churn over the matter in your mind endlessly is a long, awkward pause that kills the energy and momentum of the conversation.

Such lapses, of course, often cause the other person to want to end the talk altogether rather than encouraging him or her to open up.

Solution: Remember that a great conversation is a process

Great conversations are not kicked off by the “perfect question”; instead, they evolve between two people due to mutual interest. As a coach, it’s your role to just guide the coachee into thinking a bit more deeply about the issues at hand than he or she would otherwise, using a selection of general asking techniques such as those contained herein.

It’s the coachee’s insight that truly matters, so focus on the process that facilitates it, rather than trying to push yourself to impossible heights of brilliance. Remember that often even simple inquiries, like “Why is that?” or “Can you tell me more about that?” are enough to prompt the coachee to think more deeply and insightfully.

Asking overly vague questions

This habit often arises not from not from thoughtlessness, but rather, from the same nervousness that drives seeking the “best” possible question—coaches try to ask the same question in three different ways, hoping to cover every possible angle.

This verbal maze soon loses the point of the question, however, leaving the coachee confused and unsure of how to answer.

Solution: Slow down, take a deep breath and review the heart of what you want to know

If you’re rambling because you haven’t yet figured out the most succinct way to ask a question, try to keep in mind the fact that allowing a short pause while you collect your thoughts is ultimately less damaging to the flow of a conversation than a lengthy detour.

Remember that the client also needs some time to process the information at hand, so not all lapses into silence necessarily represent unused time on the part of the coachee, and indeed, they are often required to generate the very insight you wish to inspire.

If you are rambling because you’re worried the client doesn’t fully understand the question you just asked, you’re probably venturing dangerously close to “telling” the coachee the solution you think he or she ought to reach, as outlined in the prior point about solution-oriented questions.

Free yourself from your agenda and let the coachee guide the conversation—the unexpected turns it takes might reveal the most profound insights of all.

Asking “Interpretive Questions.”

As coaches, we have to be careful not to read too much into clients’ statements and after that ask questions which reflect these leaps of assumption. For example, if a coachee is expressing dissatisfaction with the current project, diving in and asking how long he or she has hated his or her job is likely to make the coachee react more to the question (refuting your broad statement) than think about the situation at hand and how to resolve it.

Likewise, interpretive questions make the coach appear to have an agenda, which erodes the trust of the coachee and closes down communication.

One should instead endeavour to appear to be a sympathetic listener who is on the side of the coachee, who has no vested interest in the conversation beyond helping him or her to generate solutions to any issues present.

Solution: Reiterate the client’s words

One of the best ways to avoid accidentally interpreting the coachee’s intent is to review and incorporate, his or her words when formulating the question. Rather than asking how long the client had hated his or her job, for example, keep the emphasis on the word “project” and ask why he or she is frustrated with the current project, when the issue started, or what (in the coachee’s opinion) would make the project more enjoyable.

Asking rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are another form of problematic “statement as question” conversational tactics; often they are particularly troublesome as they have an emotional or judgmental aspect, one which plainly espouses the speaker’s opinion of the situation.

Rhetorical questions are most often reactionary in nature; for example, asking things like “What did you do that for?”, “What were you thinking?”, or “Isn’t that just an excuse?”

These statements leave no room for the other person to freely voice his or her opinion, so when asked, they invariably stifle the coachee’s own ability to generate insight about the situation at hand.

They also tend to provoke defensive conversational manoeuvres, as they clearly showcase your already-formed negative opinion of the person you are conversing with.

Solution: Drop the Attitude and Listen

When we react abruptly to others, we are often projecting based on some preconceived notion of our own; as such, in these instances, one must calm down and assess what about the present situation is pressing one’s existing emotional buttons.

While doing so, one will often find that the present issue doesn’t merit such an extreme reaction; rather, it’s merely been lumped together with a collection of existing frustrations, making it seem larger than it is.

Another worthwhile approach is to refocus one’s mind on the coachee´s potential and ability. While it’s true that everyone can be frustrating now and then, it’s equally true that we all have unlocked potential residing within us, and a coach’s job is to unlock that potential, no matter how hard to access it may at first appear.

Remind yourself that negative judgments serve no purpose—they won’t help you do your job, nor are they likely to generate real solutions to whatever issues have arisen.

Asking “Leading Questions.”

Leading questions are similar to rhetorical questions and solution-oriented questions in that they point the coachee toward a certain answer; however, they tend to do so more subtly, and the coach may not even be aware of his or her asking bias when asking a leading question. Leading questions are therefore more insidious, and more difficult to catch in action and correct.

Often, they even come across as helpful or encouraging, rather than reactionary or judgmental; for example, asking a coachee how he or she feels—in an attempt to be supportive—but then suggesting a word describe that feeling (discouraged, frustrated, etc.) is technically asking a leading question.

Solution: Introduce more than one option, or balance the option you just presented

It’s almost impossible to entirely avoid diving into leading questions now and then, but you can avoid their pitfalls through one of two ways: You either introduce more options (i.e. “How does that make you feel—disappointed, relieved, excited, or something else?”) so the coachee has to think about his or her response rather than simply agreeing with whatever you suggest, or you can balance your question with a counter-statement, such as by saying, “Will taking this new position overwhelm you… or give you the freedom you need to reach your fullest potential?”

Both of these corrections are ideal in the way they can be added on as an addendum to one’s original question, meaning that the flow of conversation does not even skip a beat.

Hesitating to interject

None of us likes to interrupt others—it can be rude to do so, after all—but there are a time and place to interject to refocus a conversation, and as a coach, it’s up to you to recognise when those moments occur.

A lot depends on the individual nature of the client—some will almost always answer in a concise manner, so much so that you feel it’s hard to get them to open up and elaborate, whereas others will invariably ramble on for ten minutes after any question is asked.

In either case, it’s up to the coach to facilitate insight, which is as easily lost in too many words as too few.

Solution: Learn when and how to reset the focus of conversations

One of the easiest ways to do this is to look for an opening to ask the client another question; this shows that you are listening and that you are interested in what he or she is saying, while also granting the opportunity to guide the conversation back to where it should be.

Simply saying something like, “Earlier you mentioned _____.  I was wondering…” is an excellent opener to reset the focus of most conversations. If all else fails, preface your effort with an apology: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t have long, and I was wondering…”

Interrupting too frequently

Conversation is a bit of contradictory art—just as failing to interject can be harmful (through leading to wasted time and unclear insights), interjecting too often can be just as damaging. While we may mean well when we do this—speaking from a place of enthusiasm, for example—it’s usually frustrating to the client, and will, therefore, shut down conversations.

If you’re not sure how often you interrupt clients, it can be helpful to record your conversations with them and then play them back later, skipping to about the middle of the recording (as any self-consciousness will probably have worn off by that time).

Honestly assess how often your words intrude in the middle of the coachee’s sentences, and how often you finish his or her sentences.

The solution: The two-second pause

Fortunately, the habit of interrupting too frequently is not hard to break; just commit to placing a two-second pause (count “one, one thousand; two, one thousand”) between when the coachee finishes speaking and when you reply or ask a question.

If the coachee speaks up before you get a chance to interject with your thought, save it for later and listen—the goal is to keep the focus on the coachee’s ideas, after all.

Asking “Why” too often

While it’s tempting to ask others why they did, thought, or said a certain thing, doing so too often makes people feel like their motives are being questioned, which provokes defensive feelings. None of us likes to endlessly justify our emotions or actions, after all.

Solution: Replace “Why” with “What.”

“What” usually works well in place of “Why”, with some minor rephrasing; asking someone what factors led them to make a certain decision, for example, sounds much less judgmental than asking them why they made said choice. It also drives insight, as it prompts the coachee to think more about the situation at hand, and to re-assess his or her decisions.

Hope you have liked this blog post, please leave your comment below.


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Luís Gonçalves

About Luís Gonçalves

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, Author & International Keynote Speaker that works exclusively with Senior Executives of 7 to 8 figure businesses on the deployment of his game changing ‘Organisational Mastery’ Methodology.


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