Craft customized questions

Two of the most powerful tools of trade of a professional coach is really listening to the client, and asking open-ended questions informed by that listening, which allow the client to discover something for themselves.

The ICF definition of Powerful Questioning says it succinctly; “The ability to ask questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the coaching relationship and the client.”

I’d shift the focus to the client first, and the coaching relationship second. Yet without defining the characteristics of coaching, the client may be expecting you to act like a consultant, teacher, or perhaps a therapist. This is a misunderstanding (and misuse) of the power of coaching skills.

Well-structured questions are the most amazing gift to our clients. Coaching is a ‘conversation with a purpose,’ which is to attend to the client agenda (purpose) for the conversation. We listen and clarify a gap the client wants to close; an opportunity gap (looking to the future to something new or different), or a remedial gap (something they no longer want to be experiencing and want to change).

There are different types of questions, not limited to, but including Structural Questions, What Questions, and Who Questions.

In this article, I’ll offer some distinctions on Structural and What Questions. Yet the focus is on crafting customized questions which most often are Who Questions.

Structural Questions

These are more standard format questions designed to establish the coaching session outcome, partner with the client on session direction, manage session progress, inquire into learning, and inquire into actions. I’ve previously written a two part article on coaching session structure.

What Questions

These are questions which are most often taught in first level/beginner coach training programs. They have an important place in all levels of coaching skill. Yet are not the ‘meat’ of a masterful coaching session. What Questions focus more on the Doing of the client, than the Being.

Examples of What Questions:

What do you want to accomplish?

What have you thought of already?

What resources do you have?

What results are you expecting?

What solutions have you thought of?

If your best friend were here, what would they tell you to do?

What (Doing) Questions have limited capacity for change to occur in the client. They direct client attention to logical/linear thinking, and to looking for something or answers in their environment.

Who Questions

Who (or Being) Questions are where the opportunity for powerful coaching exist. Coaching the person in their circumstances first and foremost, so the client can access their self-knowledge.

We all have so much more knowledge about ourselves than we realize.

The first and most powerful coaching skill of a professional coach is the act of Listening. Space, silence and curiosity are key to listening. The gift of coaching is we listen to our client, and really hear them. We cannot truly be listening if we interrupt our client, which often indicates the coach is more present to their own thoughts, or process, or are ahead of their client.

Some coaches use a lot of small words and sounds as the client is speaking, such as saying Hmmm hmm or Okay. Some sounds are okay, yet excessive sounds can interrupt the client use of silence, to really hear their own thinking and feeling.

The client will know you are listening by the way you customize your responses to what the client is saying.

It takes practice (a lot of practice for most!) to curiously listen to the client and really hear our client. Listen for their words, their energy shifts through tone of voice or body language. And listen to the type of words, metaphors and general language they use.

Customize Questions

So here’s the meat of this article. Crafting customized questions that have the ability to reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the client.

When the coach customizes their questions incorporating client-specific language, you are entering the client way of processing and their inner world of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs which is being verbalized.

Here’s an example:

Your client says: “I want to start thinking about the next horizon I want to conquer in my business. There are so many things I’ve already put in place that are working well. Now I feel the call of What’s Next for me and I want to get the thoughts out that are running around inside me. Do a little dreaming.”

How wonderfully rich is that information from the client!

Here are some examples of customizing questions using client language, which requires the coach to be creative in their questions in return.

How do you catch up to those running thoughts?

How many horizons do you perceive out there for you to explore?

At what speed are those thoughts running around inside you?

What emotions are you in touch with when you feel the call of What’s Next for you?

What would you like to use to conquer the next horizon?

How would you like to do a little dreaming about this?

What’s little about this dreaming?

What might you need to stop doing in order to start thinking about the next horizon?


Notice that the examples of Who Questions I’ve given, don’t start with who, but instead start with How, What, Where. They can start with Who, yet that is often limiting to a standard question such as, “Who do you need to be in order to have What’s Next?” This often sounds like a coaching training or personal development ‘jargon’ question. Unless the client is familiar with such jargon, they often find it confusing to understand what you mean. An alternative might be, “How do you imagine you’ll be different when you’re standing at that next horizon?”

In The Mentor Coaching Group Program, we engage in a Powerful Questioning Case Study where I give a short paragraph of a client scenario. The participants craft 10-20 open-ended questions customized by the language used by the client. With 10 coaches in each group, that’s 100-200 mostly different questions that are crafted!

In Closing…

A powerful question may be a simple, standard question. Yet most often a customized question takes the client deeper into their world. The coach enters that world through using client-specific language back to the client. This lets the client know you are really listening to them as well.

It’s also a lot of fun to construct creative questions, and to craft in a way that is thought-provoking for the client. In my example above, some of the questions will require a double-take by the client. For example, “What’s little about this dreaming?” Perhaps that provokes a different thought or feeling for the client. Being provocative as a coach requires us to craft creative questions. This type of provocation is much different than challenging the client based on our thinking and beliefs about what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

It takes practice to build the muscle of crafting customized questions that are open-ended and succinct and hold potential for client discovery about themselves, in their circumstances. One practice I offer to my mentoring clients is to listen to a recording of a coaching session they’ve sent me to review with them. Pause the recording each time they hear client visual or feeling language, even if it’s one word. Then do what I did above; practice crafting questions that are customized. The added benefit is your coaching sessions will become a lot more fun for your client, and for you as well!

Are you preparing for your first or next ICF Credential?

Do you want to “Sharpen the Saw” as a Coaching Professional?

Two Mentor Coaching Group Programs now open on a first registered and paid basis. Maximum of 6-10 participants per group.

Group #37, #38 and #39 commencing late August are all sold out.

Please check back October 15, 2019 for February/March 2020 commencing programs

I offer a rich, experiential mentor coaching group and individual program that has many exclusive offerings for our participants. You can read some testimonials here

I have been trained by the ICF to assess using the PCC Markers. I also regularly assess for the ICF MCC and ACC credentials.

One of the unique offerings is an extensive library of MCC, PCC and ACC coaching sessions for participants to listen to, evaluate, debrief, and learn from, along with The Target Approach to demystifying the ICF core competencies. These are incredibly valuable learning tools, and will accelerate your understanding of competency distinctions.

Carly has created products to more deeply understand Establishing the Coaching Agreement and Ten Characteristics of MCC Skill Level.

Here’s where you’ll find more about The Mentor Coaching Group

10 thoughts on “Craft customized questions

  1. I really appreciated this article, Carly. Very valuable, as always. 🙂 Many thanks!

  2. Great content! indeed if used properly, the ‘who’ questions can be transformational for the client. great article!

    1. Thank you Debra. Those times when my client does a double-take, I personally feel like I’m doing my job as a coach!

      Warmly, Carly

Comments are closed.