Exploring the nuances of the ICF PCC Markers for Competency #6 “Powerful Questioning”

nuances of powerful questioningBy Karen Boskemper, PCC and Co-leader of The Mentor Coaching Group

As an ICF Assessor and Mentor Coach, I’m always working with the PCC Markers.

As with everything new that we learn, it takes time for our neural pathways to re-wire and gain new understanding. The more I explore the markers and listen to coaching recordings, the more the nuances of each marker reveal themselves. So I thought I’d break down the Powerful Questioning markers and expose some of the nuances of each one.

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The first thing to notice is that the core competency is “Powerful Question-ing”, not Powerful Questions. Questioning can be demonstrated not just by the question itself, but also by tone of voice, turn of phrase, inflection, or other ways we may imply a question.

I think this is important to note because it can unshackle us from having to come up with great questions all the time, and instead just be in curiosity with the client. Our presence is then much more grounded and real, versus being in performance mode, trying to think of the ‘right’ question to ask.

The general guidelines for this competency is that as Assessors we are evaluating the coach’s ability to ask clear questions that help the client explore issues, his/her role, behaviors, being, and how thinking in new ways about these areas can help a client move toward his/her desired outcome. So let’s dive into each marker for further distinctions:

Marker 1: Coach asks questions about the client; his/her way of thinking, assumptions, beliefs, values, needs, wants, etc.

The distinction in this marker is that the coach is supporting the client to shine a light on the clients internal thinking now, versus helping the client think beyond to a desired future (which would be marker #2, #3, #4)


“What values guide your decision making in this?”

“What are your thoughts so far?

What possibilities have you considered in resolving this issue?

“What’s options are available to you now?”

All these questions explore the client’s thinking in the present, which are great questions to help open the gap of where they are now. We can also engage the next 3 markers to help the client move toward where they want to be.

Marker 2: Coach’s questions help the client explore beyond his/her current thinking to new or expanded ways of thinking about himself/herself.

In this marker, the coach asks questions to provoke the client’s thinking to look beyond their current perception of themselves to a new way of perceiving themselves (the Who).


“What would need to change in you for you to have the option available to say no in the meeting tomorrow?”

“What’s the thought process that is going to move you toward what you want?

“How do you imagine yourself showing up differently in the future?”

As you can see, these questions begin moving the client’s thinking forward to a desired state. We are helping them think beyond their current thinking.

Marker 3: Coach’s questions help the client explore beyond his/her current thinking to new or expanded ways of thinking about his/her situation.

This is what I call the “balcony” question. The coach asks the client to look at his/her situation from a different perspective, as if they were looking down onto the situation from the balcony (the What). This can help the client re-frame a challenge to one that is more empowering to them.


“If you looked at this situation from up on the balcony, what do you see?

“What other perspective might be useful to take in this situation?”

“If you were to re-frame the situation to help you move toward what you really want, what would it look like?”

Marker 4: Coach’s questions help the client explore beyond current thinking towards the outcome he/she desires.

In this marker you are helping the client explore their bigger picture outcome (also Planning and Goal Setting).


“What’s the end result you are looking for?”

“When you wake up and know the problem is solved, what’s different?”

“If you were to think of this as completed, what would be happening?”

“If you were to think one year ahead, what would have changed?”

Marker 5: Coach asks clear, direct, primarily open-ended questions, one at a time, at a pace that allows for thinking and reflection by the client.

What is important in this marker is that the coach focuses on asking clear, thought provoking questions, one at a time. Many times I hear coaches stack questions, or start a question, add more verbiage, then backtrack and ask another question. You get the point – communication gets complicated and the client is not sure what to respond to.

The second part of this marker is about allowing the client space to think and reflect, which means the coach being comfortable with silence, and allowing the client to fully finish her thought before jumping in with the next question.

Poor Example:

“If you didn’t have any restrictions, because I know you’ve said you felt restricted and needed to be more present when you speak with this person. From what you’ve considered so far, what would help you get clarity on what is most important here?”

Better Examples:

“What would need to be present in you to be able to face this person?”

“If you didn’t have any restrictions, how might you handle this?”

“From all you have just shared, what would help you get clarity on what’s most important?”

Marker 6: Coach’s questions use the client’s language and elements of the client’s learning style and frame of reference.

This marker is evaluating how the coach works with the client’s learning style and language. Different people learn by doing, conceptualizing, experimenting, reflecting, visualizing, telling stories, using metaphors, analogies, etc.

So if you know your client is a “feeler” and talks about how she feels about things, you don’t want to ask her, “What do you think about that?” Instead, use language that reflect the client’s way of speaking and being: “How do you feel about that?” or “What impact did it have on you when he said that?”

Other examples:

“So if ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ how can that help you be ready for what’s ahead?”

“What’s the risk of ‘running on empty’ for this length of time?”

“You said this process is like ‘learning to drive a stick shift.’ What would make the ride smoother for you?”

Marker 7: Coach’s questions are not leading. i.e. do not contain conclusion or direction.

The key to this marker is to be aware of how you are asking a question. For instance, a closed-ended question can have the energy of a leading question, although closed ended questions are great if you are looking to clarify something with the client. (e.g. Is that something you want to take on?) The other thing you want to be aware of is that your questions are not embedded with your idea’s or suggestions.

Examples: Not Leading versus Leading Questions

“Where would you like to start?” versus “You do want to start with the first topic, right?”

“How do you want to move forward?” versus “I’m sure you’ll want to do x, won’t you?”

“What’s important for you to work through next?” versus “We should work through y next, shouldn’t we?”

In Closing….

I hope that breaking down each of these markers and pointing out the distinctions of each one has helped you understand this competency a little better. I’ve found that in coaching, small nuances and distinctions can make a big difference in the quality and depth of the coaching available to the client. It can also help the client not only bridge their gap, but also gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their situation, and how to reach toward the outcome they aspire to.

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