The important role of asking closed-ended questions

Importance of closed-ended questionsOne of the most powerful ‘tools of trade’ available to any coach is the ability to ask questions that provide maximum benefit to the client, so they uncover the knowledge and information they need in order to move forward.

Coaches are taught that asking open-ended questions are the most powerful type of questions for a client because they require the client to reflect more deeply into their self-knowledge to find their response. Open-ended questions are the protein in a meal, the meat, chicken, fish or tofu!

Yet they are not the only types of questions to ask. To balance out a meal, you need supplementary food groups such as vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Asking closed-ended questions is one of the supplementary food groups for coaches that balances out their coaching, and have an important supporting role to open-ended questions.

As a mentor to senior coaches who are often also trainers of coaches in various coaching schools around the globe, I’m often asked what I think about a coach asking closed-ended questions. My response is, “It depends.”

One of the traps coaches often fall in to is absolutes, and “You must never ask a closed-ended question” is one of them! Yet there are valid times to use closed-ended questions that are of great service to your client. The key is to be conscious of how you use them, which requires developing “Coaching Presence.”

Here are some examples:

Partnering with your client

The ICF definition of coaching is; “Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

The idea of what partnering means and how it is demonstrated is often not clear to coaches, and the ICF has more recently articulated what partnering is in behavioral terms in the PCC Markers.

Partnering occurs in many places, including when you establish the coaching agreement for each coaching session, and the coach asks open-ended questions such as:

  • “What would you like to accomplish in this session?”
  • “How would you know you had made progress on [that] by the end of this session?”
  • “What is the most important thing for you to accomplish in our session today?”

As the coaching session progresses, the coach partners with their client by ‘supporting the client to choose what happens in the session.” (PCC Marker 5 under Coaching Presence)

In order to support the client to choose what happens next in the session, you often have to ask them a yes/no question or other closed-ended question such as,

  • “Would you like to continue exploring this topic, or would you like to shift to this other topic you’ve now brought up?”
  • “Do you see this as a new topic?”
  • “I want to check with you. Is this the best use of our time right now, from your perspective?”
  • “I want to ask you a direct question. Do you feel that is the best use of your talent and skills?”
  • “You mentioned having a plan. Have you ever had a business plan?”

Partnering questions are often closed-ended questions, and the most direct form of communication. They allow the client to choose where they want to go to next in their coaching session, or to reflect on their thought process and/or behaviors.

Clarifying a desire or getting a bottom-line response

A closed-ended question can be direct and evocative when it supports the client to gain clarity, as well as help the client get to their bottom-line. For example, your client is talking about doing something but it doesn’t sound as if they really want to do it. So ask a direct, evocative, closed-ended question such as,

“Do you really want to do that?” or “Is this something you really want to do?”

It’s important that your tone of voice in delivery is neutral, so as to allow the client to make their own decision not influenced by the coach.

The ability to ask effective closed-ended questions requires Coaching Presence from the coach, meaning they need to be aware of the type of question at their disposal to ask and determine which type of question might be the ‘best’ one to ask in that moment.

Are you preparing for your first or next ICF Credential?

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