I just finished by the Agile Coaching Institute’s Coaching Agile Teams class, taught by Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd. Among other things, they taught us to use powerful questions.
For coaches—and really anyone working to guide others—who are not familiar with powerful questions, I recommend you dig in. Unfortunately, just reading about them isn’t enough. When I read about them in the Coaching Agile Teams book, I just didn’t get them. The understanding came when Lyssa and Michael led us through exercises in class.
All the participants paired up and took turns being first coach, then client. It was when I played the part of client that the value of powerful questions really stuck. As client, I brought up a very complicated issue for the practice discussion. My partner was completely new to powerful questions, and had been instructed to read them verbatim off a board behind me. Despite the clumsy delivery (all of us were clumsy at first!) and the transparency of the mechanism, each question struck me as startlingly incisive. The sort of questions you think only wise old gurus can ask you, that stop you in your tracks and make you reconsider your basic assumptions. Really an amazing tool.
During the exercise, the person doing the coaching would wait until I stopped talking and then ask another powerful question. The questions continued to be good ones, but I noticed something else. Because the person would change and ask a new question off the board, the conversation would take a turn. The turns were subtle, but they nonetheless had the effect of severing my previous line of thought. This pattern repeated in later similar exercises, and it reminded me of something.
Years ago, I worked as a standardized patient, the actor hired by medical schools to help train students in dealing with patients. The teaching staff would give me the recent medical history of this fictitious patient and some other details of their lives. They also directed me not to simply spill all the beans, but to let the medical student get the information from me. I repeated the same scenarios many times with different students, and I was also present at the evaluations which immediately followed the exercises.
Many of these first-year students made the same mistake: they would ask a question, and—immediately after I answered—ask another question. The effect was that they were on the right track but turned too soon, missing relevant clues to the medical condition. It’s not that I was trying to hold anything back. It’s just that I would naturally stop at certain points. For example, if they asked, “Has anything changed recently?”, I would naturally tell them one thing that changed and pause. If they then jumped to a different question, the three other things that recently changed would never come up. The feedback from the teachers was always the same: don’t change the topic, but ask if there is anything else. In cases where the students simply prompted me to go on, the information would continue to flow.
This is what seemed to me to be happening in the coaching practice as well. I would reach a sort of natural stopping point, but based on the feeling that the new question severed that thought, it seems to me that I wasn’t actually done with the overarching thought. If the coach had instead asked, “What else?” or “Is there anything more to that?”, I think that I would have simply continued. As a coaching client, one is not simply listing medical woes or recent life changes. Another important distinction: coaching and powerful questions are not about fact-finding or diagnosis. Nonetheless, I think the mechanics of exploration are the same. I think that the same sorts of natural pauses between thoughts would happen in answering questions like “What’s exciting about this?”, “What is standing in your way?”, “What have you tried so far?”, etc.
If you’re reading this, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. If you try this out, let me know what happens. Next time someone seems to have finished answering your question, find a way of asking them to go on. I bet you they’re not done talking.