January 1, 2017
Dear Coach,

Welcome to my Blog. Here you'll find essays I've written about coaching. Some of the questions I'm exploring are (1) What makes coaching work? (2) What helps coaches do their work well? (3) How do coaches continue to be masters of their profession? and (4) What the heck are those ICF coaching competencies, anyway?

My passion is helping coaches to be their best, so they can bring the best of coaching to their clients.

There's something here for all coaches, at all levels of experience. I’ll bet you'll learn something new, find a new perspective to consider, or just encounter a new way to say what you already know from experience. It’s all good, and (probably) good for you, too! .
You're welcome to browse - I'm sure you'll find something that resonates with your experience. You can also search on Categories and Tags for specific topics.

If you find something that you enjoy, please share with your colleagues and friends, and copy the link so you can find it again. Leave a comment if you’d like. You just might spur a new essay about something I’ve learned from you!

It's my privilege to offer my thoughts on coaching.. Enjoy your reading!

Sue McLeod, PCC

Creating Silence


The scene in the photo above literally stopped my in my tracks. I was hustling from Georgetown's building on Mass Ave. to meet a friend for dinner and passed this opening between the buildings. Stunned by the glowing purple sunset, I stopped and (of course!) had to capture it with my camera. There's nothing like a gorgeous sunset to take my breath away and create a pause in my thinking and my purpose.

Powerful questioning in a coaching conversation can do the same. They can be magical. When your questions are working, they seem simple and effortless. It's not just the words we use. It's the pace and timing, and the intention behind the words. It's not just one question, either. It's a group of questions that respond to the client, build on a theme, or shift their perspective in a new direction.

And, sometimes, it's what we don't say or don't do that creates what our client needs - silence.

I was reminded of this the last time I was in DC, staying with friends and teaching coaching.

I was playing “What’s That?” with the precious two-year old son of my friends. I had turned the tables on him. Instead of being on the receiving end of his incessant questions, I was questioning him. He quickly answered when I pointed to his socks, pants, shirt, hair, and nose, but was stumped when I touched his forehead. He paused, looked around, and there was an unusual silence. I resisted the temptation to tell him the answer or move on to his arms and fingers.

After a what seemed like an endless pause, he started to speak… “ffff…”. Another pause, then “fffooorrr…”.

More quiet and glances around the room. Suddenly he looked back at me and said “fore….head!” with a big smile.  I was delighted! And grateful I had allowed the silence for him to think and create a new connection between his forehead and its name.

The next day I was with a group of students, observing their coaching. One coach had the good fortune to ask a question that the client didn’t answer right away. To her credit, the coach endured the silence and waited. In our debrief discussion, the coach admitted that she was mortified, thinking that the client didn’t understand the question. The client countered that the question was a tough one. She needed the time to think.  It was the perfect opportunity to remind the students that clients will tell you, pretty quickly, if they don’t understand your question.

The questions that invoke silence have taken them to a place where there isn’t an easy answer.

When you have the good fortune to create that silence, take a deep breath, stay connected to your client, and wait. What’s happening in the silence is more valuable than anything you can say.

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Hey Coach, Where are you taking that client?

“Questions are the currency of coaching, “ and asking questions is a fundamental skill of a coach. Our coaching artistry is expressed in the questions we ask, the questions we don’t ask. It is colored by how we ask and when we ask. It is shaped by the intention we bring to our questions and how we hold the responses our questions bring forth.

When I was learning to coach, questions seemed awkward and unnatural. Now, when I’m coaching, the questions come easily and flow out of me, coming from the connection with my client. I ask questions that I don’t know the answer to and sit calmly, waiting to hear the response. Each question causes my client to pause, ponder, and discover something new. I am tuned in to her; questions arise from within me and, somehow, each is the perfect question to ask next. The session flies by, we are in perfect sync, new insights popping up at every turn. By the end of the session, my questions have caused profound transformation and my client is delighted.

WAIT!!!!  Oops - I’ve obviously wandered off into Coach Fantasy Land. Sorry about that!

To be honest, I’ve had my moments of coaching flow that feels like what I described above. Those are the moments we live for, aren’t they? The rest of the time, I can be artful in my questions with a calm and connected presence, in spite of what’s going on inside my head and my own emotions.  It’s like meditation. The problem-solving and leading questions are in my stream of consciousness, but I let them float by without sharing them with my client.

By doing this, I stay in the flow of the conversation, making choices of where to allow the client to continue on her path and when to disrupt and shake things up.

The questions that disrupt the coaching flow are leading questions. When the coach asks a leading question, there’s a change in direction, a change in what the client thinks about. You can feel the energy shift. 

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Because leading questions can have a big impact on the coaching conversation, they are important to understand.

What is a Leading Question?

A leading question is one that moves the client towards a specific answer or response. Here are some variations:

    • The question includes the desired response
      • “Would having an alarm ring every hour be a helpful reminder?”
    • The question suggests the desired response
      • “What would happen if you had an alarm ring every hour to remind you to pause?”
    • The question influences/manipulates the other to give the desired response
      • “I’ve heard that setting an alarm can be really helpful and it works for me. What do you think about trying that?”
    • The question eliminates a set of possible responses
      • “I see two options. Would it be helpful to use an alarm or to pause before you walk into a room ?”

These are simple examples and my assessment is that the coach is asking these questions as a disguise for advice she wants to give. I call these “faux questions” or “advice in the form of a question”.

The leading questions you ask might be a little more nuanced or cleverly worded. I invite you to reflect. Do you know what your leading questions sound like? Are you aware of the trigger that moves you to want to lead the client?

Isn’t Every Question a Leading Question?

When you get right down to it, all questions lead the client’s thinking in a particular direction. All questions are leading, to some extent.  

“What??”, you say. “Does Sue really mean that? What about all those beautiful “what” questions? Or the list of questions provided by Co-Active Coaching that Sue recommends so highly? How can they be considered leading questions?”

OK, maybe that’s a provocative statement. But consider the following:

The wonderful, open question “What do you want?” is asking the client to focus on the future, on themselves, on their desire - rather than on the past or present, on other people or the situation, or on what they don’t want or the story they are making up about the situation. 

“What are you noticing?” suggests they focus on their noticing, rather than somewhere else. 

Think about all of your favorite coaching questions. Might they be considered “leading” in some way?

The level of disruption our questions cause is related to the timing and our intention in asking the question. When you ask a disruptive or leading (but not a “faux”) question, consider the following: For what purpose are you leading the client in that direction? Is it aligned with the objective they set for the coaching session? Is it aligned with the larger coaching intention of creating awareness that supports the client’s development?  Are you leading them where they need to go? Are you taking the next step on the path, even if steering them to the right?  If you are in the flow, the question won’t feel “leading”.

If, on the other hand, the question abruptly change the direction of the conversation or is not in the flow, it will feel disruptive and leading. For example, if the client is revealing that what’s stopping them is a fear of betrayal and appearing weak, and your next question is “What do you think your boss wants from the meeting?”, your question is disrupting the flow.

Sometimes, this disruption is just what’s needed in the conversation. Sometimes, it’s not.

What are you choosing for the client when you ask a leading question that disrupts the flow of the conversation?

 

Interested in examining your coaching questions in a supportive community of learners?  Join my Coaching Master Class starting in May!  http://suemcleodcoaching.com/master-class.html

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What do you notice about your questions?

"Care is asking the right questions."  See what they mean in this What? How? (Whirlpool Washer/Dryer commercial).


I'm not endorsing the company, just acknowledging their clever use of Questions in this ad ;-)


What do you notice about your questions?


It’s a simple question, really. We ask the students in the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program to observe their questions and reflect on what they notice.

Hundreds of student coaches have written this paper over the years. I read through another batch just this morning, and was – again – delighted and inspired by what the students learn. 

We assign this paper because it’s important for coaches to be aware of the questions they ask, the questions they avoid, and how the context impacts their questioning.  This awareness is a foundation for moving into being thoughtful and artful in using questions in coaching conversations.

But the real learning is much deeper, varied, nuanced, and personal.  This learning often comes as a surprise. The student becomes aware that how he/she asks questions is a reflection of how he/she sees the world and his/her place in it. And the “world” is their relationships, their role in workplace power dynamics, or their own master self-assessments, fundamental fears, deep passions. Their patterns of asking questions grow out of a lifetime of past experiences, culture and family relationships, and years of professional training.

To move into coaching is to leave behind one view of the world and embody another, in which you are someone who loves questions; who is confident asking questions that feel too probing and too personal; who can draw out deeper insight and meaning with just a question. 

What are you noticing about your questions?

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