Coaching Skills Training: Key Skills: Asking Probing Questions

Published: 19th June 2008
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Asking questions is essentially the way that we can help the people we coach to find their own solutions in their own way. Asking a question honours the other person's knowledge and experience whereas giving an instruction ignores them. A probing question is simply one that gets to the heart of the matter, and with this in mind we are better off asking 'open' rather than 'closed' questions.

An open question will begin with Who, What, How, When etc. and encourages the person responding to think carefully and to give a full reply.

A closed question, on the other hand, will tend to begin with Did you, Can you, Will you etc. and normally gets a sharp yes or no response.

Closed questions are less helpful in coaching conversations as they produce less flow or rhythm and can often mean that the coach struggles to formulate the next question.

Closed questions also appear when a manager is trying to use coaching as instruction in disguise and uses questions like "Don't you think you ought to....", and "Would it not be better if..."

A short experiment will illustrate the point. In your next conversation try to find out what the person you're talking to had for breakfast but use only closed questions. Later on try to discover what someone else had for breakfast using only open questions.

In the first instance you'll find yourself asking "Did you have cornflakes?", "Did you have toast?", "Did you have coffee?", "Did you have tea?" This is a very long-winded and inefficient way of gathering information.

When you used open questions you probably realist that you could get to the heart of the matter simply by asking: "What did you have for breakfast?"

Using open questions we can start a coaching conversation with a very broad enquiry like "How're things?" and then go deeper and deeper as the conversation progresses, so that we end up with questions like "How often each day would you find yourself being snappy with customers?" or "How much time exactly would you need to complete the task?"

You might like to experiment with these example questions which are linked to the principles of Awareness, Responsibility and Trust I have examined in previous articles.

The conversation for Awareness:

What's happening? What stands out? What do you notice about...? How do you feel about...? What are the variables here? What are the advantages/disadvantages?

The conversation for Responsibility:

What do you want to do? What do you want to achieve? What is the best way of getting there? What changes would you like to make? Could this create any conflict? What are the alternatives?

The conversation for Trust:

If it was up to you, how would you accomplish this task? When have you had success in similar circumstances? What are the best attributes you bring to this situation? What would it take to feel more comfortable?


Matt Somers runs his own consultancy specializing in turning managers into coaches. He consults in the UK, Europe and beyond, and runs a number of workshops and seminars throughout the year. He has published three books on coaching and promotes a range of resources via his website. His popular mini-guide "Coaching for an Easier Life" is available FREE at

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