Rob West

Finding a framework for powerful coaching questions

Published 1 Aug 2021

The focus of transformational coaching is to help our coachees achieve a shift in their thinking and behaviour. We aim to do this by asking powerful or insightful questions, seeking to raise awareness, to uncover the assumptions that are limiting performance.

You can find lots of examples of these kinds of questions on the internet or in the coaching literature. Coaching for Performance by Sir John Whitmore even has a handy appendix of "question bags" to use. However, I have found it difficult to memorise endless lists if questions. I need a framework or classification to help orient me and provide robust mental strategies so that I can generate an appropriate question in a coaching session.

Tomm's Framework

I have found the framework set out in Karl Tomm's 1988 paper on Interventive Interviewing to be very useful in the development of my coaching skills, particularly what he calls reflexive questions. The paper is written in the context of family therapy, and so not all aspects are appropriate to a purely coaching context, but the overall dimensions are useful as a landscape. I came to this paper via Hieker and Huffington's 2006 paper, Reflexive questions in a coaching psychology context, which provides a brief summary of the model, but assumes familiarity with the original work, so I felt the need to go to the source in order to understand the concepts fully. That paper also combines the framework with Dilts' model of change but I prefer to use it within the familiar TGROW framework.

Tomm's framework for questions in interventive interviewing
Tomm's framework for questions in interventive interviewing

The horizontal dimension of this framework concerns the locus of change. Orienting intent is about the coach gaining knowledge, a change in themselves. Influencing intent is about the coach using the question as an intervention, seeking to create change in the coachee.

The vertical dimension is more abstruse as it refers to "assumptions about the nature of mental phenomena and the therapeutic process". In simple terms, lineal assumptions involve a reductionist view of causality, A causes B and that's that. Circular assumptions involve a systemic or holistic view in which any change to A may also impact B, and B's change my feedback on A. This places circular assumptions within the systemic coaching paradigm which encourages the coachee to think of the whole system, their relationships and organisational context, not just their personal concerns.

Lineal Questions

These are the bog standard questions of everyday life, the Who?, What?, Where?, When? and Why? In a coaching context these would feature in the initial phases of the engagement as the coach seeks to understand the coachee and their situation.

"What have you done so far?"

"What caused it?"

Circular Questions

These explore patterns in relationships by looking at how people relate to each other. These questions may be "behavioural effect questions", trying to find out how a problem affects people in the family or system, and "difference questions", exploring differences between people in the system.

"Who else is concerned about this issue?"

Strategic Questions

Strategic questions are useful in challenging different perspectives and positions. These questions may be "leading questions" which suggest a certain line of enquiry or hypothesis, and "confrontation questions" which stop the process and challenge thinking.

"What has stopped you so far from talking to your colleague about your conflict with him, instead of telling your boss?"

The directive nature of these questions makes them ones to use carefully in transformational coaching as they risk moving choice and responsibility away from the coachee.

Reflexive Questions

We hit coaching paydirt with this class of question, and it is obvious why once you see where they sit on the dimensions. As they have circular assumptions and influencing intent they get the coachee thinking about themselves in a different systemic way and seek to unlock their own problem solving resources.

One thing that really puzzled me about this class is the name, "reflexive". This brought to mind the self referential nature of reflexive verbs, but that didn't quite seem to fit. This was the initial stimulus for me to go back to the primary source when I was reading Hieker and Huffington. The actual answer is dealt with at length in part II of Tomm's series, but that is a hugely theoretical rabbit hole which doesn't add much value for the coach (leading all the way to Bertrand Russell's theory of types and so connecting back up to my former life as a philosopher). This is how Tomm explains it in part III:

These questions are reflexive in that they are formulated to trigger family members to reflect upon the implications of their current perceptions and actions and to consider new options. Even though reflexive questioning is also intended to influence a family in a therapeutic direction, it remains a more neutral mode of inquiry than strategic questioning because it is more respectful of the family's autonomy. Well-developed skills in maintaining a conceptual posture of neutrality contribute to the probability that an influencing question will be reflexive rather than strategic.

Tomm identifies a number of types of reflexive questions, and these are what I have found really helpful when trying to find a way to get a coachee unstuck.

Future-oriented Questions

These shift the conversation to the future, and that change of perspective can help to create new options or possibilities. Many of the stock powerful questions fall into this category, and it is a natural mode in solutions focused coaching. This style of question naturally fall into the Goal stage of the TGROW model.

"What would success look like?"

"How will I know at the end if you have achieved that? What will I see, hear? How will you be feeling?"

Observer Perspective Questions

These invite the coachee to take a helicopter view of themselves and can create distance from the dilemma they may be posing, which can help to gain a different perspective. These can be useful in the Reality stage of the TGROW model.

"If someone else was observing (fly on the wall), what would they be seeing / hearing / feeling?"

"What advice would a trusted colleague give you?"

Unexpected Context Change Questions

These flip the context, to invite a different stance. This is another classic category for powerful coaching questions, and sit naturally within the options phase of TGROW.

"What if there were no limits?"

"If the situation changes, what do you not want to change?"

"When has this not been an issue? How would you behave differently then?"

Embedded Suggestion Questions

These introduce an idea, advice or a suggestion. 

"If, instead of complaining to your colleagues, you simply spoke to Y about the impact of her behaviour on your feelings, what would she do?"

These definitely don't sit comfortably for me in coaching, it is much better to explicitly offer a suggestion rather than leading in this way.

Distinction Clarifying Questions

These gather a bit more detail, sort out differences between people and perspectives and separate out the components of the issue.

"Who do you think is most excited about the new changes in the team? What do you think about the colleagues who are embracing them?"

Questions Introducing Hypotheses

These give a glimpse of your thinking and some possible ideas about a situation, without creating pressure for your coachee to have to agree.

"I’m wondering whether you didn’t say anything about feeling overwhelmed with work because you are worried that people will think you can’t cope. What are your thoughts about that?"

Process Interruption Hypotheses

These can be used to jump in when things get tricky and might be used to remark on the immediate process of the conversation in order to create a shift.

"I can see that you are frustrated. How do you manage to be productive when you normally feel like this?"

Wrap Up

Maybe it is just the way my brain works, but I find it easier to think of these categories and then generate a question from them than to pull a stock question out of my memory. The first three forms of reflexive question are the ones that I focus on, it is simple to remember future, observer and context change as anchors from which I can quickly construct a question in the flow of the coaching conversation. I hope that is also useful to you.

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