The power of questions

Coaches sometimes offer suggestions to their coachees, and managers often issue instructions. But the most powerful coaching is non-directive: it is based on asking excellent questions – especially when there is a Gordian Knot of a predicament that cannot be untied, and so must be cut instead.

The power of the non-directive approach is confirmed by the findings of neuroscience.

  • Coaching is usually employed when the coachee would perform better by doing something in a way that differs from the hitherto habitual way, or requires seeing something in a new light.
  • Yet, when confronted with a new way of doing something (even if from a suggestion that is believed to be well-intentioned), the brain reacts adversely. Specifically, a region called the anterior cingulate cortex starts to register a conflict versus the brain’s existing schemas, and the amygdala sounds an alarm to resist.
  • By asking an excellent question, the coachee’s alarm system is to some extent bypassed and his or her brain becomes engaged in a process of exploration rather than of defence.

The page opposite offers the coach a selection of ways in which to help the coachee explore issues from new and productive angles.

Perspective: from … Example coaching question
Afar Is this the right issue to be addressing?
Above (Super-Ego) How would you explain this to a person strongly affected by your decision?
Left (logic) What does your head tell you?
Right (emotion) What does your heart tell you?
Behind (the past) Which route is most consistent with your life/values/success formula so far?
In front (the future) How does this fit with your picture of where you want to be?
Below (fears) Are you operating out of fear; is this good?
(Imagined) retrospect Imagine you have already chosen the course of action – now tell me why you chose it?
Someone else’s point of view How would he/she/your ally/your enemy/your father/your mother etc react? [or want you to react?]

Other powerful questions examples

  1. What do you want?
  2. What’s holding you back?
  3. What is it costing you to continue holding back?
  4. How do you want to change your mind’s programming on that topic?
  5. What new habits will you put in place to fortify your new mindset?
  6. What is the most meaningful action you could take now?
  7. What new skills or support systems will ensure your success?

Anatomy of a Powerful Question

All powerful questions:

  • Come from a place of genuine curiosity.
  • Are direct, simple and usually open-ended.
  • Generate creative thinking and surface underlying information.
  • Encourage self reflection.


Credit: material is adapted from here.