Effective questioning in coaching and mentoring

What are you doing right now?  What am I going to say next about this topic? Don't you think I should ask questions with an outcome in mind?  How is it possible to delete mind chatter and ask the right question?  How do you know what question to ask?

These are all questions.  Whether they are all of equal value I'm not so sure.  When I qualified as a practitioner almost ten years ago I wouldn't have said there was so much to questioning as I do now.   I would have said questions help the coachee find answers and process thinking and help me as a coach understand my client.  Looking back I'd say I have developed through learning, practice and development, including through deepening the psychological aspects of coaching, an intuitive approach to questioning.  Assessing and observing other new coaches, one of the aspects of one who has matured and learned effective practice is the more seamless approach in evidence to questioning that comes from a much higher level of listening (global listening) and a clear "theory in use".

The most effective questions in mentoring and coaching stem from holding a guided discussion that is non directive.  It means the coach is open to asking questions without a pre-determined ending in mind and that, as is really important to understand in practice, the coachee/mentee is the one who holds the answers.  It means that from the list of questions in paragraph one, some are of more value than others.  It also means and gives rise to a more concrete approach that helps the coachee find answers and to a sequence that involves more than just listening globally and asking a question.

Maximising the mentee's or coachee's chances of finding the answers

To increase the chances of the client finding answers and being able to apply them, the coach can use the following sequence:

  1. Ask questions that help the coachee identify their concerns and thoughts.  Padesky calls this informational questioning.
  2. Listen.  Be open to whatever is said without value judgment or a desire to steer towards a determined outcome.  Listening and questioning support each other and go hand in hand.
  3. Summarise often.  It helps with the timeline, helps the coachee or mentee hear back in their own words and continually "tops up" on what is being worked on.
  4. Ask more questions.  These should eventually start to synthesise with the goal being worked on and, of course, as goal setting in coaching is important, should be linked back to session and journey goals.  In other words, helping the coachee find answers and actions for themselves.  It is so important to stress that the answers lie already within the coachee and the role of the coach is to spring them loose.

Killer questions

I have worked with SFEDI Awards for a number of years, and we have provided mentoring training to hundreds of volunteer enterprise mentors.  We pay attention in this process to what we have come to coin as "killer questions".  These questions empower the mentee and enable them to really think about the issue, resolve it themselves and take responsibility for it.  A killer question can provoke a new insight, move the person to action or help them to commit to something.  

The most effective (killer!) questions have a number of characteristics in common:

  • they raise self awareness 
  • they provoke and challenge
  • they seek truthful answers
  • they are short
  • they go beyond asking for information, they are about discovery
  • they enable the coachee to take responsibility 
  • they stick with the coachee's agenda
  • they lead to learning 

Super useful questioning

  • Great questions are content free, short, do not include the word "I", delve below the surface, and work elegantly as a natural progression.
  • If you use a framework such as GROW, questions will start with goal setting ones, then address reality, then help with exploring options and then establish steps to action (WILL).
  • They do not steer or influence the mentee/coachee.
  • They avoid asking "why" - asking why is a trap because it invites analysis and intellectualising or may be received as being interrogated or as an accusation.


Listening globally remains one of the most important responsibilities.  A great listener makes the conversation flow seamlessly and knows how to use this and their questioning skills to make communication effective.  .  Anyone who regards themselves as a professional coach knows that, like everything else in life, to be anywhere close to good at asking effective questions and listening globally, it takes continuous practice (and then more practice). 

My advice is - be aware of questioning patterns you use, understand and do what works, knowing what the 'right' question is to ask comes from experience, intuition and conscious practice.

Get in touch if you'd like to discuss training in these vital communication skills or have some coaching.