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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Seven Essential Coaching Questions from The Coaching Habit

Photo by Alex Green

Michael Bungay Stanier’s world-renowned coaching book is a breakthrough in democratizing coaching. Designed to help everyone be more coach-like, it offers seven simple questions to help people say less, ask more, and change the way they lead forever. This book is a quick read and hard to put down, offering witty wisdom and insightful interrogatives.

While written for the laymen, this book has much to offer for everyone on the coaching spectrum. Leaders, aspiring coaches, and those holding a credential from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) will find value in what this little book contains. Using the professional certified coach (PCC) markers from the ICF, this post will explore how the seven essential questions align to those standards and offers variations on each question. Each question is clear, direct, and open-ended (PCC 7.6).

Question 1 - What’s on your mind?

Called the kickstart question by the author, this query is a simple yet elegant way to start a coaching conversation. It puts the coach in the position of a partner, rather than director, for the purpose of the conversation, and allows the client to identify what they want to accomplish in the session (PCC 3.1). It also immediately indicates to the client that they are going to direct the conversation, supporting them as they choose what happens in the session (PCC 5.3).

Coming into a coaching conversation with plan for what you will discuss can be limiting or possibly detrimental to the efficacy of the session. Even if the client completed a pre-conversation questionnaire, specifically identifying what topic(s) would be brought forth, things might have changed. What the client thinks it the issue might be a mask for the core problem, so allowing the client to bring the topic sets the conversation on solid footing from the outset.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • What should we focus on today?

  • What would you like to place in the center of our time together?

Question 2 - And what else?

Stanier labels this the AWE question and it is used to discover new information, open up new avenues, and dig deeper into the topic. The first response to a question is not always the best. Asking And what else? in a conversation helps the client dig deeper into what they want to accomplish throughout the session (PCC 5.2) and demonstrates curiosity about the client (PCC 5.4). Instead of jumping straight to problem solving, this question allows space to help the client explore beyond their current thinking about their situation (PCC 7.3) and toward the desired outcome (PCC 7.4).

The AWE question allows coaches to resist the temptation to rush toward the outcome. While the client’s initial responses might seem to lay out a perfectly understandable scenario with a clear path toward resolution, there’s no point spending time on solving the wrong problem. Digging deeper allows the client an opportunity to fully explore an issue to see what might have been previously hidden.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • Say more.

  • Tell me more.

Question 3 - What is the real challenge here for you?

Labeled the focus question, this inquiry is the Swiss Army knife of questions. It is a flexible tool to help funnel the conversation toward what the client wants to accomplish in the session (PCC 3.1). It also can be used to help the client explore beyond their current thinking or feeling about themself (PCC 7.2) or their current situation (PCC 7.3).

The utility of this question lies in how it is enunciated. When the client has wandered from topic to topic and there’s no clear through-line, ask, “What’s the REAL challenge here for you?”. When the client has described a situation but hasn’t articulated what’s at stake, ask, “What’s the real CHALLENGE here for you?”. Finally, when the client is focused on the actions of other people and does not play a central part in their own narrative, ask, “What’s the real challenge here FOR YOU?”

Alternatives to this question are:

  • What’s at the heart of this matter?

  • What’s the big picture here?

Question 4 - What do you want?

Michael Bungay Stanier labels this the foundation question. While seemingly simple and direct, it also packs a punch. It serves as a lever to help the client identify what they want to accomplish (PCC 3.1) and define what they need to address in order to get what they want (PCC 3.4). This question oftentimes is not immediately answered, allowing the coach to demonstrate presence through silence and reflection (PCC 5.5).

While people often think they know what they want, articulating it to someone else can actually be quite challenging. This question sometimes results in a non-committal response, such as, “Huh, I’m not quite sure.” Unraveling this thread will help the client uncover the core issue that faces them. Unless the real challenge is identified, true breakthrough will remain elusive.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • What needs to happen?

  • What’s the bottom line?

Question 5 - How can I help?

Dubbed the lazy question, this puts the client firmly in the driver’s seat of the conversation. Throughout a session, coaches partner with the client by allowing them to choose what happens (PCC 5.3). It also serves as a sign of respect for the client’s talents, insights, and work in the coaching process (PCC 4.1). When coaches allow their clients to define the help they would like from the coach, it provides the client with status as a capable and worthy thought partner.

As professional coaches, myriad problems and solutions have been discussed over countless conversations. Since brains are natural pattern detectors, it’s natural for a client’s description of the problem to trigger a memory of a similar situation, either from the coach’s personal or professional experience. Instead of blindly running down the path of helping, asking the lazy question keeps the coach in the passenger seat.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • How would you like to think about this?

  • How could I be most helpful to you?

Question 6 - If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

This inquiry, called the strategic question, is useful as the conversation begins to wind down and look toward post-conversation action (PCC 8.4, 8.5). For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, and this question allows the client to explore beyond their current situation (PCC 7.3) toward the desired outcome (PCC 7.4). However, it might not fit in every conversation. Instead, coaches should customize it based on what has been learned about the client or the situation (PCC 6.1).

Exploring ramifications of actions prompts the client to think about their level of commitment toward their decision or resolution. This sometimes results in a change in projects, such as starting/stopping certain meetings or delaying/halting current work streams. Likewise, being strategic can sometimes alter connections with people, requiring relationships to grow or decline. Finally, this can often lead to a change in patterns, with habits being revamped or even eliminated.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • What’s the impact of moving forward?

  • How will this decision affect your current reality?

Question 7 - What was most useful to you?

This last question is the learning question and, used with the kickstart question (What’s on your mind?), can serve as useful bookends to any coaching conversation. It invites the client to explore progress toward what they wanted to accomplish (PCC 8.1), what they learned about themselves (PCC 8.2) and/or the situation (PCC 8.3), and can even be used to celebrate the client’s progress and learning (PCC 8.8).

Ending the conversation on a useful note does several things. It helps the client clarify and embed their learning from the conversation. It also increases the likelihood that they’ll associate positive emotional tags to their memory of the time spent together. This reflection and summary is always articulated by the client, not the coach.

Alternatives to this question are:

  • What did you learn about yourself/the situation?

  • What has been most beneficial about our time together?

When coaches to maintain presence throughout a coaching conversation, they act in response to the whole person of the client (PCC 5.1), to what the client wants to accomplish (PCC 5.2), and allowing the client to drive the conversation (PCC 5.3) through curiosity (PCC 5.4) and silence (PCC 5.5). Presence is disrupted when the coach is searching for the next question or trying to solve the problem for the client. Having a set of simple questions, such as the ones outlined in The Coaching Habit, frees up mental space for the coach and reduces the risk of losing coaching presence.

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