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Questions vs. directions

Questions vs. directions

/ 4 min read

Asking questions is a basic coaching technique but doing it properly is a matter of practice, finding a good balance and avoiding some common pitfalls. As with most of the things in life.

Why not just give directions?

During coaching discussions such as 1:1s managers are many times tempted to just tell their engineers the One True Way of doing things. I invite you to ask guiding and challenging questions instead, for the following reasons:

  • well, you might be just plain wrong about your solution idea ;)
  • giving the answer is not coaching, it’s optimizing for resolution time instead of the growth of your engineer
  • giving the answer can many times feel like giving direction, which is not the style usually preferred by engineers
  • good questions demonstrate care for the other party’s opinion
  • good questions can clarify the situation thus showing a path forward
  • good questions nurture a relationship based on ownership, autonomy and respect

You mentioned balance

Yup. As with most of the things in life, balance is the key. One common pitfall of this technique is overusing it - sometimes people actually do need directions. How do you know if that’s the case? Well, have you tried asking them? ;) I’m not kidding. Sometimes you can feel that the other person needs answers, directions, but many times you won’t - asking them about the best way you can help is usually the right course of action.

Ask the question and then shut up!

Another common pitfall is asking questions and not giving space for the other person to actually answer them. This can happen for multiple reasons:

Silence can grow awkward

Silence makes us uncomfortable, so we try to fill it with chatter. Instead, after asking the question take a deep breath and/or explicitly say you’ll give them a moment to think about the answer.

You fear they don’t know the answer

You might be right, but it’s good to surface that - after all this is a coaching session, not an interview! If this is the case depending on the situation and your goals you might want to try more guided questions or even giving some directions. Be super clear that it’s completely OK not to have an answer!

Am I performing well?

It’s quite usual for managers to feel less confident about their execution of this technique when they face some silence. This often results in a quick reiteration of the question, some monologue about context, effectively taking away the space from the other person to answer. Instead, if the silence grows really long, ask them to paraphrase what they’ve heard you asking them.

Open and closed questions

There are two kinds of questions: open and closed ones. Closed questions require a binary or a very short, usually factual answer. “Are you hungry?” yes or no. “Do you feel the board’s decision to cut back on hiring was justified?” Yes or no. Open questsions spark thinking and conversations. “How do you feel about the board’s decision to cut back on hiring?“. Open questions usually begin with why, what, how, or describe, tell me.

As a rule of thumb in coaching you should use open questions. The reason is that they inspire actual thinking instead of gut reactions, they don’t limit the coachee’s answer range and they show way more that you actually care about their thoughts, ideas and opinions. They also spark conversations which lead to smooth discussion flows instead of a question-answer back and forth.

Leading or loaded questions

There’s a sneaky type of questions - when a limiting assumption is already loaded in the question, either because you unconsciously believe that assumption to be true or because you deliberately want to guide the coachee in a certain direction. “How late do you think the project will be?” vs. “How is the project doing in terms of timeline?“. While it’s still valid to answer “It won’t be late at all” to the first question, many coachees will feel that they need to treat the assumption of the project being late as a fact. Use this type of questions very sparingly - sometimes you do need them to strike a good balance of coaching and effectiveness, but be aware that it can limit your coachee and can come across as hidden directions.

By now I hope you got the basic idea about this coaching technique - please share your experience in comments!