Why you should not ask a ‘why’ question?Oct 12, 2021
Why is this important?
I was recently evaluating a recording for an ICF Credentialing application. During the coaching conversation, the coach asks several 'why’ questions.
Asking a why question impacts negatively competence in the current ICF Coaching Core Competency Area 6 (Powerful Questioning). Subcompetency 6.4 requires explicitly that a coach does not ask “questions that ask the client to justify or look backward.”
When that happens, both client and the coaching conversation may go in a direction that, rather than evoking new awareness, triggers defensiveness of the coachee and perhaps even feeling uncomfortable or unsafe to be truthful to the coach.
To receive a passing grade in Powerful Questioning, coaches must ask questions that move the client toward what they desire—showing competence in asking evocative questions, especially for PCC and MCC applications. Seemingly, other competency areas may be affected, especially Competency Area 2 (Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client) and even Competency Areas 7 (Direct Communication) and 8 (Creating Awareness).
Asking ‘why’ questions prevents coaches from demonstrating competence in several Core Competency Areas, primarily Powerful Questioning (Competency Area 6).
When establishing competence in Powerful Questioning while assessing a recording, ICF assessors will most probably first look at whether a session agreement has been formed. Having a well-established session agreement is critical! Assessors will then consider how the coach’s response to what the client presents serves the client forward-thinking rather than the coach frequently asking informational questions or questions that keep the client in the past or present detail of a situation.
Imagine the following exchange taking place during a coaching conversation:
Client: I believe I am very competent in my work. I am probably one of those with the highest level of expertise in my field. But I am not recognized for it, especially by those I have known for a long time and now hold very senior leadership positions. This is my problem! And I am not willing to talk to them as it seems like I am begging for help or something. I never begged in my life, you know. I do not beg!
Coach: Hmm, why are you feeling that way? I mean, why are you feeling that you are begging for help? If anything, I believe that it is the other way round as you are the expert in your company, providing solutions to their problems, and so shouldn’t they be those who are actually asking for help?
Let’s dissect this exchange
The client is presenting the following:
- a belief (“I am very competent in my work. I am probably one of those with the highest level of expertise in my field.”),
- an opinion (“I am not recognized for it, especially...positions”),
- the response to what the client observes in their own life - let’s call it their thinking around their problem (“This is my problem! And I am not willing to talk to them as it seems as if I am begging for help or something. I never begged in my life, you know. I do not beg!”)
The coach’s response includes:
- Two versions of a why-type question,
- The coach’s opinion of what the coach heard the client saying (“I believe that it is the other way round...”), and
- A third question, this time trying to persuade or convince the client of their erroneous thinking. In a way, the coach seems to explain why the client is wrong in thinking that way. (“so shouldn’t they be those who are actually asking for help?”)
When a coach engages clients in this way, clients may respond in a few different ways. (Note: The third question creates several additional issues from an evaluation of competence perspective that we will not cover in this post.)
For instance, they may agree with the coach and adopt the coach’s perspective.
They may go defensive and justify themselves with the coach as to why they feel that way.
They may feel unsafe to continue the conversation and may not know how to respond, and rather than going more profound and moving forward towards their session goals, they may either try to stay on the surface (freeze approach) or cut the session short (run away).
Either way, the client may not experience the coach as creating a space for them to process their thinking, learn about themselves, gaining new awareness, and move towards their desired outcome.
In any case, the coach is not responsive to what the client presents, thus not showing evidence of competence for Competency Area 4 - Coaching Presence. Additionally, the coach may miss showing competence for Competency Area 6 (Powerful Questioning), Competency Area 2 (Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client), Competency Area 7 (Direct Communication), and Competency Area 8 (Creating Awareness).
Two additional problems, in this case, arise. The Coach’s response contains a sharing of the coach’s thoughts with attachment (contra-evidence for Competency Area 7- Direct Communication), and also the Coach is sharing without partnering with the client (contra evidence primarily for Competency Area 4 - Coaching Presence).
Some additional examples of ‘why’ questions, when a similar pattern may arise, are:
- Why are you unclear about ‘this topic’? and the very common question, especially when creating the coaching agreement:
- Why is “this” important to you?
As in the earlier examples, the coach would miss showing competence in several areas, even in the last two examples.
Thus, what alternative response can a Coach give to create thinking space for the client? What response helps clients create the future they desire, rather than asking questions that keep them in the past or the present detail of a situation?
A coach needs to be at the client’s service, especially of the client’s forward movement, towards what the client wants to achieve in the coaching session (or coaching progress). For this purpose, it is imperative to have a well-defined coaching session agreement and that both the coach and the client are clear on the session goal the client intends to achieve.
Having clarity on the session goal(s), the Coach’s work, especially the coach’s inquiry, and the coach’s communication need to help the client move towards the agreed-upon session goals.
Therefore, a coach needs to have the clarity and consciousness of what playing field they invite their client to be on with their questions. The coach needs to frequently, if not always, ask evocative questions and ask the client to think in “a larger space or an experimental space related to the client’s agenda and stated objectives” (as stated in the MCC Min. Standards).
There are an infinite amount of possible alternatives to the examples examined above. I present some below.
A coach needs to craft the questions based on - as we have mentioned - the session agreement, what the coach has learned about their client, and ultimately what the client presents.
Some alternatives to the first example above could be:
- What recognition would look like for you when you receive it fully? or
- What would change for you if you received the recognition you are longing for? or
- Imagine you received that recognition; what would your problem/work/relationships be like?
Then, the coach could follow the coaching conversation focussing on evoking awareness in the client while maintaining the client’s desired direction.
For the other examples, some alternatives could be:
- What makes ‘this’ important/vital/critical for you?
- What do you imagine to be different once you get the clarity you are longing for?
- When ‘this’ happens in your life, what would be different for you?
Of course, a coach should use the client’s language instead of the pronoun ‘this.’
Are there variances among ACC, PCC, and MCC to consider?
Yes and no!
Sub-competence 6.4 of the current competencies apply to all levels of coaching.
At the time of writing (October 2021), specific ICF guidance is available for MCC and PCC level coaching and credentialing. The list below contains the critical skills evaluated for PCC and MCC level coaching:
For the PCC Coach, the (2020) PCC Markers for Competency Area 7 are:
7.2: Coach asks questions to help the client explore beyond the client’s current thinking or feeling to new or expanded ways of thinking or feeling about themself (the who).
7.3: Coach asks questions to help the client explore beyond the client’s current thinking or feeling to new or expanded ways of thinking or feeling about their situation (the what).
7.4: Coach asks questions to help the client explore beyond current thinking, feeling, or behaving toward the outcome the client desires.
For the MCC Coach, the Minimum skills requirements for Competency Area 6 are:
1) The coach’s depth of questioning that evokes the core issues that are either contained in or underlie the client’s agenda;
2) The coach’s ability to explore with and to evoke exploration by the client of the emotional and substantive content of the words;
3) The coach’s ability to explore with and evoke exploration by the client of the underlying beliefs and means of thinking, creating, and learning that are occurring for the client;
4) The depth at which the coach’s questions provide a thinking space for and elicit new perspectives from the client
The emphasis is mine to show how a ‘why’ question would prevent coaches from demonstrating competence in the respective Competency Areas. It also reflects the level of evidence an ICF Assessor expects to collect when assessing this competence.
For other articles on quality coaching and ICF credentialing, click here.
Reference Material: 2019 ICF Core Competencies, 2020 PCC Markers, ICF Minimum Skills Requirements
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