Provision #733: Questions Matter

Laser Provision

Leaders often think of ourselves as answer people. We are, almost by definition, the go-to people in organizations and we think it is our job to generate ideas, solve problems, and keep people on track. But what if the best way to do all that is not by answering questions, but by asking questions? What if our role is best understood as that of a conversation starter and question asker rather than as an information provider and decision maker? When leaders understand ourselves in this way, everything begins to shift • from how we talk to ourselves to how we talk with others to how we get things done. That may seem less efficient than simply telling people what to do, but looks can be deceiving. Read on if you would like to see things anew.

LifeTrek Provision


So here’s a question for you: what’s stopping you from registering for the next section of evocative coaching training? The early-bird registration period expires on Wednesday, saving you $100 USD, and now we have just unveiled our easy payment plan ($310 USD per month for three months). There’s no reason to hold back from what may be a career-building but also a life-transforming experience.

At least that’s what people are telling us. We have now had 60 people go through the training program, which assists instructional leaders and other educators to enhance the quality of our conversations with others. Although the focus of the program is on the conversations that take place in primary and secondary schools regarding professional practices, the lessons learned apply equally well to other life settings and contexts. More than once, trainees have commented on what a difference the training is making in their marriages, partnerships, or friendships.

That’s because life is a seamless whole. Since the time of the industrial revolution, people have been living with the illusion of a dichotomy between life and work. Although that dichotomy keeps many coaches in business, as we work with people to achieve “life•work balance,” for example, in reality there is no dichotomy at all. We have only one life, and how we show up in one place is more or less how we show up in every place. To paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book title, Wherever We Go, There We Are. We just can’t get away from ourselves.

So what we learn in one arena carries over to every arena. As we become better conversationalists at work, the practice carries over to home, family, and friendships. That’s probably not reason, in itself, to go through the evocative coaching training program. We certainly don’t advertise it as a self-help group; it is a professional development program for teachers and instructional leaders sponsored by the Center for School Transformation. But it’s nice to know that the benefits apply.

We see that especially when it comes to some of the practical skills in our coaching model. People often show up on the first day of training with some pretty conventional ideas as to what coaching means. What do you think it means? Chances are, if you are like most people, you think it means telling someone how they can do something better. That’s what lies behind the expression, “Can I give you some coaching about that?”

So the first step in learning coaching, as in so many things, is unlearning. We have to unlearn what we think we know in order to make room for what we need to know. And, at least when it comes to coaching, what we need to know comes down to the familiar, four-word mantra, “Questions are the answer.” People coach best when we ask questions that evoke conversations that lead to answers rather than when we show up and show off with what we know. 

The same goes for leadership. It may have been some measure of technical expertise that got us into positions of leadership, but leadership itself is a very different. Recently I was working with the CIO and his direct reports of a top, Fortune 500 company. I started by asking people to write down how much of their job was communication. I did not ask how much of their job involved communication. I asked, how much of it was communication. Their answers surprised me: between 80% to 100%.

I then asked people how long they thought an average, negative emotional experience would impair performance. I made it clear that by average I meant a little more than nothing but a lot less than an earth-shattering experience. Their answers surprised me even more: between a few hours to 200 hours. This crew clearly understood the leadership task, even though they all had strong, technical backgrounds in information technology. Leadership is all about people.

And when it comes to working with people, making them feel good, winning their cooperation, and opening their minds, nothing works better than a great question. That, in fact, is what coaches learn and hone in coach training: how to ask great questions. It can be a real challenge, at times, to take off our expert hats in order to put on our question hats. But that is exactly what makes great coaches great. We resist the temptation to analyze problems and give advice in order to ask questions that expand awareness and move people to action.

The power of such questions is reflected in Marilee Adams’ book title: Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. The instant a new question is asked, the focus of of our attention and conversation shifts. Questions are to attention as spotlights are to a stage. They illuminate what we want people to see. And when it comes to both coaching and leadership, what we want people to see are the possibilities.

So the first shift we have to learn how to make is the shift from what Adams refers to as Judger Questions to Learner Questions. This is the shift from interrogation and fault-finding to inquiry and strengths-building. It is a shift we would all do well to learn how to make on a more consistent basis. Interrogation and fault-finding represent a sure-fire formula for those negative emotional experiences. Inquiry and strengths-building, on the other hand, generate positive emotions and fill people with self-efficacy • the confidence that we can figure things out and make things work.

That is what we are hoping to generate through our questions, and we can get that juice flowing at any point. Even if we start down the wrong path, with Judger Questions, we can switch over to Learner Questions as soon as we catch ourselves in the act and wake up to the possibility of asking new questions. And it only takes one new question to shift our thinking and deliberations in new directions.

Adams refers to those questions as Switching Questions. In our book, and in the evocative coaching training program, we refer to them as Imaginative Listening questions. When we find ourselves thinking a certain way about a situation or a person, we can ask, for example, “How am I feeling right now?” “Is this how I want to be feeling?” “How else can I understand the situation?” and “How might the other person describe the situation?”

As soon as we start asking question like these, we have begun to switch from the Judger Path to the Learner Path. Instead of focusing on causes and culprits, the Learner Path focuses on understandings and possibilities. You can get a sense of how this feels just by looking at the two sets of questions in Adams’ book.

  • Judger Questions: “What’s wrong? Whose fault is it? What’s wrong with me? How can I prove I’m right? How will this be a problem? Why is that person so stupid and frustrating? How can I be in control? Why bother?”
  • Learner Questions: “What works? What am I responsible for? What do I want? What can I learn? What are the facts? What’s useful about this? What is the other person thinking, feeling, and wanting? What’s the big picture? What’s possible?”

You can download a free color copy of these and other questions from Adam’s website,www.inquiryinstitute.com. I like the graphic (which Adams refers to as the Choice Map) for many reasons, not the least of which is the Switching Lane. All of us find ourselves starting down the Judger Path at times. It’s an easy and natural place to go, especially when things are going badly. But we don’t have to stay on that path forever. We are not destined to end up in what Adams refers to as the Judger Pit. We can, instead, switch to the Learner Path through the power of understanding, curiosity, and imagination.

Adams recommends the ABCC Choice Process: Awareness (Am I in Judger?), Breath (Do I need to step back and gain perspective?), Curiosity (Do I have all the facts? What’s happening here?), and Choice (What will I do now?). When it comes to choice, in evocative coaching we stress the importance of both awareness and action experiments. What will we do? We can either pay attention to new things in new ways (not intentionally trying to change a thing) or we can change our approach. Either way, great leaders are more concerned with learning than winning.

Great leaders are consistently in a Learner frame of mind: strengths-based, win-win, valuing differences, dialogical, and collaborative. Great leaders don’t have all the answers and tell people what to do. Great leaders have great questions, inviting people to work together to meet the challenges of our day. The same goes for coaches. Won’t you join me on the journey?

Coaching Inquiries: What is your orientation in life and work? How often do you choose to take the Learner Path? What would help you to get on that path more often? Who do you know who embodies that orientation? How could you partner with them to learn and grow together?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.


Your Provision on how and why Memory Matters was a real eye-opener. I never thought that I could strengthen my memory by working my imagination. Thanks for making that connection.  


You have probably written a post about morality, but it would have fit right into your recent series on how MindfulnessMoods, and Memory matter when it comes to leadership. Morality Matters!Check out this post on a CEO who takes morality to heart. 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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