Questions as a Central tool for Coaching Practice
What is the significance of questions for the coaching practice?
Questions are a key intervention to induce change in coaching clients, and they are thus an important tool for coaches. Questions thereby fulfil a variety of functions in coaching:
- Questions initiate imagination processes in clients
- Questions stimulate self-reflection processes in clients
- Questions help to localize knowledge gaps and express knowledge requirements
- Questions help clients to change their perspective and point of view
- With the help of questions, interests in reasons, functions, relationships etc. can be articulated
- With the help of questions, it is possible to relate to the past, but also to the future.
In the collaborative turn-by-turn construction of the coaching conversation, questions are a major contributor to change. Since questions “require” an answer from the conversation partner, initiate processes of imagination and self-reflexion, may lead to the exploration of reasons, connections, and solutions, and provide a thematic focus, they are central to the co-construction of new knowledge and thus for the effectiveness of the coaching conversation. Furthermore, questions allow coaches to pursue and achieve the underlying coaching agenda, i.e., the jointly formulated professional goals, by controlling the course of the conversation.
Although questions generally represent a central intervention in helping conversations, the types of questions, their use, and functions in coaching differ from other helping professional formats such as psychotherapy or doctor-patient communication.
In coaching practice literature and various coaching manuals, questions are presented as central. Asking as many questions as possible and using a wide array of question types (scaling questions, systemic questions, hypothetic questions, paradoxical questions, etc.) is often seen as a key quality factor of good coaching. This perception, however, is mostly based on an idealized representation of questions as well as personal evaluation and experience, not empirically supported findings. Studies have shown, for instance, that closed questions can also lead to longer responses from clients, although practice literature explicitly advises against asking closed questions. Moreover, practice literature and coaching manuals do not take a dialogical look at questions in coaching, they rather focus exclusively on the coach asking questions. Clients’ answers as well as coaches’ reactions to clients’ responses are (almost) completely neglected. However, question – response – coach’s follow-up reaction (i.e., questioning sequences) are closely linked to each other and influence the course of a conversation as well as the envisioned change to a great extent.
Questions in Coaching Research
Why is it useful to investigate questions?
Although the importance of coaching has been increasing significantly, its academic foundation is still underdeveloped, especially regarding the coaching process itself. The analysis of questions and questioning sequences as a key tool in coaching conversations thus represents an important research gap. There are hardly any empirical findings regarding questions, and there is no research on questioning sequences in coaching at all. This results in a considerable discrepancy between the significance of questions in practice literature and coaching manuals and the lack of academic research into questioning practices.
By means of empirical analyses, the centrality and actual significance as well as the occurrence of questions can be investigated and documented on a scientific basis. Particularly, such research can examine: which question successfully induces change in clients and at which point in time; how often questions actually occur; in which phase in the coaching process they are asked; and what kind of (positive) effect they have on the interaction. This is exactly what the interdisciplinary research project “Questioning Sequences in Coaching” (QueSCo) addresses.
Within the project, questioning sequences (i.e., coaches’ questions – clients’ responses – coaches’ reactions to clients’ responses) are linguistically and psychologically analyzed regarding their key role in coaching and their contribution to change along successful coaching processes. This is done in cooperation between Prof. Dr. Eva-Maria Graf (University of Klagenfurt), Prof. Dr. Thomas Spranz-Fogasy (Leibniz Institute for the German Language) and Prof. Hansjörg Künzli (Zurich University of Applied Sciences) and their respective teams. As the first research project about coaching of this magnitude, “Questioning Sequences in Coaching” is funded by the three national science funds FWF (Austrian Science Fund), DFG (German Research Foundation), and SNF (Swiss National Science Foundation).
The overall aim of the project is to promote the professionalization and further development of coaching practice and research. The goal is to determine the following:
- How often do the different types of questions occur?
- What is the relation between their frequency and their effectiveness?
- How are the questions embedded in the coaching conversation? At what point/During which phase do they occur?
- What are their coaching-specific functions?
- How do questions contribute to clients’ change?
- Do the types of questions correspond to their significance in practice literature?
We work with authentic coaching data, i.e., with audio and video recordings as well as transcriptions of (face-to-face and/or online) coaching processes that were not specifically (and thus artificially) generated for this research project. We aim to incorporate a wide array of coaching processes from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland to cover the entire German-speaking coaching market. Additionally, with the help of questionnaires, clients’ goal attainment is ascertained (at the beginning and at the end of the entire coaching process). The collected data is then analyzed using linguistic and psychological methods by the project members. All participants are of course bound to professional confidentiality. The collected data is anonymized and kept confidential.
The empirical foundation and development of a coaching-specific typology of questioning sequences and their change potentials, based on the actual use of such sequences in authentic coaching conversations, is particularly important for coaching practitioners and their professional activities.