More Top Asking Mistakes (and How to Correct Them)

more top asking mistakesIn December I shared the top five asking mistakes I see coaches make. This month, I want to share five more top asking mistakes, so you have the complete top ten. (Visit the newsletter archive at if you missed this article).

More Top Asking Mistakes #6. Rhetorical Questions

Although posed in question form, rhetorical questions are actually statements (often emotional or judgmental) of your own opinion of the situation:

  • “What were you thinking!?!”
  • “Are you really going to throw away your career like that?”
  • “Isn’t that just a cop out?”
  • “Wouldn’t you rather get along with your spouse?”

Since we aren’t really asking for the other person’s opinion, these questions evoke either no response or a defensive one. Rhetorical questions are generally a sign that you’ve made a judgement or developed an attitude about the person you are coaching.

Solution: Reset Your Attitude

Eliminating rhetorical questions requires changing your viewpoint, usually in one of two ways. First, you can get in touch with what is going on inside you, and how this situation is pushing your emotional buttons. A second approach is renew your internal picture of the coachee’s potential and ability. Spend 15 or 20 minutes on these reflection questions: to reorient:

  • Why am I forming judgments here? How is focusing on the negative in this person meeting my own needs? What can I do about that?
  • Could I be wrong about the situation? What am I missing?(See if you can construct at least two possible scenarios where the coachee’s point of view on this is more valid than yours.)
  • What potential, ability and wisdom do I see in this person? What can s/he become? Why am I drawn to coach him/her?

More Top Asking Mistakes #7. Leading Questions

Leading questions are ones that subtly point the coachee to a certain answer: the one the coach (knowingly or unknowingly) wants. While rhetorical are blatantly biased, with leading questions you may not even realize you’ve skewed the conversation toward a “right” answer. What response do you think the coach wants to the following questions?

  • “How would you describe that feeling: sad?”
  • “We’ve spent a fair amount of time processing this over the last several weeks: are you ready to make a decision on that now?
  • “Do you want to stay with this organization you’ve invested so much in?”
  • “It seems like this option would feel good today, but the other would give lasting satisfaction: which one do you want?”

Solution: Multiple Options, Or the Opposite

One great way to make leading questions more open is to offer multiple solutions. If you catch yourself asking a leading question (like, “Name that emotion: are you disappointed?”), just add several more options on the end: “…are you disappointed, excited, upset, or what?” With multiple options, the coachee has to choose how to respond, instead of just assenting to your idea.

Another excellent technique is one I call “Or the Opposite”. If you realize you’ve just asked a leading question (i.e. “If you take this new position, will it take time and energy away from your family?”) just add an “or”, and then ask the opposite question: “…Or will this open up doors to get you the kind of family time you truly want?”

More Top Asking Mistakes #8. Neglecting to Interrupt

No, that’s not a misprint. Being too timid to interrupt and refocus the conversation is more of a problem for beginning coaches than interrupting too much. While some clients speak concisely, others can go on for 10 minutes every time you ask an open question. Too much irrelevant detail slows progress and blurs your focus.

Solution: Restore the Focus

Part of your job as a coach is managing the conversation, so when you see the client bunny-trailing, interject with a question that brings things back to focus. A great step with a talkative client is to discuss it and get permission to interrupt when needed.

  • “It caught my attention when you mentioned earlier that _______. Let’s come back to that.”
  • “You are pretty good at expressing yourself. Would you mind if I interrupt occasionally to bring us back to the main topic so that we can make the most of our time?”

More Top Asking Mistakes #9. Interrupting

The other side of the interruption coin is that for some of us (often the most verbal or relational personalities) interrupting is a habit we aren’t very aware coaching_questionsof. Frequent interrupters tend to be perceived as dishonoring and frustrating to talk to—not the kind of image you want to cultivate as a coach! Are you an interrupter? If you want to find out, here’s a revealing exercise. First, record one of your coaching conversations. Then fast-forward to the middle (by then you’ll have forgotten you’re recording yourself), listen to the tape, and make a note every time you hear each of the three following things:

  • Interruption: I interrupted or made a comment while the client was still talking
  • Talking Over: I kept talking when the client tried to interrupt me, or when we both started simultaneously, I failed to defer to the client
  • Talking For: I finished the client’s thought for him/her

The Solution: Count to Two

Here’s a simple discipline you can practice to break an interrupting habit. Make a commitment that when you are coaching you will count off two seconds (“one, one thousand; two, one thousand”) after the coachee has stopped speaking before you reply or ask a question. And if the person begins speaking again before the two seconds is up, good! Your goal as a coach is not to interject your ideas, but to help the coachees explore and implement their own.

More Top Asking Mistakes #10. “Why” Questions

One more top asking mistakes is “Why” questions tend to make people clam up because they challenge motives. When you pose a question like, “Why did you do that?” you are asking the coachee to defend and justify his actions—so don’t be surprised if he gets defensive!

Solution: Use “What” Instead

It’s easy to rephrase questions to replace the “why” with “what”. Here are several examples of “why” questions that have been reworded with “what” to keep from putting people on the defensive:

  • “Why did you turn down the job?”
  • “What factors led you to turn down the job?”
  • “Why do you think she’d respond like that?”
  • “What’s causing you to anticipate that response?”
  • “Why can’t you talk to him about that?”
  • “What do you need to talk to him about that?”

Tony Stoltzfus is a long-time coach, trainer, author and co-founder of a Christian coach training school.