Open Questions: Getting Outside the Box

open questionsI once did a short coaching session where the client’s goal was to decide which of two different degree programs (at that time he was pursuing a joint degree) would best prepare him for his career. I began asking him some basic open questions:

  • What kind of job do you want?
  • What did you love about your prior jobs in that field?
  • What are you best at?
  • What would each of these programs enable you to do?

Once I got some background information, I was going to begin posing some questions to help him evaluate his options and think outside the box.

But five minutes into the session he had an epiphany: he was studying for a pastoral career, but he enjoyed his current managerial job (which he’d taken solely to pay for his schooling) much more than his previous pastoral positions. After ten minutes, he was thinking about scrapping one degree program and changing the other in order to pursue a completely different career.

In this situation the client supplied a simple mandate: help me choose between two options. If I had asked problem-solving questions based on the kinds of answers I expected, we would have missed a wonderful breakthrough. Instead, two of my favorite asking techniques opened the door for us to go in an unanticipated direction and start thinking outside the box.

The first is to take plenty of time (even in a short session) togather more information before solving the problem. Most of us jump into problem-solving mode far too quickly. The more information you have out on the table, the more you have to work with when you attack the problem.

People often come to a coach when they’re stuck. They’ve looked at the situation to a certain depth, but with that level of information they can’t come up with a workable solution. They’re thinking inside a box, and the box is the set of information they already have considered. My job as a coach is to help them think outside the box where their creativity can solve the problem. One of the simplest, most effective ways to do that is to ask people to talk through the situation out loud. They’ll be going along, rehearsing all the information that’s inside their box, and Eureka! A new idea pops into their heads.

That’s what happened with this client. The open questions I posed for background sparked some new, creative thinking. Instead of trying to choose between two existing options, the answer he found was outside the box: a new career. So, in summary, here’s the technique: when a client is stuck and can’t solve a problem, start by simply asking them to talk through it. Here are some examples of the kind of open questions you might ask:

  • Describe the problem you are facing.
  • Give me the history of how you got to this point.
  • What are the parameters you have to work within?
  • What options have you considered?
  • What have you tried so far, and what were the results?
  • What kind of outcome are you shooting for?

Getting more information on the table will make it much easier for you and your client to think outside the box.

Asking Bigger Open Questions

The second technique I used in this career-coaching situation was what I callasking bigger questions. An open question is one the client can answer in a variety of ways. The bigger the question, the more ways it can be answered. In the example given, I could have asked, “Which career fits you best: pastoring or teaching?” A good question, but a small one: there are only two possible answers. Instead, I inquired, “What kind of job do you want?” That’s a much bigger question—you can answer in an infinite number of ways. The smaller question would have actually kept the client from considering a new career, while the bigger one invited it.

Let me share a little secret with you—I still catch myself solving the client’s problems in my head sometimes. Probably all coaches do. But when I realize I’m doing it, I use the technique of asking a bigger question to keep myself from giving advice.

Here’s an example. Let’s say the client is thinking about buying a second home and has a question about how rentals would be treated from a tax standpoint. While you’re listening, it occurs to you that the client’s realtor might have the answer. A small question would be, “Could you talk to your realtor about that?” But before you get the words out of your mouth, you catch yourself: you’re solving the problem for the client.

So how do you make those open questions bigger? Start by thinking backward: what coaching_questionsproblem were you trying to solve with that small question? Answer: the client needs some tax information. Are there other ways the client could get that info? Sure—from a CPA, a friend with rental properties, or maybe from a rental agency. Now you have four possible answers. The bigger question is one that could be answered by any of these options. So instead of asking if the client could talk to a certain person, ask, “Who could you talk to that would know the answer to your question?” Now the client is in charge of thinking up the solutions again and they are thinking outside the box.

Tony Stoltzfus is a best-selling author, leadership coach, master coach trainer and director of Leadership Metaformation Institute. Check out additional coaching resources at