Those who coach for a living develop a wide repertoire of useful skills. As a busy leader of a professional service team you are probably looking for a few basic ideas to help you to enlarge your natural talents to help others to learn. Asking effective questions is the starting point. John Whitmore in his very readable article, Coaching for Performance (1993), provides an excellent understanding of the prime importance of asking good questions and offers a simple and memorable framework for putting them into effect. He demonstrates how an approach that works in sport is also appropriate in the world of business and in the public and voluntary sectors. Helping people to learn by asking questions is not new. After all Socrates, some 2,000 years ago, taught by asking questions. Whilst telling is not wrong, there is ample evidence that it is overused. Asking effective questions to help people to learn is correspondingly underused.
Whitmore shows that in sport the purpose of asking questions when coaching is twofold. It is first to raise awareness, and especially self-awareness, of body sensations during a sporting activity. When, by asking questions, attention is drawn to discomforts and inefficiencies in movement they can be reduced and perhaps eliminated. The result is a more fluid and efficient tennis stroke, golf swing or ski turn that takes account of the performer’s body size and shape. The second and connected reason for the sport coach to ask questions is to generate responsibility on the part of the performer to decide what to do and then to do it. This is based on the simple fact that motivation cannot be imposed from without but rather comes from within. If performance is to improve then the sportsperson has to take responsibility for bringing it about. The same reasoning applies to performance in the firm. The coach can use questions to help to raise awareness of the current and desired levels of knowledge, skills and behaviour. Questions can also be asked to generate responsibility on the part of the person being coached to decide what action, from possible options, needs to be taken and for putting that action into effect.
The idea is that self-analysis, with help given by the questions from the coach, leads quickly to self-awareness and the acceptance of responsibility for personal development. This is achieved more easily than if the learner is told what to do and how to do it. John Whitmore illustrates this with an example from coaching tennis (1993):
Watch the ball is the number one instruction in tennis, but it invariably irritates the player and only produces an improvement for a ball or two. ‘Watch the ball, I said. How many times do I have to tell you to watch the ball?’ It is all so predictable. But if the coach were to ask you which way is the ball spinning as it crosses the net, how high over the net is it this time, can you see the point of contact between the ball and the racket, or how many times do you see the maker’s name on the ball after it bounces, what would you do? Yes, in order to answer the question, you would have to look at the ball and you would go on looking at the ball so long as new questions were coming. You are even likely to become so fascinated with the new awareness you have found that you will continue to focus upon the ball to a high quality long after the questions have ceased. It is the question that focuses the attention and increases the awareness, not the much more limited command to ‘watch the ball’.
Similarly good questions focus attention in a business context. How many outstanding billings are there? What were the best features of the last assignment? What is the biggest problem that you are thinking about currently? In what ways will you be affected by the new European legislation? Questions to help to generate responsibility might include the following. When will you be able to complete this by? Which of these three options will you go for? What obstacles are there to achieving the target date? How long will it take you to get up to speed? Most people will tackle tasks with more enthusiasm and pay more attention to quality if there is a sense of ownership. Conversely if they are told what to do and it doesn’t work there may be excuses. The coach will have failed to generate responsibility.
Whitmore suggests (1993) that the most effective coaching questions for raising awareness and generating responsibility are those that begin with the interrogatives, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘how much’ and ‘how many’. He discourages the use of ‘why’ since it often implies criticism and causes defensiveness. He recommends expressing ‘why’ questions in the form of ‘what were the reasons . . . ?’ He recommends that questions should be broadly based to begin with and then should steadily focus on details. The process is rather like peeling the layers off an onion until the centre is revealed.
Generally questions should follow the interests and train of thought of the person being coached. This helps to foster responsibility on the part of the learner. If an important area or aspect is being avoided then the coach may bring it to the foreground by a question along the lines of ‘I notice that you have not mentioned . . . Is there any particular reason for this?’
A useful framework, based on Whitmore’s work (1993), appears in the box ‘The GROW framework’. It is rooted in the mnemonic ‘GROW’, which stands for ‘goal, reality, options and will’. Its value rests on its simplicity. You will use it to best effect, however, if you keep the two reasons for asking questions in the forefront of your mind. Remember they are to raise the learner’s awareness about the current situation and future possibilities and to generate responsibility for decisions and actions. Without this context there is a very real danger that following the GROW model will be a mechanical exercise and will produce less than satisfactory results.
Clearly, asking questions is not much use if we don’t listen to the replies. Sadly, it needs saying because some of us don’t really listen after asking a question; we just wait to ask the next one. The section on listening in Getting the Message Across is just as relevant to the process of coaching as to the other aspects of communication.
The Grow Framework
The GROW framework provides a guide to the sorts of questions that the coach can ask the learner. The purpose is to raise the learner’s awareness of personal development needs and to encourage responsibility for setting learning goals and formulating realistic action plans to turn them into action. The definitions are:
Setting goals for the learning assignment in general and/or for this particular coaching session.
Raising awareness of the current situation.
Identifying different ways of resolving the problem or achieving the learning goals.
What is to be done and the will to do it.
Examples of questions for use with the framework:
What exactly do you want to achieve?
By when do you want to achieve it?
How much of this is within your control?
Is the goal measurable, attainable and challenging?
Do you want to set milestones against which to measure progress towards your goal?
What do you suggest?
What is the situation now?
What changes would you like to experience?
What effect does the current situation have on your emotions, morale, motivation, energy and enthusiasm?
How would you rate yourself, now, in relation to your goal, for example on a 1–10 scale?
What have you done so far to move towards your goal?
What is stopping you from moving on from the present position?
What have you learnt from that?
What are the different things that you could do to reach your goal?
What else? What else? What else?
If time were not a factor what could you do?
If resources were not a factor what could you do?
What would happen if you did nothing?
Is there anybody whom you admire who does this well? What does this person do that you could try?
Would you like another suggestion?
What are the pros and cons of the options that you have identified?
Which of the options will you choose?
How does this help you to achieve your goal?
When are you going to do it?
How will you know when you have reached your goal?
What obstacles could you face?
How will you overcome them?
What help and support do you need from me or from others?
When will you take your first step?
What is the likelihood of you taking this action? (Rate yourself on a 1–10 scale.)
You do not need to follow the above sequence. You may prefer to start with ‘Reality’ and move on to ‘Goal’. The questions listed here are for illustration only. It is best to choose your own.
There are a number of possible outcomes for the learner from a successful coaching session based on the GROW framework. These are:
The learner gains a completely fresh way of looking at a problem or a longer-term learning assignment and takes the appropriate action.
One or two insights or new angles emerge that can be incorporated into future behaviour.
An existing well-thought-out course of action is confirmed and, as a result, there is an increase in confidence to proceed.
All of the outcomes are useful. In each case the coaching session based on the GROW framework is the starting point. The good coach usually stays in touch. It may be appropriate to give some specific guidance during the implementation phase or to arrange for it to be given elsewhere. It may be necessary to approve release and funding for a training course and to review the learning that has occurred and the proposed action to be taken. It may be desirable to lend a hand in planning further learning events such as a research project or shadowing a skilled performer engaged in, say, a negotiation, sales pitch or assignment debriefing. The continuing process of learning and action will certainly require periodic discussions involving two-way feedback. These issues are covered in more detail in later sections of this chapter.
Applications of the GROW framework
Here are some final words on questions, listening and helping. At PricewaterhouseCoopers, coaching is a serious business. UK Board Member Ed Smith says:
We invest in the development of coaching skills for our team leaders. Two important abilities are to be able to ask really good questions that go to the heart of the matter and to listen. Accountants are trained to be analytical and critical. Too much of that is dangerous in the leadership context so we make a big effort to accentuate the positives. We use a number of tools to help such as the Myers Briggs personality inventory to help team leaders to learn more about themselves and other people. Coaching is a matter of helping people to be more effective in their careers. We believe that the insights gained from Myers Briggs result in coaching sessions that are conducted with greater sensitivity.
Coaching is also an important part of leadership at Abbott Mead Vickers. Development Director Alison Chadwick has this to say:
We find coaching an effective and motivating way of helping people to learn in order to improve their performance. We are working with our team leaders to help them develop their coaching skills. The emphasis, in practice, is on effective questioning, listening and feedback, taking the time to help those being coached build their awareness and take responsibility for the changes they will make. In a way it is a joint problem-solving approach. When coaching, the leader doesn’t provide the answers but helps people find their own way forward.