The Three C’s of Questioning
The Three C’s of Questioning
“The mind works best in the presence of a question.”
This observation by Nancy Kline (2009) is a reminder to us coaches about the power of good questions in helping our clients to think. It came to mind recently when I was asked to share my reflections about the coaching skill of questioning.
We can find lots of examples of good questions in high quality coaching training courses and coaching textbooks, so this article does not offer a list of questions a coach could ask. Instead, it suggests some factors that contribute to effective questioning. The structure is borrowed from the work of Marie Faire, an Association for Coaching accredited master executive coach and coach supervisor whose work on the “three C’s of coaching” provides succinct and clear guidance about the process of deciding whether to work with a client. In a recent article (2022) Marie proposes three vital ingredients to consider, the three C’s of professional practice - contracting, competency and the client’s best interest.
Inspired by this helpful approach, I propose “three C’s of questioning” - factors that contribute to effective questioning in coaching conversations - connection, context, and care.
Whatever questions we’re asking, it’s important that the coaching relationship is one of connection, building trust and psychological safety. A client who feels safe will understand that the questions are not judgemental but are simply to help them gain clarity and decide what to do next. In the GROWTH conversational framework (Campbell & van Nieuwerburgh, 2018) we call this vital component Building the Trust. Whether or not the coach and client already know one another, before beginning to coach it’s important to build a sense of connection through a respectful discussion to develop a shared understanding and agreement about how we will work together in the session. For example, it can include agreement to ask challenging questions. Formally named “contracting”, this process can build a connection that makes our questioning more effective.
The questions we choose to ask may depend on the context of the coaching conversation. Is it about improving wellbeing? Or is it a review of performance or professional development that will include feedback? Is the context one of helping the client find solutions and generate ideas? In particular it’s also helpful to consider whether this is a facilitative conversation (mainly less directive), or a dialogic conversation such as instructional coaching, where the coach might offer to share their expertise and offer options where appropriate. Chris Munro (2020) frames this as a “Continuum of Professional Learning Conversations: Coaching, Mentoring and Everything In Between”.
Now some suggestions on the theme of care.
- We need to care for the client and have a genuine belief that they can improve.
- We need to take care that the questions we ask are to help the client’s thinking, and not for our own benefit. As a coach, it’s not about me - I’m here in the service of the client.
- It’s important to take care that we avoid manipulating, for example we must resist urges to give advice disguised as a question.
- Take care to hold back on asking questions in situations when it would be better simply to listen more. The more we genuinely listen instead of trying to think of a clever question, the more likely it is that the right question will emerge.
What are your reflections on the role of connection, context and care in contributing to effective questioning?
Campbell, J. & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2018). The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools: Creating the Conditions for Effective Learning, p. 26. Corwin.
Faire, M. (2022). The Three C’s of Coaching: An Ethical Integration. Coaching Perspectives - The Association for Coaching Global Magazine, Issue 34, p. 48.
Kline, N. (2009). More Time to Think: A Way of Being in the World. Fisher King Publishing.
Munro, C. (2020). A Continuum of Professional Learning Conversations: Coaching, Mentoring and Everything In Between. A think piece working paper. CollectivED Working Papers (11), pp. 37-42. Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.