“Leading” questions

As coaches, we are careful not to ask “leading” questions (at least that is what we are asked to do according to the ICF competencies). And yet — what IS a leading question?

Part of the difficulty around “leading” questions is that the word implies that one person leads and the other follows. If you are afraid of being “leading” as a coach, you are already in the kind of worldview that makes “leading” possible. If I conceptualize coaching as a conversation of equals this is not possible. In a conversation of equals the flow of topics is determined mutually and every conversation partner leaves the conversation as a changed person. Nobody “leads”. Instead, the professional stance of the coach is to understand that the coaching conversation is “about the client”. The client is in the center, the coach is also fully there as a conversation partner, but in a decentered role. He or she simply tries not to make the conversation “about them”.

A meaning of a word is defined by it’s use (to misquote Ludwig Wittgenstein) — so when are coaches, mentors and assessors using the word “leading questions” and what can we do instead?

When the coach determines the topic

Of course, we all know not to do that, but it does happen (there are a few scenarios in last week’s blog) even with the best intentions. As human beings we are all more curious about some things than others. What to do instead is be aware that our curiosity is not the driving force of the conversation. We need to gauge if the client is also interested in what we are asking about or commenting on: “That sounds like you are really interested in this, are you? Would you like to talk some more about that?” or “Is it ok if I enquire a bit more about…”

When the coach determines how the conversation is being run

Beginning coaches often worry about the structure of a conversation — and it is good to experiment with a few structures so that you know how to have a conversation that has a beginning, a middle, an end and that has the potential to elicit some growth for the client. But don’t push the client into that structure (there is another blogpost on “colonializing the client’s thoughts”) but ask if this is where they would like to go.

When the coach knows the answer he or she is looking for

When the coach knows the answer the client “should give”, warning bells for “leading questions” should go on. Coaching is NOT Socratic. Socrates always knew where his interlocutor should go next with his (yup, usually his) thoughts and what he (same…) should answer (at least if we believe what Plato writes about him. So don’t ask questions which you know the “right” answer to.

When the coach knows the language the client should use

Warning: pet peeve. It gives me the heebie-jeebies when I hear a coach correct a client or ask about language use in a way that suggests that the client was not right. For example: “I kind of think I should do that.” Coach: “Kind of or really?” If you are having a normal conversation, you wouldn’t do that (unless you are a bit of a precocious person). So instead mention it kindly: “I heard you say “kind of” — not sure what that means, was it just a figure of speech or would like to think about it a bit?”

But all of these situations simply don’t happen if you don’t see yourself as responsible for “leading the conversation” but see yourself as a partner to the client. When the relationship is like that, you can say almost anything and your client will tell you if you are veering off track!

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