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Coaches are encouraged to use open questions in their work with their clients. One question is often discouraged from being used because of its potential impact on clients. Whilst there are different schools of thought on the matter, using ‘why?’ in coaching is a ‘Marmite’ question for some. It is worth considering the reasons for not using it.

Innocuous or not?

On the surface ‘why’ is just another question which can provide valuable insight and information. It is open, it can encourage the client to think and be challenged. However, looking deeper there are some risks associated with its use. This one word can potentially impact on the client, which then undermines the coaching process and relationship.

Creating a reaction in the client

People respond to questions in different ways, this is why coaches give real thought to the type of questions they ask and how they present them.

The use of ‘why’ in everyday language is common place for the majority of people and situations. However in an intense, potentially deep coaching relationship, some words can be interpreted differently.

Using ‘why’ can sometimes create a reaction with clients. Some people might see themselves or what they have said as being particularly challenged or criticised. While the coach may not have intended this reaction, the client has interpreted it in a very personal way. It could be interpreted as a personal slight, or they might feel questioned about the very nature of who they are, their motivations around something. Maybe they feel their values or beliefs at the core of who they, are have been brought into doubt.

If a client is naturally quite emotional or they happen to be talking about a sensitive area, they might be less receptive to ‘why’ based questions.

Being lazy in question creation

Good questions can take considerable effort to create and ask appropriately. The purpose of questions is often to raise the awareness of the client.

Some coaches consider the question ‘why?’ to be a ‘lazy’ question. A question asked that simply quickly reacts to what the client has said or shared, with little thought behind it. In doing so it can lead the client to give a short response that lacks valuable information. For example ‘Why did you do that?’ – ‘it felt right‘, ‘don’t know, just did‘, ‘not sure

With this response the coach then has to formulate subsequent questions to get something more meaningful from the client.

Consider instead these style of questions, instead of using the above ‘why’ question:

  • What were you thinking at the time which made you take that approach?
  • What was happening just before you did that?
  • How were you feeling at the time which led to doing what you did?
  • What had you been doing which led you to this situation?

It is more likely that the client will put more thought into answering these questions than they would if they were simply asked ‘why?’

Client’s context when using why in coaching

The client’s context, the reactions to questions, the coach’s ability all can determine how ‘why’ will be received. There is no right answer. When thinking about using it the coach should consider their client’s personality, how they have responded to questions in the past and how they receive questions. Do they take questions personally and internalise them? Are they quite self critical? Are there shift in their body language?

Our clients engage with us so that we can get the best out of them to help them in their situations. So the potential impact of ‘why’ should be considered by the coach in relation to all of their clients. Coaches should also continually reflect on their questions and approaches, evaluating based upon their clients responses and behaviours.

Not using ‘why’ in coaching encourages (forces?) the coach to develop a broader repertoire of meaningful or really helpful questions.

It would be easy to dismiss this challenge to ‘why’ as silly, or of no issue. To the coach it might not be important, but to the client it can be hugely impactful.

Words are powerful, use them wisely…

Words and questions are powerful tools for the coach. The lifeblood of effective coaching. They are also transformational for clients. As coaches mature in their practice, so the potency of words and questions takes on a different perspective and meaning. Words change the dynamic of conversations, situations and their outcomes. Hence it is good to often consider the potential impact of the words we use in out coaching.