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A question for the toolbox

In an earlier post I talked about the ‘killer question’ and suggested that there really isn’t one. Okay, that’s not strictly true; the killer question is the one that is relevant to the coachee’s situation, the question that unlocks a particular insight or leads to action or a breakthrough for the person in front of us right here and right now.

All that said, there’s nothing wrong with having a few questions in our arsenal to kick start a conversation, drill deeper into an issue, or provide an appropriate level of challenge. As you know, the best sort of questions are open ended and I have a favourite. It’s not that original and you probably already use it in some form or other. Are you ready?

And what else?

Yep, that’s it. Three words and a bit of punctuation. Michael Bungay Stanier in his book, The Coaching Habit, calls it the AWE Question.

Why is it such a good question? Because on the scale of open ended questions, it’s right up there. Because there’s always something else, and the first issue raised, or answer given, is rarely the full story. You know that’s true from asking anyone how they are. 80% of the answers you get back are ‘fine’ or ‘busy.’ The first is often meaningless, and sometimes not true, and the second isn’t how they are, it’s what they are.

The AWE question is an antidote to the pressure we sometimes feel as coaches to dash for the line, to get an agreed outcome or course of action before the session ends. The reason the AWE question is so powerful is that it allows someone to explore more deeply what is really on their mind, but also when the conversation turns towards outcomes, or what the coachee wants or needs to do, it avoids closing down options too soon and prompts consideration of other avenues. Here’s what I mean:

Coachee: I guess I could do A or B.

Coach: What else might you be able to do?

Coachee: I think I need to speak to Bill or Jan.

Coach: Is there anyone else you should be talking to?

Coachee: If plan A doesn’t work, I’ll try plan B.

Coach: What would plan C look like?

Of course, the secret is to keep asking the question as many times as it takes, in as many different forms, to get to the heart of the matter, without sounding like a broken record or some automaton that has slipped into a line of faulty code, and without overwhelming the person in front of you with too many choices.

Incidentally, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book is worth a look. It’s an easy, very practical read which offers six other key questions and approaches to help in our coaching. He is a champion of using coaching in the workplace, in the day to day interactions with our teams and colleagues.

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