In the first two articles in this series, I shared how to engage corporate skeptics in coaching. In this third article, I examine the power of brain-based questions to engage executives in coaching.
“I’m Successful Because I’m a Leader Who Has All the Answers”
Organizations have recruited and rewarded leaders who are knowledgeable, skilled, and have answers to the organizations’ toughest challenges. At some point, the executive realizes that having all the answers isn’t possible. Market conditions shift, customers change their buying habits, competitors swoop in, and technological advances make yesterday’s solutions obsolete. Executives also encounter situations where there are no clear answers or too many potential solutions. At some point in their careers, executives realize what Marshall Goldsmith shared through his book titled, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” They realize they need coaching, even though they are skeptical.
Coaches Ask All the Right Questions. Executives Learn to Listen and Think.
At first, executives may be uncomfortable with all the coaching questions that the coach asks. It doesn’t take long before the executive starts to have new thoughts, ideas, next steps, and potential solutions from those thoughtful, reflective questions. Those new thoughts and insights are precious to the executive. It’s what they eventually crave in coaching sessions – more ideas and pathways forward.
What coaching questions resonate with executives, so they engage in coaching more readily and easily? And what questions can they start to use on their own, becoming a self-coaching executive? These brain-based questions spark new ideas and insights that help executives listen to their own thinking.
When executives focus their thinking on the successful future, their brains enter a reflective mode – thinking about their thinking – instead of preoccupying itself with the current problem. Some future-focused questions sound like this:
What are you experiencing six months from now when this challenge is finally resolved?
- What do you see happening?
- What emotions are you experiencing?
- What are employees doing and saying?
- How do your customers feel? What are they experiencing?
Future-focused questions put the executive’s emotions in a neutral to slightly positive state, momentarily silence their past experiences, and spark new connections and ideas.
Our brains think more clearly when we can measure our thinking. Yes, you can ask executives to measure their own thinking! It sounds like this: “On a scale of one to ten, where 10 is ‘crystal clear’ and 1 is ‘clear as mud,’ how clear is your thinking about this issue right now?”
When the executive responds with a number—for example, “It’s a six,”—ask her, “What makes your thinking a six instead of a one?” The executive shares what’s clear in her thinking, actions she may have already taken, or decisions she’s already considered. This builds confidence in her ability to approach solutions. Her emotions are in a neutral to slightly positive state, activating her pre-frontal cortex and priming it for insights.
Then I ask: “What’s the next thing you need to think about to make it a seven?” When you ask the “plus-one” question, her brain begins to scan for insights and possibilities. She’s using the executive functions of her brain – the parts of the brain we want executives to use at work more often! Her answer to the plus-one question is her next step. It may be a question she needs to answer, a topic she needs to think about, or an action she decided to take. It’s the one thing that moves her forward, and that’s a very different state than she was prior to asking the scale question.
The “Not” Question
There are times when an executive’s attention gets so focused on the problem that she is not thinking clearly or strategically. That’s a good time to ask: “What have you not thought about that can be helpful right now?”
When we ask the “not” question, the executive’s brain starts looking for a missing puzzle piece, a story, a nugget of information, or some perspective that might be useful. The executive’s brain craves certainty and clarity, but most workplace problems aren’t simple or easy to solve. If they were, computer programs could make those decisions instead of people.
Asking the “not” question puts the brain into meta-search mode, seeking what the executive has not considered or thought about, and the brain won’t rest until it gets some certainty and clarity.
The next time you’re coaching a skeptical executive, spark insights and accelerate her thinking with brain-based questions. She will crave your coaching questions and the opportunity to create new ideas and solutions.
Watch for Part Four, “Coaching the Executive’s Dynamic Mind,” in the next edition.
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Jeff Nally, PCC is an executive coach, coaching supervisor, professional speaker. and author. He is the president of Nally Group Inc., a practice focused on the science of leadership and human interaction. Jeff is vice president of marketing for the ICF Ohio Valley Chapter, is a member and volunteer with the Gay Coaches Alliance, and is co-author of two anthologies: Humans@Work and Rethinking HR. He can be reached at or check out my website.
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