Let me let you into a little secret. Coaching might seem like magic, but there are actually a set of tools and techniques that any good coach will have at his or her disposal to use during a session. One of these is great questions, and a good proportion of the sentences a coach will ask during a session will end with a question mark.
…are favourite starting words. But ‘why?’ is generally left of that list. Why is that?
There are actually a couple of reasons.
Firstly: ‘why?’ questions can very frequently make someone defensive. There’s almost always an implied scepticism it in a why question: namely ‘Why did you do this not that?’
I’m always reminded of the thief, Willie Sutton, who when asked “Why do you rob banks?” replied “Because that’s where the money is.”
A ‘why?’ question asked without an alternative will always have ambiguity, whereas if the untaken option is made explicit it might well sound critical. “Why did you shout at your colleague, rather than calmly discussing your concerns?” almost certainly sounds to be favouring the latter option. It’s usually not the place for the coach to be telling the client what to do, and it’s never the place of the coach to be bringing judgement into the session. If the client prefers to shout that’s A-OK on the part of the coach, though he or she might try to raise the client’s awareness of any impact that such outpourings might be having.
This brings us to the second reason: that the client probably well understands the whys and wherefores of their actions, and a coach would only be asking to satisfy his or her own curiosity. This curiosity is never in itself a good reason for a line of inquiry.
All that said, it points to the reason the word ‘why?’ might crop up: a coach could be asking about those deeper motivations for the client. Sometimes a gentle ‘why?’ question can help a coach to investigate the values that a client is honouring in their work. If the client reveals he shouts because he wants to exert authority, the coach might very gently ask ‘Why is authority important for you?’ Once again, it isn’t out of curiosity but to help the client to grow in awareness of his own motivations. Values underpin the choices someone makes in their work as in their whole life, so understanding your own values is very important for pursuing your goals.
So why am I sharing this? It strikes me that ‘why?’ questions might have exactly the same effect when anyone uses them, so think about how and when you ask ‘why?’ and whether it gets you the results you want.