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Coaching in schools: asking the right questions

As a school leader, being able to ask appropriate questions is an essential skill. It cuts across all job functions and roles; it is one of the most important skills to master, as it allows us to elicit the information we want with the minimum of effort.

  • Are you trying to create a coaching culture?
  • Are you are looking to create the right atmosphere to get someone to open up?
  • Are you a trying to lead and carefully control a discussion?

Coaching as a style of leadership is characterised by asking questions. With those questions you move away from command-and-control leadership to a dynamic style that enables growth through self-reflection.

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling 

Kipling’s poem is a nice reminder that questioning – both questioning yourself and questioning others – is the basis for learning. However, it is the type of questions that is important when it comes to coaching.

Asking the right questions means the difference between a one-way conversation and a productive learning session. Good coaching questions give people the space in which to step back and examine themselves. The right question can enable people to see things from a different perspective or look for a new solution to an old problem. People begin to learn to question themselves so that they can change future actions.


Open Questions

Open questions 'open up' the areas you are interested in finding out about and allow a range of potential replies.

These can be useful to begin with; they put the person you are speaking to at ease because they are not too difficult to answer and they enable areas to be identified which may be investigated further at a later stage in the discussion.

  • How are you feeling?
  • How do you think the last few months have gone?
  • What do you think about the objectives we agreed for this year?
  • Which part of your job are you happiest with?


Probing questions

These can be phrased as statements, and enable you to focus on particular areas that you require information on. They help you to obtain specific detailed information and are often used to follow up after open questions.

  • Tell me how you dealt with that request.
  • Explain why you spend so much time drafting budget reports.
  • Describe what happened to you yesterday.


Repetition of statements

These are not really questions, however, repetition can be used to encourage the person to open up. A questioning tone of voice or backing up a statement with a question can gather more information.

This technique is useful for obtaining explanations for attitudes and opinions, or gaining a deeper understanding when the situation is becoming emotionally charged. To be effective listen carefully, interpret accurately and respond accordingly.

  • You say that you like working alone. Can you tell me more about that?
  • It sounds like you have a problem with behaviour. Would that be fair to say?


Closed questions

Closed questions encourage a reply towards a defined area and can elicit a one or two word answer. Closed questions are useful for checking and confirming facts, for regaining control of the discussion and use when someone will not stop talking.

  • Do you enjoy meeting parents?
  • Have you had sufficient training to assess these children?


The 'broken record' technique

Repeating statements can be a good way of asking a question or making a point if you feel that someone hasn't heard or taken in what you have said. State the point as many times as necessary in a calm and direct manner.

  • Do you feel supported in your role?
  • Yes, and do you feel supported in your role?
  • I understand what you said, but do you feel supported in your role?


Summary questions

Summaries concentrate on factual response. They can also be backed up with a further question:

  • So, what you are saying is that, although you enjoy working in Year 6, there are some aspects which you find difficult?
  • As I understand, you are not happy working with your current class? Would that be accurate?

Summary questions can be used to review, to summarise, to check understanding of the facts, or to clarify the thoughts of the person you are speaking to.


The importance of asking the right questions can be illustrated by considering those times when we can confuse situations by asking the wrong questions:


Leading questions

Sometimes people will give the answers that they think you want to hear, rather than the answers they would give if they had not been influenced in any way.

  • You will be able to produce that data by Monday, won't you?
  • I presume you are confident that you will have the reports finished by Easter?

For a truthful answer, reframe leading questions:

  • When will you be able to produce that data by?
  • How confident do you feel about getting the class reports finished by Easter?


Multiple questions

Multiple questions are questions that contain more than one question:

  • How satisfied are you in your job? Is it challenging enough for you? Do you want more responsibility?
  • What is the best way of meeting this target? Is it to start at the beginning? Do you have any idea what we should do first?

Multiple questions can confuse the person to whom you have asked the question. People tend not to answer all parts, but usually answer the first or last part and forget the others.

The best way to overcome this is not to ask multiple questions; ask each question separately, get an answer, and then pose the next question. Start with an open question and finish with a closed.

Asking the right questions at the right time is key to developing relationships in an improving school. Great questions stretch the coach and coachee beyond a result-driven, superficial or firefighting conversation.

If you are looking to have richer, more engaging conversations with better outcomes, consider our coaching course.