March 05, 2015

3 Ways to Promote Active Learning through Effective Coaching Questions

Article 5 - Questioning ToolsAAt Performex®, we believe successful coaching emphasizes active and experiential learning. This means as a coach, we need to avoid rescuing a participant with a prescribed answer, and instead help them to practice problem solving and reflection through the use of coaching questions. Based upon the hundreds of managers we have trained to be better coaches, we know many struggle with asking the right questions to achieve the type of focus and thoughtful introspection needed to create real sustainable growth. Constructive questioning and the three tools and techniques discussed below drive this participatory learning process.

Perspective Shift

Shifting perspective by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is one method that can help move participants from habitual non-reflective inaction to thoughtful reflective action. “Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how we perceive, understand, and feel about our world”1 by analyzing how others do the same.

Article 5 - Questioning ToolsBIn the figure to the right, we see common stakeholders and professional relationships that coaching participants encounter.

Asking a participant “How would each of these people react to the situation at hand?” shifts focus from inside, out. John C. Maxwell calls this process The Exchange Principle.2 Other questions that help candidates see another’s perspective include “Tell me about a time when someone helped you- what did they say/do?”

In addition to helping the participant see these truths through the eyes of others, perspective-shifting techniques can also be an effective way of making the participant introspective. The coach uses perspective shift to draw upon the participant’s own reactions to certain situations and behaviors. For instance, in our experience most, if not all micromanagers (better described as poor delegators), hate to be micromanaged themselves. The effective coach uses questions to compel the micromanager to reflect on how his/her own engagement level and job satisfaction declines while being micromanaged. By gaining this insight, participants have a much better chance of breaking out of the habit and becoming better delegators.

Many times, it is valuable not to limit the discussion to the professional world. For example, “If you said the same thing to your mom, spouse, or partner what would he/she say?” To help coaching participants get the most out of the exchange principle, encourage them to plan ahead. Be better prepared for meetings; consider who will attend, and focus efforts on those specific perspectives. Challenge them to identify what is preventing them from thoughtfully considering other perspectives - i.e. attitude, time, effort. Instruct them to check on the accuracy of their assumptions. Sometimes this can be as simple as stating what evidence you see - "it looks like you are feeling down", and asking a direct question - "did something happen?”3

Metaphors & Analogies

Research has shown that the “Gold Standard of tactics for engaging personal motivation is direct experience.”4 A simple definition of “direct experience” is: I did this and that resulted. Direct experience is how we make sense of how the world operates. However, oftentimes participants do not have pertinent experiences to the issue at hand. Coaches use metaphors and analogies to paint pictures and make connections to an individual’s life experiences to help them draw insights and key learnings. Typical analogies used by coaches include: sports analogies, raising a family, winning a race, theater references, and military examples.Article 5 - Questioning ToolsC

Metaphors take the analogies a step further by creating a vicarious experience through believable models, providing participant insight. For instance stating that “being a good manager is like being a good parent” immediately conveys an image of the positives, negatives, challenges, and accomplishments of a manager.

Time Stretching

Time is a finite resource that coaching participants must learn to effectively manage and “stretch.” Time stretching requires a coaching participant to analyze both the past and the future to identify both ineffective and effective behaviors and their consequences. Future oriented questions such as “How will you feel if nothing changes 10 years from now?” and “What will happen if nothing changes in the future?” help a participant look past short-term issues to the long-term implications of current behaviors. Learning from the past is also a part of time stretching: Questions such as “What was the cause/effect of the past event” and “What worked for you in the past” help to identify e#ective or ineffective behaviors.


The techniques highlighted here are designed to provide guided reflection in helping participants develop new interpretations and challenging thoughts and behaviors to promote personal and professional growth.


1 Jack Mezirow, “How Critical Re!ection Triggers Transformative Learning”, Fostering Critical Re"ection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative
and Emancipatory Learning
2 John C. Maxwell, Winning with People: Discover the People Principles That Work for You Every time, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004). 68-77
3 Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, (San Diego, CA: TalentSmart, 2009). 167
4 Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Max"eld, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, In"uencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition,
(McGraw Hill, 2013).

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