Coaching 101: Ask Powerful Questions

Stephanie Soler
3 min readNov 21, 2014


Good news: you don’t have to have all the answers

Good coaches offer: observations, feedback, guidance, advice, and suggestions. Great coaches also inquire: asking powerful questions so others can tap into their own knowledge and expertise.

Whether you’re a manager leading a team, a parent raising a child, or a friend asked for advice, someone in the world is looking to you to help guide them on a path. You’re a coach.

Most people think of coaching as telling and giving instructions. Indeed, you have valuable experience and expertise to offer.

Telling others what to do only goes so far. It works well when the question is straightforward and the answer is obvious. Often, coaching questions are complex, and there is often more than one right answer. Your job is to help your coachee think, rather than think for your coachee.

The good news here is that you don’t have to have all the answers. Great coaches inquire: asking powerful questions to uncover what’s really important, then enable others to tap into their own knowledge and expertise.

What is a powerful question? They are NOT “statements disguised as questions,” like this one: “Have you tried working from home one day per week do give yourself more time for strategic thinking?” Notice that this is a closed, yes-or-no question, and the questioner probably has a “right” answer in mind. It’s a suggestion, not a question. It’s perfectly fine to make a suggestion; just don’t mistake it for a powerful question.

Powerful questions are open-ended, and asked with genuine curiosity.

The next time you feel compelled to quickly jump in with ideas and suggestions, first get truly curious. Ask questions without an attachment to the answer. This will help you uncover the real issue, and can also help someone develop her own insight. Here are some powerful questions to get you going.

Build understanding. Ask these to uncover what is important:

  1. What challenges are you facing?
  2. What matters to you right now?
  3. What’s on your mind today?
  4. What opportunities are you seeing?
  5. What else?

Set direction. Ask these to shift focus from what’s wrong to what’s possible:

  1. What is the best possible outcome?
  2. What are you trying to achieve?
  3. What do you want to happen next?
  4. What does success look like?
  5. How will you know if you’ve succeeded?

Shape options. Ask these to generate ideas:

  1. What have you tried?
  2. What options do you have?
  3. What else?
  4. How possible is each option?
  5. What would you have to believe for this option to be right?

Define next actions. Ask these to clarify what should happen next:

  1. What data/information do you need to make a decision?
  2. What action can you take now?
  3. What are you taking away from this conversation, as a next step or new way of thinking?
  4. What support do you need? Where will you get it?
  5. How can I help?

Coaches can and should offer observations, feedback, guidance, and advice based on what they know and have seen before. When you take the time to ask powerful questions, you may need to offer less than you think.



Stephanie Soler

Silicon Valley Executive Leadership Coach. SF soccer mom. Instructor & Facilitator @ StanfordBiz.