We are living in an age when questions are worth much more than answers. Coaching is the art of asking powerful questions.
“Computers are useless. They only give you answers”Pablo Picasso, 1964
When Picasso uttered those words almost sixty years ago, he probably didn’t suspect the vast amount of answers computers would give us. We can look at a map in a handheld device that tells us where the closest restaurants are and what other consumers think about them; we can access an online encyclopedia updated with new world events as they happen; we have access to all the books ever written, all the songs ever played, all the movies ever filmed and pictures of all Picasso’s paintings.
We can get a mind-blowing amount of information through a device that fits in our pockets, but Picasso’s words still ring true today. Computers are better than ever in giving us answers, but they don’t give us questions.
And questions are the source of knowledge, learning, and personal growth.
A good question is worth a million good answers
The author Kevin Kelly thinks questioning will be one of the 12 trends shaping the future1. Here he explains why:
“A world of super smart ubiquitous answers encourages a quest for the perfect question. What makes a perfect question? Ironically the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers. (…)
The technologies of generating answers will continue to be essential, so much that answers will become omnipresent, instant, reliable, and just about free. But the technologies that help generate questions will be valued more. Question makers will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new fields, new industries, new brands, new possibilities, new continents that our restless species can explore. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering.”
When you have all the answers you are looking for at your fingertips, asking the right questions becomes increasingly important. As we will see below, coaches are master question makers, so good coaches will be increasingly sought after in a world full of answers.
Intelligence comes from curiosity and from being able to ask the right questions. We overvalue all the answers we get, but we undervalue questioning. Good questioning is a rare skill, and we don’t give it the importance it deserves.
Good questions create new fields of knowledge and new realities.
It was a good question (“why did this apple fall onto my head?”) that piqued Isaac Newton’s curiosity into working out the laws of motion and universal gravitation.
It was another good question (“what would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?”) that got Einstein into reflecting about it for years and finally coming up with the theory of special relativity that would supersede Newton’s laws.
But good questions aren’t only essential for scientific discoveries and progress; we also need them for our personal growth and to live a happy and fulfilling life.
Asking the right questions for a better life
Two thousand five hundred years ago, Socrates sought to find the path towards a good and virtuous life by asking the right questions. The Socratic method centered on asking questions to stimulate critical thinking, discarding some hypotheses due to their inherent contradictions, so only the best ones would remain. Through questioning, the questioned discover their true beliefs; only through questioning may the questioned achieve wisdom.
From Socrates to Freud’s psychoanalysis in the 20th century, there is a long tradition of getting to know ourselves better by asking the right questions.
Questions like these have occupied the minds of great thinkers and common people alike for centuries:
“What is the meaning of life? And its purpose? How can I live a virtuous life? How can I be happy? Where does consciousness reside? What is love?”
We are yet no closer to getting a satisfying answer to many of these questions, and that’s because probably they don’t really exist. Good questions don’t have easy or evident answers.
Living a good life means finding your answers to these questions, but this takes time. This takes a lifetime. Life is what happens while you are finding the answers to these questions. It is the path what matters, not the destination, and the path is about finding the right questions and thinking about the answers. It doesn’t really matter whether your answers are correct. That’s not the point.
Coaching or the art of asking powerful questions
Being a philosopher or a scientist requires you to ask good questions, but I consider coaching to really be the art of asking powerful questions. A good coach asks the right questions at the right moment, and these questions better be powerful, or the coach won’t be doing a good job.
Unlike mentoring, where a more experienced or senior professional (the mentor) impart their wisdom and guide a mentee by giving them advice, coaching is based on the premise that the coachee has the answers within them. The coach guides the coachee to get to their answers without giving any advice by listening, paraphrasing, and especially by asking the right questions.
This is what makes coaching so empowering and so powerful. The coach doesn’t have the answers; the coachee does. The coachee is whole and unique, and they, and nobody else, know what is best for them. The coach “only” needs to listen actively, sometimes paraphrase what they just heard, and ask powerful questions. It sounds easy and straightforward, but doing it well is difficult, because it is an art.
What is a Powerful Question?
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines 11 core competencies that all coaches should display when coaching their clients, and Powerful Questioning is one of them. The ICF website has this to say about the Powerful Questioning competency:
“Ability to ask questions that reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the coaching relationship and the client.
- Asks questions that reflect active listening and an understanding of the client’s perspective.
- Asks questions that evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action (e.g., those that challenge the client’s assumptions).
- Asks open-ended questions that create greater clarity, possibility or new learning.
- Asks questions that move the client toward what they desire, not questions that ask for the client to justify or look backward.“
This is fine, but it doesn’t fully illustrate the weight, complexity, and awesomeness of a powerful question. Paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart when discussing hard-core pornography in a Supreme Court Case, it is not easy to define it well, but you know it when you see it. It’s the same with a powerful question; you know one when you get it asked.
Coaches help their coachees get their insights through powerful questioning. Any person who has been at the receiving end of good coaching practice knows those aha moments when a coach asks a question that makes them think, look deep inwards, and learn something completely new about themselves. We don’t usually see some evident things about ourselves and our deeply ingrained beliefs because we are kind of sitting on top of them. It is complicated for us to see them. But then comes a good coach, asks the right question, and zas! You see it. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it, and after that insight, you can then move into defining actions that will get you closer to your goals. That’s the secret recipe for good coaching: listening, questioning, insight, action.
In a world in which more and more answers are readily available, and as Kelly puts it, are “cheap and plentiful,” asking the right questions will be an increasingly important art. Scientifics, academics, and philosophers need to know what kind of questions to ask in their search for truth, but all the rest of us also need to know what questions to ask about ourselves and the kind of lives we want to live. A coach is best-suited to help you find those questions and start walking the never-ending path towards the answers.
The Robocoach is still far off
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the future of coaching. Somewhat provocatively, I stated then that it was easy to foresee a near future in which an AI-based coach, let’s call it the Robocoach, would replace human coaches, as at the end of the day, the heavy lifting in the process is done by the coachee. The coach “only” listens, paraphrases, and asks questions.
Previsibly, I got some deserved flak from some of my coach friends, who believed I was unjustly oversimplifying and dehumanising our role as a coach. It is true, coaching is simple, but the simplest things are often the hardest to do well.
Coaches “only” listen and ask questions, but finding the right, powerful question, that question that will produce the insight the coachee needs at that very moment, that’s an art. That’s why it is going to be so difficult for a machine to imitate it.
Picasso, who knew a thing or two about art, was prescient when talking about the capabilities of the then-nascent computing technology. He knew they could only give you answers and not questions, and that, although important and useful, doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. He was right, and that’s why the arrival of the Robocoach won’t happen any time soon.
If you want answers, get a computer. If you want powerful and useful questions, get a coach. A human coach, of course.
1Kevin Kelly. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. Penguin, 2016.