Why Coaches Should Not Ask The ‘Why’ Question?

There is a rule that coaches should not ask the ‘why’ question. But I find that I ask ‘why’ quite often. ‘Why’ is an incredibly useful question, it stimulates reflection, it is thought provoking and surfaces underlying assumptions. But why are my thoughts on the ‘why’ question at odds with a lot of other coaches, why should coaches not ask the ‘why’ question?

Have you been told that coaches should not ask ‘why’? I’ve heard this many times, and this is almost like a mantra that cannot be challenged. This pervasive, unshakable belief remains within the coaching community, some authors mention using ‘why’ with caution, but the competency frameworks of the professional coaching bodies (AC, EMCC, ICF) are silent on this subject.

We all know the importance of asking powerful questions, but what constitutes a ‘powerful’ question? When researching coaching questions, I came across a fantastic article, The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action, by Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs (2003). This article discusses the nature of powerful questions, which:

  • Generates curiosity
  • Stimulates reflective conversation
  • Are thought provoking
  • Surfaces underlying assumptions
  • Invites creativity and new possibilities
  • Generates energy and forward movement
  • Channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • Stays with participants
  • Touches deep meaning
  • Evokes more questions

The article goes on to discuss the structure of questions which do this, and concludes that the most powerful question is ‘why’. See diagram:

But, there is a problem, there is the belief that when the ‘why’ question is asked, it stimulates a defensive response. This is an automatic emotional reaction relating back to childhood. A scolding parent or teacher would demand that a child justifies their behaviour “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?” In this situation, we understandably learn to defend ourselves through rational justification. But emotionally we are left feeling guilty and inadequate. Based on this learned response, should coaches always avoid the ‘why’ question, and is ‘why’ forbidden?

Well, I say not. ‘Why’ is very powerful, and it’s not just me that feels this way, this article also says so. The ‘why’ question stimulates more reflective thinking and a deeper level of conversation. ‘Why’ provokes thoughtful exploration and evokes creative thinking. ‘Why’ explores beliefs and assumptions, considering their validity and allowing new possibilities to reveal themselves.

There is a difference between how a coach asks a ‘why’ question and how an angry parent or teacher would. A coach is unlikely to be accusatory (and if they are, they should not be a coach!! Feel free to unpick that value statement). Also, time has moved on, the person being asked ‘why’ is no longer a 10 year old child, powerless at the hands of an adult, they are now themselves an adult coming to coaching to grow and develop.  As a result, the automatic defensive response is more likely to be buried in the past. However, there are things that a coach can do to further reduce the possibility of a defensive response:

  • Ask ‘why’ with a neutral, adult-to-adult tone of voice, so avoiding any sense of accusation which has to be justified.
  • Use a neutral facial expression and body language, so no furrowed brow, no glaring eyes, again avoiding any sense of accusation.
  • Be curious, as a coach, explore alongside the coachee, with the aim to understand and raise awareness of limiting assumptions and possible alternatives.
  • Construct the ‘why’ question by summarizing or paraphrasing with either the coachee’s own exact words, or neutral, non-emotive or judgmental words.

So the ‘why’ question is not forbidden, but is very powerful when used by a skilled, thoughtful coach, as opposed to a robotized coach trained only to follow the ‘rules’. Let’s have faith in our coachee’s ability and not hold them small and unnecessarily protected, let them evaluate their own beliefs and understand for themselves. Through awareness, action follows. Questions are asked to create a paradigm shift, create change and movement, both physically and psychologically, the coach has to do no more.

So why shouldn’t we ask the ‘why’ question?

I’d welcome your thoughts, feel free to post comments on the LinkedIn discussion group