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Powerful Questions for Agile Coaches

January 5, 2021
11 minute read
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Coaches and facilitators of all types ask powerful questions. I learned this technique many years ago from numerous sources. When I attended an Agile coach training session, this topic was a highlight of the two days for everyone! Powerful questions are a simple, concrete and empowering technique.

You are trying to get people to think for themselves. Sometimes people don’t even know what question to ask themselves, so, you ask it on their behalf. Eventually if you use powerful questions frequently enough, people in a team will start to ask each other powerful questions more frequently without any systematic, conscious effort. Powerful questions are meant to benefit the receive of the question or the team.

So just what is a powerful question?

Open-Ended

Powerful questions are open-ended questions. The question itself must be answered with a multi-word, thoughtful response. You are asking for some kind of information or insight, not mere data. You want to elicit a story, a list, a judgement, an interpretation, a synthesis, an innovation, a position, a decision or an argument. Sometimes powerful questions will lead to action!

A powerful question never starts with the words “is…” or “do…” or “can…” as in “is that your pen?” or “do you like that?” or “can you help me?” These kind of questions can close off thinking, force emotional decision-making, and generally don’t lead to any kind of progress for a team. That’s not to say that you should never ask these kinds of questions! Rather, you use them for your own benefit, not for the benefit of the person to whom you are asking the question.

Non-Judgemental or Leading

A powerful question does not presume a correct answer. If you know the answer to the question, it probably isn’t a powerful question (although sometimes you might suspect an answer). In particular, you should never hear the response to a powerful question and think to yourself “correct!” or “incorrect!”. Instead, on hearing the response to a powerful question you should think “interesting!” or “woah!” or “wow!”.

You need to follow a powerful question with active listening. Your mind and your heart need to be open to the response. Obviously, you are not likely to be directly affected as the coach, but you need to have the connection with the person you ask the question of, and care deeply about their response. You might learn something, but more importantly, you are creating the space for your coachee or team to learn something.

Framing Powerful Questions

There are a few simple guidelines (not absolute rules) that can help you frame powerful questions:

  1. Avoid “why?” or “who?” questions. Both forms of question are often interpreted judgementally or lead to blame. “Why” questions trigger emotional defensive mechanisms in most people (see “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt). They cause people to justify and rationalize rather than think logically and systematically. “Who” questions trigger emotional flight mechanisms in most people as they are worried that they will be tattling, ratting out, and therefore angering someone else, and it will get back to them.

  2. Caution on “where?” or “when?” questions. These forms of questions can sometimes be powerful, but they are typically more “closed” than “open-ended”. “Where” and “when” are questions are requests for specific, precise data. If people don’t know the answer to a “where” or “when” question, they might become nervous that they are supposed to know and might be seen as ignorant if they don’t know. Careful phrasing can sometimes make an open-ended question out of “where” or “when”, but this takes practice and is not usually a good place to start as an Agile coach.

  3. Prefer “what?” or “how?” questions are by far the easiest to get right. Both questions ask for descriptive responses. Even here, some caution is warranted. Avoid “what happened?!” or “how did that happen?!” questions since both are often the framing of parents to their children upon discovering something amiss. The bulk of the sample powerful questions below are in the “what” and “how” format.

  4. Generic vs. specific questions. Good powerful questions don’t usually require you to be a subject matter expert on the work of the team or your coachee. As such, they are usually somewhat generic. Specific questions can be powerful as well, but if you are new to the subject matter of your team, you should avoid being too specific… you might come across as ignorant. (PS. If you are ignorant of the subject matter, be open about it!)

  5. Live, face-to-face only! You ask these questions in-person or with video on. Never with voice-only or with some sort of text message. These questions require the personal connection and vulnerability of face-to-face communication. If you try these with text, your coachees will often ignore the question, take minor offence, or otherwise respond inappropriately… even if you have already established a high-trust relationship!

Avoiding “the therapist” Stance

Some online lists of powerful questions include a few “tell me…” questions. These aren’t actually questions, they’re commands. Very few people respond well to commands, and this particular form can come off particularly badly. Many people will have a “tell me about your mother…” mental trigger go off which reminds them of either movie therapists or actual therapists, neither of which is what you want! You will come across as cliche or patronizing even if it doesn’t trigger the therapist idea.

That said, there are some questions which are easier to ask this way. If a coachee has shared something behind which there is a clearly a great deal of context or a story, you might prompt further elucidation by asking “can you tell me a bit more about that?” which puts the “tell” word in a question format.

But even this formulation isn’t a powerful question! It’s technically a yes/no question.

Sample Powerful Questions

These sample powerful questions can be used in many different circumstances. In order to practice using them, I recommend you take three steps:

  1. Read through the questions and as you do, think about possible situations where you either used the question naturally, or could have easily done so. This sometimes takes a bit of thought for a question. Try to vividly imagine the situation – it will help your brain integrate the question into your memory for later use.

  2. Find someone who you aren’t coaching and ask them to help you practice. For the first round of practice, simply ask the question and have your practice partner respond with some variation of “good question” or “thanks for asking that” or “I like that question”… some positive response. Go through the list a few times like this. It might take fifteen or twenty minutes. For the second round of practice, have your practice partner ask you the questions, but try to answer them realistically… put your partner in the position of being the coach with you on the receiving end of the question. Go through the list just once with this second round. It might take as long as an hour to do this! For the third round, switch it around again and ask your practice partner the questions, this time with your partner answering honestly (but briefly). For this third round, your partner can answer the question about any part of their life.

  3. Sort the powerful questions into three categories: use frequently, use occasionally, probably won’t use. When you put them into these three categories, try to write down a reason why the question is in the category. For example, you might put something in the “use frequently” and write down “I liked how it got me thinking when my practice partner asked it”. For the ones that you put in the “probably won’t use” category, try re-writing the question to make it better for your use. For example, you could change a “what” question to a “how” question or make it slightly more specific or general. This analysis and synthesis work will help your brain integrate powerful questions even more deeply into your memory.

And here’s the list:

  • What is blocking your/our progress?

  • What more do you think I/we should know?

  • What might happen if you/we don’t do this?

  • What does perfection look like for us/you?

  • What does success look like for us/you?

  • What is the root cause?

  • What is your/our deepest reason “why”?

  • What are you/we most proud of?

  • What do you/we want to happen next?

  • What do you/we want to happen eventually?

  • What do you/we want to achieve?

  • What have you/we already done?

  • What are you/we doing that is hindering you/us?

  • What would work be like if you/we had no obstacles?

  • What do you/we need most right now?

  • What will things look like after you/we have been successful?

  • What is the most important thing in the world to you/us, and why?

  • What are you/we good at doing?

  • What do you/we enjoy doing?

  • What energizes you/us?

  • What do you/we want to learn next?

  • What motivated you/us to be part of this company/team in the first place?

  • What are the risks in this situation?

  • What are your/our options?

Now some “how” questions:

  • How do you/we move forward?

  • How can you/we be more creative and innovative?

  • How do you/we achieve success?

  • How do you relate to others?

  • How can you/we make work more sustainable for yourself/ourselves?

  • How do you/we take care of yourself/ourselves?

  • How can you/we reduce the risks in this situation?

  • How can you/we create psychological safety for yourself/ourselves?

  • How can you/we choose the best option?

A few “where” questions:

  • Where would you/we like to be in three years?

  • Where are the biggest obstacles coming from?

  • Where would you/we like to go next?

And some “who” questions:

  • Who could you/we get help from?

  • Who else needs to be involved?

  • Who can champion your/our needs?

And finally, a couple special-purpose powerful questions:

  • So what?

    Use this when your coachee is stuck on something that is producing a negative emotion. You need to be at a point your coaching relationship when there is a high level of trust to use this one.

  • Why not?

    Use this when your coachee is resisting something without explanation. This helps to get the explanation out, and often leads to insights. Again, you need a high level of trust in your relationship for this one.


We do a bit of practice of powerful question in our Advanced Certified Scrum Master live virtual training. If you already have a Certified Scrum Master designation, join us for the A-CSM!

 

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    - 15 PDUs | 15 SEUs
    - Accelerated Learning Event with extended self-study
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    IMPORTANT NOTE - This learning event requires:
    - approx. 20 hours in total of Scrum preparatory work
    - review of 10-12 hours of advanced Scrum video education
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    All participants are expected to have completed the preparatory work before the start of the class. Failure to do so, will mean rescheduling and application of the $150 Rescheduling Fee.
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    Date:

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    Trainer:
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