“Coaches asked a lot of questions, don’t they?” A friend responded when I told him about my decision to embark on a coaching career. He continued, “A friend was asked to attend coaching sessions, and he didn’t quite like it because the coach was piling questions upon questions onto him, he felt like he was being interrogated.” When asked whether this friend of his continued with his coaching, the answer was obvious: “he attended as he was told to do so, and stopped after that.” Obviously the coaching cannot be anything but successful!

At a recent networking event I was attending, a HR professional was talking about her company’s restructuring and how she was asked to attend for coaching. She said “I was put off by the coaching, it was pressurizing, the coach just went on and on, asking lots of questions which I did not feel like answering”.

The negative perception of coaches and coaching

Such a perception of coaches and coaching does not augur well for the development of coaching in Asia. No wonder quite some people I spoke to avoid coaches and coaching. It was also with some dismay that I discovered that this attitude was somewhat prevalent. I am familiar with negative attitudes and stigma towards my work, coming from a clinical background of therapy and treatment and helping patients recover from their psychiatric illnesses. I have turned to coaching to help people to improve themselves and to function better to achieve better job satisfaction and personal fulfillment, and to avoid the social stigma accompanying psychological disorders. Moreover to help people function and achieve in their lives would be working at the other end of the spectrum, that of wellness, from that of psychological breakdown and in effect, is akin to preventing psychological breakdown and illnesses. This desire has led me to study about coaching and to certification as an Executive Coach. I have high expectations about what coaching can do for individuals and organizations, but the discovery of this negative image of coaching caused me to do a double take.

Why this negative perception of coaches and coaching and what can we do to overturn this negative image? My immediate reaction is that the perception implies that the coaches involved are not really listening because the accounts given seem to suggest an unawareness on the part of the coaches of the reaction of their clients.

When questioning becomes an interrogation

This perception of coaches being interrogators is contrary to what good coaching should be. It is true that one of the Core Competency is Powerful Questioning. By that is meant the use of open ended questions in order to stimulate self-reflection and self-discovery instead of interjecting the coach’s own agenda. Open ended questions are supposed to help the person coached reach an insightful experience, the kind of “ah-ha” moment in self-discovery. That is powerful questioning. However, if our open ended questioning ended up with the person being coached feeling that they have to deliver to the coach answers upon answers causing the person to feel pressured and being interrogated, then my opinion is that the person being coached is not being heard. The coach is not aware of the various verbal and non-verbal cues that the person being coached is feeling tense, pressured, unwilling and unspontaneous. If this is the case, I venture to suggest that the coach has neglected an important skill, that of Active Listening. And Active Listening is also a Core Competency prior to Powerful Questioning in the list of ICF’s Core Competencies. In fact, it would be true to say that Powerful Questioning is not equal to open ended questions though it certainly is inclusive of it.

My own experience many years ago can perhaps illustrate this point, when on a Saturday morning, I was feeling energized and positive after a series of patients on follow-up all reported that they were doing well or improving or felt that they were improved to the point that they can be independent and perhaps discharged from care. Towards the end of the clinic hours, I saw a new patient who consulted for some stress problem.

Feeling rather positive, I approached the interview in a positive spirit, and was able to effortless put questions to the patient and got quite significant answers. I felt I had done well. However, more than an hour later, the mother, who had accompanied the patient to the clinic called, to give me feedback and indicated that they would not return for further consultations. She indicated that the patient felt that I had not attended to her needs, and that while I was clinically effective in extracting information from the patient, I was less effective in making the patient felt that she was being listened to and helped by it.

Looking back, I realized that I was too taken up by my own positive feelings of power and competency and not sufficiently tuned into the patient’s total communication. Because of my being not attuned, I had become counter-productive and was therefore, non-therapeutic. I was listening for the answers to questions and noting it down, but in a way, I was not listening. Listening to the subtle cues about her unmet needs, observed her body language and paid attention to the process rather than to the contents.

Getting the right kind of answers

But it seems to me that there is another explanation. In most Asian societies, traditional cultural norms of behavior and social roles still have considerable influence over people. This is especially true for late teens and young adults fresh from school, where students are trained to revere authority figures. Hence, it did seem to me that in the above example, the patient was deferring to me. When I asked a question, she felt obliged to give me an answer, and where she did not want me to know, like many others, she gave an oblique answer, or any answer so that I would stop questioning.

This is consistent with my discovery of how patients behaved when I worked with cases involving abuse, physical and sexual or painful events from the past. For practically all of them, they would only reveal about their traumatic and painful experience only after they had seen me for some time and learned that they could trust me and that I was reliable. Once that point was reached, and when they felt safe enough, they started to confide their painful past and they would tell me about the traumatic events they had suffered in some details. There was genuine catharsis and truly therapeutic. And in doing so, they would at the same time apologized for giving me the wrong information at the time of the initial interview, because they were protecting themselves from pain and further hurt.

I do think that as good coaches, we should aim to listen. It is important also to realize that powerful questions can only come when we have enough information, though incomplete, to help clients uncover their own motives, thoughts and feelings that will lead to the kind of insightful experiences that we refer to above. Besides active listening, we should structure our conversations with our clients such that they will be informed of what we will be doing and how we are going about it. For structure provides a sense of security.

A structure for us to dialogue with clients

At the Center of Executive Coaching, Andrew Neitlich has come up with such a structure that provides a safe space for clients to feel at ease, and allows the coaching conversation to ebb and flow towards greater understanding and insight. The session structure is built around a period of what is labelled Active Inquiry. The Active Inquiry is introduced to the client as a fact-finding exercise lasting from 15 to 20 minutes during which open-ended questions would be asked. It is my view that such a structure and preparation made the clients more accepting and tolerant of open-ended questioning because it is well limited from the start.

After the Active Inquiry, the discussion continued with a consideration of the insights gained from the facts uncovered thus far and then the coach, with the client’s permission, also shared his own insights of the client. I believed that it is in this phase of the session when insights are being shared that powerful questioning can lead to the kind of discovery and insight that coaching is supposed to yield.

Active Inquiry

Now Active Inquiry by definition is an exploratory diagnostic inquiry which by the use of open ended questions, help the client to explore his feelings and thoughts about the facts, focusing on both the contents as well as the process of events experienced by the client. In order to ask good questions and especially open ended ones, the person asking it has to be listening and more specifically to actively listen (Active Listening is the 5th of International Coach Federation(ICF) Core competencies). Questions asked will therefore inquire about the facts and more importantly the process involved in the events the client is narrating.

If open ended questions are involved, then the person asking it, the coach, has to be actively listening if he is to pick up the total answer and not just the verbal answers. For the coaching context is essentially that of a dialogue allowing the coach to fully understand and comprehend the issues involved in a particular situation for the client. Active Inquiry, appropriately used can lead to transformative effect. Certainly, the uncovering of insights after Active Inquiry simply reinforces and deepens the transformation.

The above technique is brilliant for many reasons. It gives the coaching conversation a structure, and in so doing, provides a sense of security to the person coached. This is especially true for many Asian clients. My Japanese colleague, Professor Kotani of the International Christian University in Tokyo, working in an Asian setting described the concept of a “safe space” which allows the client to feel free to share and dialogue. Asians generally have a background of authoritarian leadership both in society and home, and trust is often a major issue for Asian clients. As a result, there is a lot of emphasis on outward conformity, behaviour, face and other externals. And a structure like that described above, certainly contributes to the sense of that safe space.

Such a structure does help the client to feel comfortable with each phase of conversational type. It is nonetheless true that insights may be present even in the background information phase, because the use of active inquiry stimulates active listening to yield a whole lot of understanding and insight into what is being described. Within this structure, during the Active Inquiry, sufficient information is gathered to make discussion and insight meaningful. We are coaching and not interrogating, remember, and we do not need to know everything. But active listening must be present if the coach is to maintain a helping relationship.

The “dance” of Active Listening

For Active Listening as a core skill is not an activity per se. It is an attitude, a mode of being that allows us to be mindful of self and others. When that obtains, we can then use our self and begin to sense what the person coached is thinking and feeling, in a non-verbal way. When we are preoccupied with our self and our needs or when we are tense or experiencing other negative emotions, we cannot listen actively. That’s why the need to prepare ourselves before we engage the client. We need to be in that mode of being of mindful and actively listening.

In short, as coaches, we should not be too overly concern over the need to gather information and to keep asking questions, for when we do, we cannot be actively listening. Similarly, just because the client responds with answers because it is the cultural norm to acquiesce with authority figures in eastern cultures, coaches should sometimes slow the speed of questioning or restrict the amount of time spent on it, and focuses more on sensing what are the need the client may be trying to communicate by his total being.

Coming back to those examples when those being coach were acting like interrogators, the first sign that those coached felt this way was when they showed signs of tension or anxiety. If we were actively listening, we would be listening to the tension. We would be aware of this tension even if the contents of what was said did not point to such a tension. We would be picking the change in tone, tempo, and volume of the voice we heard. We would be observing for subtle cues in the way the fingers start a repetitive movement, or the head tilt away from us, or the shift in posture and position, even the tension of the muscles of the hand, neck and face. On the phone, we may be able to pick up a shift in direction of the conversational content indicating a change in the communication pattern towards us.

The coach is trained to actively listen to the client. And if he is not able to pick up the verbal and non-verbal cues, then he is not listening to the client. Then coach is full of himself, his own thoughts, his own fears, even his own positive thoughts of his smartness, goodness, knowledge, authority or whatever. There is no room for the client in him.

To actively listen is to be mindful. Mindful of ourselves that we are relaxed and that we are untroubled by things in our own personal life. Mindful enough to be focused and concentrated on a task at hand, and the task is to listen to the client with the whole of our being. Mindfulness listens not just to the words but to the total person, on the phone or in person. That is why we can listen to the tension because of our being mindful, we are able to sense the changes in the way the client’s attitude is, although the observable behavior may still be that of outward compliance.

Heart-to-heart communication between two persons attuned to each other, has been described as a dance. A dance not only with the flow of the words, but also of the emotions and movement, whether the movement are the muscles of the mouth articulating, or the gaze directing the eyes to the object or the orienting of the body towards the other. Similarly, the attunement of the coach towards a trusting client is such that the communication has been described as a dance as well.

Empathetic responses at the beginning of the dialogue initiate this dance of communication which in the first instance, help the client to relax and to begin to initiate genuine dialogue. As the dialogue progresses, the mirroring provided by the coach allows the client to develop insight, form new understanding, and serves as a platform for the development of a motivation to change and therefore to grow. When such a true and genuine encounter takes place, that will be truly liberating for many Asian clients for whom being listened to, may not be a common experience in their daily life. And that is truly coaching as it should be. Let us “dance” with our clients!