by Lynda Wallace

I love being a Positive Psychology Coach. Having spent my first career as a business executive, some days I can hardly believe that now I get to earn my living by helping people clarify and pursue their goals for positive change. Some of my favorite coaching moments occur when I ask a question that elicits an “aha” reaction, that helps a client think of herself in a new way, or see a possibility he hadn’t realized was there, or find the courage to begin on a path toward a personally meaningful goal.

Asking a question that helps a client to make progress is one of things I love about being a coach. But I think that for new coaches, it can also be a little paralyzing. It’s easy to think that, for each situation, there is a “right” question to ask. And if you think there’s a “right” question, it’s natural to fear that you won’t be able to come up with it when you need to.

Focus More on Listening than Asking
When I teach courses in Positive Psychology Coaching, I’m often asked how I know what to ask—in essence, how I come up with the “right” question at the “right” time. And my most honest answer is that, when I’m coaching at my best, I’m not focusing at all on thinking of questions to ask. I’m focusing on listening to what my client is saying.

Our coaching clients come to us because they want help moving from where they are to where they want to be. It takes careful listening to understand those two places. So my advice is this: Listen to your clients with everything you’ve got. And then ask questions that respect where they are and help point them toward where they want to go.

In this blog post and my next one, I’m going to discuss three types of questions that can help you do just that. Today we’ll focus on the first type.

Ask for More Specificity
One of the most helpful things we can do as coaches is to help our clients get more specific—about their strengths, resources, goals, values, and the steps they will take to begin to create the kinds of change they seek. For example:

  • Instead of just asking clients to describe how they use a given strength, ask for a concrete story about a specific time they used it. The insights and self-efficacy that can come from reflecting on a specific experience can be far more powerful than a general description.
  • When clients are making action plans for the week, ask for concrete details about when they will take each step, and where, and what needs to happen to make it possible, and what might get in the way, and how they’ll respond if it does. These specific questions can help turn vague intentions into specific—and empowering—plans.

    It Worked for Me
    One of my most powerful experiences as a coaching teacher happened when a student used this very approach with me. Last spring, during an exercise in class in which my students were practicing their coaching skills on me, I talked about how I’d recently gotten back into running regularly and was feeling great about it. I expressed a fear that I would eventually slack off and lose the great sense of well-being that running contributes to my life. This had happened several times before, and I wanted this time to be different. I mentioned that I thought being immersed in positive psychology tools and concepts through my work would help sustain my commitment this time.

    Having listened very carefully to my story and my concerns, a student named Eva asked me a galvanizing question: “What specific positive psychology tools and concepts will you rely on if your commitment starts to waver?”

    What was so powerful to me about that question was that it encouraged me to move beyond a vague hope that positive psychology would help me when I needed it. I realized that I could do more than just hope—I could take action. So I sat down and spent some time thinking about what might get in my way in the future and what specific concepts and tools I would turn to if I felt my commitment flagging. (Brief summary of a lot of journaling: Growth mindset, self-compassion, and setting concrete goals are all a big part of my plan.)

    Eva’s question was simple. She asked me to be more specific about what I was saying that I wanted to do. It was simple, and it was powerful, because it came from really listening to what I was saying, and it prompted me to move from general to specific in a way that has been of great value to me.

    Interested in Learning More?
    Asking good coaching questions is one of many skills students develop in the WBI Positive Psychology Coaching course. Every time I teach it, I’m touched by the community we build together. Through a combination of live lectures, demonstrations, readings, class discussions, and peer coaching, we work together on skills such as structuring effective coaching sessions, promoting a growth mindset, coaching for self-compassion, practicing solutions-focused coaching, and using a six-step process for helping bring about positive change over the course of coaching relationships. If that sounds like an experience you’d like to share, I hope you’ll find out more and consider joining us for this fall’s live online class.

    If you enjoyed this post, check back here Thursday, August 13th for Part Two!

    LyndaLynda Wallace is one of the country’s most highly sought-after coaches, with a thriving practice based in Montclair, New Jersey. She also created and teaches the Positive Psychology Coach training program at WBI. Lynda holds an MBA from the Wharton School and spent 20 years with Johnson & Johnson, where she ran a billion-dollar global business before deciding to become a full-time Positive Psychology coach—a decision she’s grateful for every single day. Lynda will be teaching the next session of WBI’s 10-week distance learning course in Positive Psychology Coaching, starting September 15. Find out more.