To many of us, any questioning becomes a challenge. Many of us do not like challenges. We do not like surprises. We do not like to find out the truth by being asked questions.

Socrates died because he questioned. He kept badgering people to look within by asking questions. In the process he exposed them. No wonder the Greeks ganged up and poisoned him.

The world celebrates Socrates today, as it does King and Gandhi, but forgets they all were murdered. We may idolize them, but do we have the courage to follow them.

It may be fine to ask questions, so long the questions are not aimed at ferreting the truth out, at least not the personal kind. A child asking ‘why is the sky blue?’ can be taken indulgently, though irritatedly when the child asks the same question the third time. This may not lead to violent reprisal. But, an adult asking a question, outside of the court room in cross-examination, would indeed lead to unpleasant reaction.

Despite what coaching gurus may say, be careful with questions.

First of all, any question, a challenging question, must be worded right to avoid raising any hackles. Even if you don’t have great respect for the client, your question must show tremendous respect.

Secondly, unless you have concern and respect for the client, don’t bother asking questions. They won’t help him. Your questions will arise out of your judgment, aimed at fixing blame.  This has nothing to do with coaching.

In a coaching environment, start with deep respect for the client. S/he has come to you with trust, believing you can help. S/he has come with respect expecting mutual respect. Do reciprocate that respect and trust. Otherwise you cannot be a coach.

Therefore, listen well listen intently and listen with respect, compassion and a desire to help. Listen in silence. Allow the client to come up with all that the client can think of. If after all this, you feel you need some more details. question.

You may need to challenge some assumptions that the client has made. You may suspect that these assumptions are blocks to the client’s progress. You may be right.  You may need to ask in the interests of the client since that is why the client has hired you. But, do it with the right words, the right tone and the right face if you are face to face.

Even with all those millions of words in the dictionary, among the two most powerful words are ‘why’ and ‘how’.

With ‘why’ probe. The Toyota Management System, which is the underpinning of the Total Quality Management concept and later Six Sigma, advocated the 5 Why and How system of investigation. This remains one of the best ways of enquiry, a highly Socratic method, which needs to administered carefully for powerful but non-violent results. It works well in corporate and industrial environments, but is inadequate in personal issues.

Let us say that the client is depressed. You ask why. The client says she got a bad haircut. You ask why? She says that her hairdresser got a call from her ex and was mad, so gave her a bad haircut. Do you then ask why the hair dresser got mad?  Would it lead you anywhere to keep asking why? Would you have served your client better by saying that her hair looks lovely and ask why she is upset.

However, in most cases, asking why in order to find out what caused the problem or led to the situation that the client is unhappy with or caused a block in her reaching an intent, in the sense of helping her find out for herself what the real problem is, would help. A mix of why and how, skillfully used can uncover underlying beliefs based on past experiences.

The coach must be skillful and present. The coach should be able to lead the client through the maze of experiential beliefs of the past buried in the unconscious. Watch the video below to understand what the pitfalls can be.

What choices do you have, what alternatives can you think of, why should this affect you so, are all possible open-ended alternatives that open up new possibilities to the client.