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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. Listen Actively and Ask Powerful Questions

Jan 28, 2016 by Kathryn Kleypas

A core belief in coaching is that everything necessary for success is already inherently a part of the coachee. With this tenet, your job is not to infuse your coachee with knowledge or wisdom; your job is to “bring forth” skillfully what is already there. “Active listening” and “powerful questions” are straight lines to what’s inside your coachee, waiting to burst out.

Active Listening

“Active listening” is what it sounds like and much more. First of all, active listening means that you are only speaking at judiciously selected moments and, even then, you are speaking very briefly. Telling your own stories and acting as the teacher are not parts of the coaching model. When you withstand the temptation to share your own wisdom and experience through stories, you open a space for your coachee’s own innate wisdom to come out.

Active listening is listening at a deep level, without judgment, being attentive to what is being said and not being said, remembering what had been said before, noticing patterns, and then following your intuition before you speak. Active listening means you are fully present while your coachee is speaking. If your mind begins to drift, bring it back. Stay curious. Listen.

Powerful Questions

When you listen actively, you will become curious about what you hear. Asking open-ended, thought-provoking, “powerful” questions is an extremely effective practice to get your coachee curious too. Once you get in the habit of asking powerful questions in your conversations, you will be surprised by how much your coachee discovers.

Powerful questions are not:

  • ”Yes” or “No” questions (e.g., “Do you enjoy writing?”). Unless you’re asking a necessary clarifying question, avoid this line of questioning. Such questions lead to dead ends.
  • Rhetorical questions (e.g., “You want to be successful in this department, don’t you?”) Rhetorical questions are not usually designed for an answer and are a way of inserting your own agenda into the coaching. They are neither curious nor exploratory.
  • Directed questions (e.g., “From this list of courses, which one would you like to teach?”) Such questions do not inspire the coachee’s curiosity. They ask for facts and do not lead the coachee to think more deeply about the question.

Now look at these same questions turned into powerful questions.

Not Powerful Powerful
"Do you enjoy writing?" "What kind of writing gives you the most joy?"
"You want to be successful in this department, don't you?" "What would being successful in this department mean to you?"
"From this list of courses, which one would you like to teach?" "If you were free to design your dream course, what would it look like?


As illustrated above, a powerful question is provocative and invites deep reflection. A well-placed powerful question will often be met with a long silence. This is good! Be comfortable in the long silence. Your coachee may be on the cusp of discovering something important. Rather than fill the silence, wait for the coachee to respond.

Other examples of powerful questions are:

  • What are the possibilities?
  • What is just one more possibility?
  • What other ideas/thoughts/feelings do you have about it?
  • What options can you create?
  • What about this is important to you?
  • What are other angles you can think of?
  • What do you want?

Give these questions a try! I keep a list of powerful questions on the bulletin board above my computer to remind me to speak less and ask more powerful questions when I am coaching. Powerful questions are also a great way to jump start a session that has lost its energy. Whenever I’m in doubt about the next step in a session, I ask a powerful question and it almost always creates forward momentum again.

Powerful questions are not easy to answer, require deep thought, and take time to formulate a response. An effective practice at the end of any coaching session is to leave your coachee with a powerful question to meditate over for the next session. Coaching clients have sent me emails with their ruminations on the powerful questions. Some creative types write poems or make cartoons or paintings as part of their responses during the time between our meetings. Discoveries of this nature happen differently for each person and a good coach will learn what speaks to his coachee.

Discussion Question:

What are some powerful questions that you would like to use with your coachees? Notice the impact of these questions. Please share your experiences as you use powerful questions.

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