The Power of a Simple Question

The Power of a Simple Question

Great questions are not the sole preserve of coaches.

I was recently sitting in an airport lounge when I heard a wonderful question asked by a daughter to her mother.

It was one of those questions that can interrupt the day-to-day, automatic way of living that human beings inevitably fall into and generate profound reflection.

Of course, this is the work that a coach will often seek to do. Because the coach listens from a different point of view and sits outside of the life of their client, they have a perspective that allows them to notice what the client has stopped noticing and then question what the client has stopped questioning.

I know by now that some of you are impatient to know what the question was, (it is revealed towards the end of the article for those of you who cannot wait) but more important than the exact question I heard, is for you to consider a question for yourself: “what is it that makes a question ‘great’ ”?

This particular question struck me as especially powerful because it deals with age and the passing of time; two elements that have become increasingly relevant in my life, as I journey through my 50’s and into my second decade as a professional coach. Questions are never really “great” in and of themselves, but they can become “great” when they touch upon the raw nerve ends of the listener.

Of course, there is no way that a coach, however experienced, can ever know that their question will land in this way, however a great coach training program, combined with many hours of practice can certainly increase your hit rate percentage. Even when so armed, the coach requires both the curiosity to follow their instinct and then the bravery to actually speak up and ask the question of which they are thinking.

Side note: In my experience, very often, when I think I have a killer question, my client barely pauses to consider it, before moving on. Then, when I casually toss in a question that I think is a long-shot, my client reacts as though I have hit them between the eyes! The raw nerve ends of the coach are very often different to that of their client!

The other elements that factor into the “greatness” of a question are the identity of the person asking it and the time/place in which they do so: Context is everything. The exact same question asked by a different person, at a different time and/or in a different place is likely to land with very different impact.

This question, as all “great” questions do, served as a launching pad for further enquiry. In this instance, the mother is given the opportunity to explore many of the personal assumptions that have become invisible to her over the passage of her life. To be asked such a question by her daughter, and at such an unexpected time and place stopped the mother in her tracks.

So, what was the question? As with most “great” questions, it is disarmingly simple:

“Mum, how old were you, when you were young”?

As I stood up to leave the lounge, I caught the mother’s eye, she smiled at me and rolled her eyes, before looking back at her daughter.

I was left to answer the question for myself.

Marcus Marsden
Managing Partner, The Coach Partnership

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