<<< Back Posted: September 2019

Unanswered Questions

I’ll never forget a coaching session I had years ago with a leader in the shipping industry – a rough and tumble environment. We were working on his coaching leadership style. He asked me to be tough on him, to challenge and not hold back. I agreed, and wondered when opportunity would present itself.

Well, it did, in a very surprising way. We were discussing a behavior that he would repeat often with one of his direct reports, that was negatively impacting her performance. I asked him, “How do you think she might feel when you do that?” His answer had nothing to do with feelings. Interesting. I let him speak his mind for a bit, to see where it would go.

Finally interrupting, I said, “OK, but how do you think she might be feeling?” He responded with a new direction, but it still had nothing to do with feelings. Now THIS was interesting!

I asked a third time, “But when you do that, how do you think she feels?” Amazingly (I could hardly contain myself), he went in a third direction that had nothing to do with feelings! He was clearly not answering the question.

OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy! I held my hand up like a stop sign and said, “For the FOURTH time, how do you think she might FEEL?!”

His eyes got as wide as saucers, the silence hung heavy, and I didn’t know if he was going to hit me, walk out, answer, or what! He turned his gaze toward the window and took a deep breath. Then more silence. Finally he proceeded to generate seven or eight really good ideas about how she might feel when he behaved in that way. In his case, it was very challenging to shift gears to think about feelings, much less talk about them. This conversation and his answer ended up creating the foundation for his motivation to change.

I thought long and hard about what had happened and realized that there are often very interesting moments when our coachees don’t answer our questions, and we often let them get away with it!

Since that coaching session, I’ve observed and debriefed hundreds of ‘everyday conversations’ between leaders practicing their coaching leadership style and their direct reports. This is very rewarding work because you can help leaders recognize something important happening in the moment that they may be missing – such as questions not being answered – so that they can turn an ‘OK’ conversation into a very valuable one.

Here are some examples of questions I’ve seen go unanswered:

Here are some reasons that people don’t answer a question:

So the next time you are asking a question and it doesn’t get answered, consider staying with the question until an answer has presented itself! Remember that letting your coachee get away with an unanswered question is almost always a missed opportunity for a more productive conversation.

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