Inquiry in coaching: End As Well As Means by Melinda Sinclair

“How are you re-making leadership development so that future leaders are ready for the world they’ll live in, not for the one we’ve known?”

This provocative question is posed by Stew Friedman in an HBR blog post titled “How Are You Developing Future Leaders?” (June 2010). It is a question to be considered by anyone in an organization that has a role to play in developing leaders.

It is also a vital question for business and leadership coaches. Our first focus is on supporting clients in dealing effectively with the performance and development challenges that brought them to coaching.

A bigger frame around our work is that an additional desired outcome is that clients at the same time develop the capacity and capabilities that will allow them to deal with future challenges. If we assume that leadership capabilities will have to shift to meet the demands of the future, then we have to ask ourselves: How are we helping our clients develop the capabilities they need to be ready to lead tomorrow?

One of the themes that show up strongly in thought leader reflections on what leaders will need to be ready for the world of tomorrow is the importance of cultivating and adopting an inquiring approach. The faster the pace of change, and the more complex the issues to deal with, the less relevant our existing answers are. And the more important it becomes that leaders are highly skilled in the art of asking questions to learn, discover, innovate and collaborate.

For example, Michael J. Marquardt makes the case that one of the most important things leaders can do to strengthen their leadership ability is to become better at asking question and at creating an inquiring culture in their organization (Leading With Questions. How Leaders find the right solutions by knowing what to ask (2014; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass). In his recent book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (2013; San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler) Edgar Shön argues that leaders need to practice and cultivate the art of asking questions to which they do not know the answers. And in a fresh recent look at questions in the innovation context, Warren Berger (A more beautiful Question, 2014. New York: Bloomsbury USA ) offers this perspective:

“With the constant change we face today, we may be forced to spend less time on autopilot, more time in questioning mode – attempting to adapt, looking to re-create careers, redefining old ideas about living, working, and retiring, re-examining priorities, seeking new ways to be creative, or to solve various problems in our own lives or the lives of others. ‘We’ve transitioned into always transitioning,’ according to the author and futurist John Seely Brown. In such times, the ability to ask big, meaningful, beautiful questions – and just as important, to know what to do with those questions once they’ve been raised – can be the first steps in moving beyond old habits and behaviors as we embrace the new. “     Warren Berger

Inquiry, of course, plays a crucial role in coaching. Questioning is a key means in the coaching process, and high level questioning capability is one of the hall marks of an effective coach. We use questions to help our clients gain insights, discover solutions to issues, and craft new possibilities for action.

However, given that inquiry is also a key leadership capability to cultivate, then as coaches we have a unique opportunity to help our clients develop this capability. This would mean shifting from seeing inquiry as a means to an end in coaching to seeing it as an end in itself. We need to see the cultivating of higher level inquiry skills in our clients as one of the key outcomes for coaching.

For many clients their exposure to inquiry processes during coaching “rubs off” on them. However, we can accelerate and amplify the enhancement of inquiry ability in our clients by being more intentional and deliberate about it. Some of the ways we can do this include:

  • Educating ourselves better about the importance of curiosity, inquiry, imagination and questioning in leadership, learning, innovation, and more.
  • Expanding our inventory of questions and questioning frames – including looking beyond the coaching literature towards, for example, the innovation literature.
  • Becoming more explicit and transparent about the role of questions in our coaching work with our clients – including noticing opportunities to engage our clients in fulsome conversations about the role and place of inquiry in their world, as well as their own inquiry habits and practices.
  • Partnering with our clients in generating questions about their situations - not just using questions to stimulate and stretch their thinking, but actually strengthening their ability to generate questions that can help them gain new perspectives.
  • Continuing to stretch and strengthen our own inquiry ability – professionally and personally.


Melinda Sinclair of PeopleDynamics Learning Group is a Chartered Business Coach™ practicing in Toronto, ON. Her work with leaders and teams focus on enhancing the conditions and skills required for high quality collaboration. In addition to her executive coaching and leadership development practice, she is also one of the lead faculty for the WABC Level 1 Accredited Business Coaching Advantage Program™.




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