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Mastering the Skill of Asking Open-Ended Questions as a Health Coach

by: Marisa Moon
Published: September 9, 2020
Updated: June 23, 2022

What’s something you could do to significantly increase your client’s self-determination and their likelihood of success?

Answer: Master the art of asking open-ended questions.

Most experts would agree that asking the right questions is extraordinarily fundamental in a coach’s ability to foster healthy behavior change.

Why are open-questions so critical to your client’s success?

  • They form the basis of all client-led coaching sessions and meaningful collaborations.
  • They help the coach and client clarify and articulate thoughts, goals, and feelings; and examine the reasoning behind the client’s choices.
  • They show the client you value their perspective and see them as an expert in their own journey.
  • They help highlight and foster the client’s self-efficacy and inner motivation for change.
  • They help coach and client communicate more effectively and share more openly.
  • They guide a client to reveal more personal insights and become more self-aware.

It’s one thing to ask questions during your sessions, but it’s another thing to impact your clients’ lives in a truly lasting way and step into coaching mastery.

In this article, you’ll learn how to begin mastering the skill of asking strategic questions with your health coaching clients. At the end, get ready for a brainstorming challenge to add questions of your own to your unique coaching strategy.

Mastering the Skill of Open-Ended Questions: Examples and Explanations

Before a client even works with you, it’s likely you’ll hop on a discovery call first. Open questions are very instrumental here because the coach needs to understand the client’s intrinsic motivations for change, and gently guide them to recognize the gap between where they are now and where they wish to be.

“Describe to me how your life would be different if you had more energy every day?”

At the start of a coaching session, it’s a good idea to kick things off on a positive note by asking your client to share any recent wins.

“Share with me some of your successes from this week. What were your wins—no matter how big or small?”

There may be an opportunity here to ask a deeper question that fosters more self-awareness and challenges your client to examine their feelings.

“I noticed you prefer to downplay your successes. How does it feel when we celebrate them instead?”

As you approach the main portion of a session, be sure to balance your questions with reflective listening and affirmations, and acknowledge your client’s desirable effort or behavior. Balance and authenticity are important for the coach to maintain, because constant questions would feel unnatural to your client.

Something that helps with conversational authenticity is when you shape your open-ended questions as open-ended statements.

“Tell me about a time in your life when you were facing a difficult challenge and you eventually overcame it.”

Or, as you’re listening to the client, you might reply with an open-ended statement like, “Tell me more about what that was like for you…”

A masterful coach will avoid common mistakes, such as 1) asking run-on questions, 2) making assumptions, 3) answering for the client, or 4) asking questions that make the client feel judged or defensive.

An experienced health coach looks for clues that the client has an opinion to express. Imagine if your client came to today’s session with a question to ask you: That’s a sign that they’ve considered various answers already. Instead of immediately replying with an answer, elicit answers from the client first.

“I’m interested to hear the answer you gravitate towards…what feels right to you?”

Once you get truly masterful at asking powerful questions, you’ll be able to nudge your clients just slightly out of their comfort zone in order to challenge their limiting beliefs and spark real breakthroughs.

“What kind of example do you envision yourself being for your children?”

Note: Deep questions like this may require you to leave space for your client in the form of silence.

Sometimes a client will get caught up in negative self-talk and limiting beliefs as they describe to you what’s gotten in the way of their progress. A skillful coach might use this opportunity to ask a transformative question.

“What helpful things could you say to your best friend if they were down on themselves in this way?”

Helping your client step away from that thought loop and change their vantage point helps them see and feel what it’s like to practice more self-compassion.

And finally, an important application for open questions is to help build self-efficacy by asking your client about their strengths in relation to a current challenge.

“If you decide to focus on ___ this week, which of your personal strengths or resources could you draw on to help ensure your success?”

The best way to achieve mastery is to practice, so it’s time to get started! Here are 125 examples of open-ended questions to help you do just that, but keep reading to learn the next steps you can take…

Challenge: Develop Your Own Question-Asking Repertoire

Aim to ask at least one of the following question types per session:

1. An emotion-based question:

“How did you feel when you realized…?”

2. An evocative question (that elicits “change talk”):

“Think back to a time when you were still very busy, but you managed to find time for exercise. What was different then?”

3. A motivation-based question:

“What are you most excited to do differently this week?”

4. A progress-related question:

“How will you measure success this time around?”

5. An action-oriented question:

“What’s the first step you’re going to take?”

Add Authenticity to Your Go-To Questions:

Think of 2 or 3 big-picture questions that help clients think beyond their perceived limitations. One of my favorites is a magic-wand question (which also serves as an evocative question).

“If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the situation, what would it be?”

Think of 1 or 2 imaginative or hypothetical “if” questions that you could ask any client.

“If you could gain immediate access to any resource or skill to support you in this, what would it be and why?”

Think up 3 action-oriented questions that will help your clients plan ahead.

“What’s coming up this week that could possibly interfere with your new plan?”

What’s 1 question you might ask to represent each of your top coaching interests/philosophies? I’m into self-actualization, for example, which is the growth-pursuit of living to one’s full potential.

“How would you describe your best self—the person you’re becoming on this journey of self-discovery and personal growth?”

With these examples and guidelines in hand, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of open-ended questions, fostering growth in client-led sessions to lead your clients on their way to their next breakthrough and lasting behavior change.

Now tell us what you think! Leave a comment below to start or join the discussion...

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