Coach with the right questions

Jonathan Mills
3 min readApr 7, 2024


“The power to question is the basis of all human progress” (Indira Gandhi — Indian Prime Minister)

One of the most challenging skills for all managers is to ask the right questions of employees. Frequently, conversations with employees end up as being vague, directionless, or meaningless. True growth, particularly in performance, comes from structured conversations where the employee finds answers to overcome performance obstacles following great questions from the manager. Good questions serve the following ends:

  1. They help the employees find answers for themselves — creativity is tapped into, and options are sought.
  2. They help employees feel more empowered and in control — they need to experience that they play an active part.
  3. They create forward movement — they refocus thoughts and energy and move out of the problem state into the solution state.

There are six helpful question types to get employees to think through their performance behaviours, outlined as follows:

  1. Open questions — these can have any number of answers and do not limit the thinking of the employee (e.g. To what destination did you believe that would lead you to?)
  2. Direct questions (sometimes called closed questions) — these require a focused specific answer (e.g. Did you complete the report?)
  3. Probing questions — these ask for more information and help the employee to go more deeply into the subject of discussion (e.g. What do you mean by not being satisfied with the arrangements?)
  4. High-level thinking questions — these cause employees to engage in in-depth thinking, like synthesising information, making comparisons, or evaluating a situation (e.g. How is the work that you are doing now different to your previous projects?)
  5. Emotive questions — these cause employees to examine their feelings about issues (e.g. How did not getting a positive response make you feel?)
  6. Clarifying questions — these bring logic and understanding to the conversation (e.g. What is it that you are really conveying here?)

Managers should practise asking questions to develop effectiveness with this skill. Alinda Nortje, Founder and Chairperson of Free To Grow, offers some reminders to the formulation of effective questions in her Coach 2 Excel workshop:

  • Follow a line of questioning that provides information or explores issues relating to one area before moving on to the next area. Switching back and forth between issues only creates confusion.
  • Questions must lead somewhere. Each one has a purpose and the type of question asked should be in line with the type of answer or information that is needed.
  • Keep questions simple, focused, and specific. Complex questions cloud issues and create confusion in the minds of employees.
  • Be honest in the replies you give. You are involved in a long-term relationship with an employee. Less than honest replies will threaten the integrity of the relationship you have established.
  • Ask questions that require higher-level thinking. Without understanding and insight, the growth process will be forced to stop. So, ask questions that require synthesis (the implications), that force comparison (in what way is this different to that?), and call for evaluation (what would you do differently next time?).
  • Use curiosity to stimulate curiosity. Be excited as a manager to stimulate your employees’ imagination.
  • Avoid questions that begin with ‘why’. Such questions can be perceived as judgemental, and this can turn an atmosphere of trust and openness into one of caution.

Anthone Robbins notes: “Questions provide the key to unlocking our unlimited potential”. Performance management and employee growth are two sides to the same coin. By asking the right questions as part of coaching employees, managers will realise better performance and ultimately team growth.

Originally published at on April 7, 2024.



Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.