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Why Open-ended Questions Drive Effective Coaching

Sales performance improvement

great sales coaching is counter intuitive sales

jeanne-woodwardMay 23, 2019Blog

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Effective sales coaching is collaborative, and to be collaborative, you must ask questions. However, too often, people misunderstand this critical component of coaching. They ask questions designed to elicit a specific response.

These kinds of questions feel like an interrogation. They key is to ask open-ended questions in sales coaching sessions that bring the individual into the dialogue. Open-ended questions signal to the individual that they have the freedom to influence the conversation. With open-ended questions coaching, the conversation is dynamic, not directive.

Here, we look at the three reasons why this single practice is the basis of every successful sales coaching conversation.

The Conversation Becomes Open

Coaching conversations can be difficult because they often explore areas in which an individual can improve. With an open-ended question, however, the person being coached is free to take the prompt in whichever direction they feel is best. They are not cornered into providing a narrow answer to a narrow question. In contrast, open-ended questions encourage an open dialogue. This openness is important for the coach because it gives them insight into the individual’s perspective. This perspective is critical because it often clarifies which of three key areas requires focus: skill, will, or knowledge.

Generally, the root cause of lacking change is one of these three areas. An effective sales coach can help someone overcome any of these. Identifying and working on these factors usually requires several coaching conversations because the process is iterative. Both people must be willing to commit to ongoing conversations.

As the dialogue becomes open, the coach can expect more information from the individual. This exchange ultimately develops the individual’s buy-in on next steps. Reaching this point requires the coach to be receptive to a differing opinion. The goal is to understand someone, not push them down a certain path. Asking open-ended questions does not mean that the coach is foregoing the right to disagree. In fact, misalignment is common and best resolved with more questions.

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New Ideas Develop

Good coaching is about more than directing. In fact, the most effective leaders use coaching conversations to arrive at new ideas rather than align people to existing ones. Open-ended questions serve this goal by keeping the topics broad. Moreover, by generating ideas together, the individual benefits by helping to create strategies rather than simply execute them.

Brainstorming new ideas together is important because coaching conversations are often an effort to overcome a hurdle. This hurdle might be a performance issue, or it might be a desire to reach the next rung in a career. In either case, overcoming the challenge requires creativity and new ideas. Sharing ideas is also an opportunity for the coach to help the individual get specific about their perspective. The key is to get the details of their general view. Understanding these specifics not only shapes new ideas on how to move forward, but it helps bridge the gap when there is a divide.

Good ideas are rare. Therefore, the coach, and the individual must be prepared to work through the dialogue. The coach must get comfortable with silence. Asking open-ended questions is more difficult than it sounds. If the individual has never experienced this style of coaching, they may initially feel as though they are being put on the spot. Coaches who are also new to asking open-ended questions might similarly feel uneasy and resort to telling the individual what to do rather than listen.

Engagement Emerges

Coaching serves more than just immediate goals. Coaching can also address broad issues like engagement. Regular coaching conversations keep people connected. This involvement is a precursor for engagement, which is necessary for any successful organization. Consider findings from Gallup, which reviewed data from 31 million respondents. The researchers learned that “employees who are engaged are more likely to stay with their organization, reducing overall turnover and the costs associated with it. They feel a stronger bond to their organization’s mission and purpose, making them more effective brand ambassadors. They build stronger relationships with customers, helping their company increase sales and profitability.” These findings are a powerful endorsement for the kind of engagement that comes from coaching.

Engagement prevents the inevitable drift that occurs when individuals and coaches resort to periodic emails in their communication. Engagement drives success and therefore achieving it requires an intentional, mindful approach. Coaches must take time to prepare. They must develop questions with a set of skills. Doing so ensures that the questions become conversational and not interrogative:

Prefacing: State why you are asking the question. Doing so makes the question conversational and less jarring.

Phrasing: Keep the phrasing open-ended. Don’t ask leading questions that box the individual in.

Pursuing: Ask drill-down questions when necessary. As mentioned earlier, occasionally, additional questions are need when there is misalignment.

Pacing: Ask one question at a time. Do not overwhelm the individual with questions nested in other questions.

The Takeaways

Open-ended questions are the keystone to a good coaching strategy. Asking smart, incisive questions not only reveals important information, but it also shows the person being coached that the coach cares and that they are in tune with what matters. Open-ended questions as a coaching tool serve to:

  • Get people to open up and share their views in a collaborative process
  • Generate ideas on how to best approach a challenge or an opportunity
  • Drive engagement that is a requirement for successful businesses

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