You only have to hear the stress in a parent’s voice when their youngster asks “why?” again and again to understand the negative impact of why as a direct question in either coaching or in management.

If you have attended one of Kapow Coaching’s coaching skills training programme, you will remember that it’s not one of the ‘w’s’ on our ‘coaching rugby post’.  I remember one workshop attendee having a light-bulb moment when they realised that all of their interview questions started with a why – and they’d always wondered why the interviewee seems so defensive.

So why not use why?

In a recent issue of Coaching Research in Practice Dr Kerryn Griffthis pointed to a 2012 study by Anthony Grant where he studied the impact of problem- focused versus solutions-focused questioning on 225 psychology students in Australia.  We are probably all too familiar with the types of problem-focused questions at work: ‘why did that project fail? ‘where did we go wrong? ‘who’s to blame?  In Solution Focused Brief Therapy these are called the ‘red’ questions.  The impact of questions based on understanding what went wrong, how did it make you feel and analysing the timeline of cause and effect invariably sends the coachee into a closed mental state where they are only directed to seek the why, rather than the how.

If you’ve been witness to someone asking ‘green’ or solution-focused questions such as: ‘how can we improve on our success? ‘what is a simple step forward?’ or ‘where can we get the biggest impact in the business?’; you’ll know how innovation, creativity and positive energy are ever present.  Asking solution-focused questions introduces to the conscious mind that a solution is possible.

Grant confirmed in his study that:

  • The solution-focused group increased in positive affect, while the problem-focused group decreased.
  • The solution-focused group significantly decreased in negative affect, while the problem-focused group only marginally decreased.
  • The solution-focused group showed a significantly higher increase in self-efficacy (confidence) than the problem-focused group.
  • The solution-focused group reported that their goal approach (how close they felt to their goal) increased almost two times more than the problem-focused group, before either group had discussed action steps.
  • However, both the solution-focused group and the problem-focused group reported feeling significantly closer to their goal after listing possible action steps.

Grant, A. M. (2012). Making positive change: A randomized study comparing solution-focused vs. problem-focused coaching questions. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 31(2), 21-35. Downloaded from ResearchGate, October 2, 2015.