Open & Closed Questions & Context-free Questioning: with examples

Open and closed questions have been described very thoroughly in sales training manuals for many years. Sales people are warned not to ask a closed question like, ‘Will you buy this or not?’ because it is likely to bring the response, ‘No thank you.’ Instead, they are trained to ask open questions like this, ‘Are you buying one or two of these products?’ The hope is that the inferred command to buy (one or more items) will lead to the sale.

When coaching, we do not want to lead the coachee’s mental attention into that inhabited by the coach! Tim Gallwey says that he had to learn how to teach less, so that more could be learned by his coachees. The best way to avoid this is firstly to reflect the exact language proffered by the coachee and to ask questions that are as unloaded as possible. The whole philosophy of Symbolic Modeling highlights these dual skills: unloaded questions and reflective language. You do not have to coach using the symbolic model in order to follow the same principles in your coaching practice. Open questions attempt to open up the world of the coachee without assuming anything about that world. An example is the question, ‘instinctively, how do you experience that?’ The coach might easily say, ‘what is your view of that?’ but this question assumes that the mental registration of the coachee is visual. It may be, but many people store information differently and their preferences for storage an recall (described in NLP as ‘representational systems’) will predispose them to partial receptiveness – to avoid this, the coach is best advised to avoid sensory-specific questions or to use entirely ‘reflected language’.

The brain has no consistent means of filtering out irrelevant information from coaches (and elsewhere). Once a word or phrase has been said, it is captured by the coachee’s brain. In the case above, some effort may be expended to explore visual information and accept or reject that assumption. Other irrelevant words also tempt the brain to think outside its experience. Often we want the coachee to remain in an associated (emotionally linked to their issue) state and these diversions prevent that.

The coach shouldn’t work in order to be right about their assumptions,
the coach ought to help the coachee develop their view of the world and move beyond any limitations that they may have with their existing world view. By asking questions and challenge, the coach can hope that the coachee will develop a new world-view be developing their Conscious Perception. The coach should dump as little as possible into this dynamic. Here are some examples of typical coach questions with the assumptions underlined. I have also added an alternative question, in each case, that I think may be better. See what you think.

How to you feel about that? What is your experience of that? 
Could your boss be angry with you? From your boss’s position, what might he be experiencing here? 
You look tense and upset. What is happening with you at this moment? 
Maybe you have failed but how do you put that behind you? If you did fail as you say, what if anything can you do about that? What have you learned? 
You have your target, how do you reach it? What next? 
Those were good steps, what is the next step? What next?

Coaches invariably talk too much and introduce too many of their own words and interpretations into the coaching arena. Unless we wish to spring the coachee out of their associated state (and we may sometimes wish to do this), we are best advised to limit the amount of assumed experience we communicate by asking ‘clean’ questions.

Context-Free Questioning

This is particularly useful where the coachee is dealing with highly sensitive issues, be they emotional, political, strategic or interpersonal. For example, they may have a sensitive issue regarding the senior Board member who hired the coach. By taking away the need for the coachee to express the details of their knowledge and experiences, they can roam freely through their solutions without concerning themselves with the appropriateness or otherwise of expressing actual information. If a coach is going to deal with such situations then context-free questioning can be considered.

A coach must be able to move fluidly to context-free questioning. This will help preserve the coachee’s preference for discretion and will not bring extraneous stress to the dynamic. Since the coachee’s responses tend to be silent or monosyllabic during context-free questioning, in the example below I have left out most of the coachee’s responses, unless helpful to the reader.

Coachee:        “It’s awkward. The individual concerned is highly influential.”

Coach:                        “So, in this situation, could you bring that situation to mind now as if it is happening here and now?”

Coach:                        “And if it is happening here and now, have you a sense of where you and that individual  – move if you wish, I can move out of the way too, if it helps.”

Coach:                        “Being in this awkward situation with this individual, how real is this compared to how is was, zero to ten high?”

Coachee:        “Seven.”

Coach:                        “If you will, try to make this situation with this individual more real. How are you sitting. What, if any, body sensations do you have? How warm or cool is it? How do they look? What is their posture like? How does the light catch them? Do whatever you feel necessary to make this situation more real, in your own time. Signify to me, if you will, when you are ready.”

Coach:                        “What do you really want to say to this individual if you are totally free to express without any come-back? I do not need to know what that statement is unless you choose to share it with me.”

Coach:                        “How would he take what you say, where ten is good?”

Coachee:        “Zero.”

Coach:                        “Are you saying that you would prefer not to say what you really want to say to this individual?”

Coachee:        “Certainly not.”

The coach may then bring the coachee back into the dynamic and check that they are back. There are many possible strategies to be followed including the Second and Third Perceptual Positions, all in the context-free mode. Here is another line of exploration seeking a realistic outcome.

Coach:                        “I would like you to consider what if any, realistic acknowledgement or action you want from this individual. Will you do that and then tell me whether it is an action, acknowledgement or something else.”

Coachee:        “Acknowledgement.”

 Coach:                       “Imagine, if you will that you are looking through a special telescope at the situation that you are experiencing. You can make the situation closer or farther away as you choose. You may hear what is happening and you can make any sounds louder or quieter at will. You can make the image bigger or smaller, more clear or more out of focus, even dark if you wish. I would like you to be far enough away to take the long-view of the situation but close enough to have a clear idea of what is going on. If you agree, could you indicate when you in that long-view situation?”

 Coach:                        What is happening in that situation over there? Is there any advice that you could give that would help achieve the outcome?”

 The key to context-free questioning is to maintain the language of the coachee where it is offered (‘reflected language’) and to seek their willingness to take a new step. The coach must also test how real any new state is and offer interventions to help them achieve a high level of success. Continuing in this way, specific targets can be reached and a high certainty of success assessed from feedback. The coach may never know what that outcome was.

I have my own example when coaching my daughter Alex. She had been stressed because her examinations were coming up and she had so far only done about ten minutes of revision on one occasion and a little less on another. She was willing to be coached and we walked a Time-Line in the back yard using two hula-hoops that she picked and moved to signify the ‘present’ and her ‘future desired target’. The whole session took about an hour and she was considerably happier afterwards than she had been before. Later we sat down and I asked her whether she would mind sharing the target objective with me.

“I have decided not to do any more revision. I do not believe that I need to revise in order to pass.”

I was horrified, imaging what her mother would say when she found out what ‘I had done’ and the impact on me should Alex not meet her own, and her mother’s expectations. I need not have worried. Alex took top marks in three subjects and just one level down in the fourth, ahead of her expectations and desire. Her place at University was assured.