My #1 Coaching Question: “How will you know?”

Most leaders who interact with a coach do so because they want something to be different. They may want to improve the performance of their team, or become less overwhelmed, or to prioritize more effectively, or to increase their impact as a leader. It could be one of a thousand things they want to be different.

Often the change they want seems so big or complex that neither the leader nor the coach know where to start.

My go-to approach is to take whatever they’d like to change and reformulate it as a question back to them:

  • If you team is performing better, how will you know?
  • If you become less overwhelmed, how will you know?
  • If you are better at prioritizing, how will you know?
  • If you have more impact as a leader, how will you know?

It is such a simple technique, yet it is incredibly effective. Let’s explore why it works.

When we identify a challenge or an opportunity we often focus on what isn’t working. We focus on the negative present, rather than the positive future.

Because we are inside our own problem, the walls of the problem are often all that we can see. And that perspective limits our ability to work ourselves out of the problem.

Asking, ‘how will you know?” takes the leader out of the present and asks them to describe a future where their problem is solved. It shifts them from being a bystander or victim of the problem, to being a participant in creating the solution.

And every single time I ask the question, it causes the leader to pause. It takes them several seconds to consider the question before they respond. Sometimes they don’t know how they’d know. If that is the case, it provides a great opportunity for some follow up discussion. If they have a challenge and something they’d like to change and they can’t articulate what better would look like, they have no chance of improving that situation. So the first step is to work on what better would look like.

Most of the time, the leader can identify a few changes that would be evidence that things are moving in the desired direction. When they do that, it opens up many possible lines of inquiry and coaching.

Because, each of the changes they identify that are evidence of improvement in their desired direction are new avenues to explore. And for each of those, they generally don’t have any trouble identifying one or two immediate steps they could take to start moving in that direction.

The initial coaching topic may seem huge and complicated, and we (just like our coaching client) may not even know where to begin.

But the simple question, “How will you know?” unlocks a path toward forward progress almost every time.