Podcast Ep. 82: How to Ask Powerful Questions with Christy Erbeck

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Episode Description:

In today’s episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast, Dan Neumann is joined by special return guest, Christy Erbeck. Christy is a principal transformation consultant at AgileThought and a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator (CDTLF). She has over 25 years of experience in domestic and international consulting, training and coaching, and working in both software development and non-product-focused environments, including manufacturing (discrete and process), distribution, and sales and marketing.

Today, they’re exploring the topic of how to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions can lead to powerful change if they are asked in the right way. In this episode, Christy explains what makes a question powerful vs. a not-so-powerful one; how to ask powerful questions; when and when not to ask a powerful question; and important qualities and skills for a facilitator or coach to have when asking these powerful questions. Christy also shares some fantastic resources for further reading on the subject and provides some examples of what powerful questions look like.


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Key Takeaways:

  • What makes a “powerful question”?
    • A powerful question is one that gets the person being asked to think about the situation in a way that they may not have if the question had not been asked
    • Powerful questions elicit a thoughtful response
    • They provide a way to help the individual being asked to become “unstuck”
    • The Co-Active Training Institute defines a powerful question as: “A provocative query that puts a halt to evasion and confusion”
    • The person asking the question is inviting the client to clarity, action and discovery at an entirely new level
    • They help people think differently
  • How to ask powerful questions:
    • Kickstart coaching sessions by asking, “What’s on your mind?” to simply begin the conversation in a way that allows the coachee to bring forward a topic in a way that is nonjudgmental and invites additional inquiry
    • Ask a question in a neutral way vs. a “loaded” way
    • Stay neutral and ask the question in a curious way rather than in a judgemental way
    • Use the Five Whys technique
    • Take into consideration the layering and sequencing of the questions you’re asking
    • Make sure that the person you’re engaging with is interested and engaged
    • Ask yourself if you have earned the right to ask the question in the first place (i.e. a level of mutual respect has been reached and the person being asked believes you to be credible)
  • Important qualities and skills for a facilitator or coach asking these powerful questions to have:
    • Understand what type of questions or decision-making needs to happen in the moment
    • Understand the different types of questions and the different intents and outcomes that those questions will provide
    • Have a natural curiosity and perspective of care when working with clients
    • Create space and allow for silence for people to answer the questions
  • When shouldn’t you ask a powerful question?
    • When you don’t have time to debrief and explore
    • Potentially, in a group setting (it is important to consider the dynamic of the room)
    • Ask yourself, “Is now the time to ask this question?” because the trust and safety may not be strong enough yet to be asking certain questions
    • Questions that are uninvited, at an inappropriate time, or out of line
  • Examples of powerful questions:
    • “What do we need to do to wrap this up and have clarity around our next steps?”
    • “What’s preventing us from moving forward?”
    • “What decision is keeping something from actually being enacted?”
    • “Tell me more” questions
    • Clarification questions
    • Open-ended questions such as who, what, when, where, why, and how



Mentioned in this Episode


Christy Erbeck’s Book Picks


Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and not completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar]

Intro [00:03]: Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work, and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann [00:16]: Welcome to this episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host, Dan Neumann and happy to be joined today by Christy Erbeck and we are going to be exploring powerful questions. Thanks for joining.

Christy Erbeck [00:29]: Thanks for having me, Dan. Good to see you again.

Dan Neumann [00:32]: Thank you. You as well. So powerful questions start with a little bit of a what they are for folks, what makes a question a powerful one versus a not.

Christy Erbeck [00:44]: Well, I believe that in the beginning a powerful question is one that gets the person that is being asked the question, thinking about the situation in a way that they might not have had the question, not been asked. I believe powerful questions are designed to elicit a thoughtful response and a movement off of perhaps a perceived belief in how the problem might be solved or should be solved and a way to help the individual get unstuck.

Dan Neumann [01:22]: Yeah, a lot of times I think a scenario comes to mind for me where I was coaching with a team of coaches at a, at a place and one of the coaches and one of the Scrum Masters came into one of the shared rooms that we had. And I was, you know, just kind of happily going about whatever I was doing on my computer. I don’t know, probably a powerpoint, I guess. I don’t know, something nice and impactful like that. And they were having what sounded like a fairly, um, heated conversation with each other, not inappropriately, but there was clearly a problem that they weren’t, they were wrestling with and, and, and after a while they’re just kinda like, what, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? Like cause it wasn’t clear. And in that I think was an example of something that, um, and then, because my colleague reflected back to me later, uh, when she was, she was talking about that cause it did cause them to then think differently about what was actually going on. You know, it wasn’t whatever tactic or nuance was being debated. It was something much more underlying to what that particular, um, disagreement had been about. You know, I don’t all, they don’t always get a powerful question and they don’t always think powerful questions. So maybe appropriately we can talk about that too. Uh, but in that scenario, I think it’s an example to maybe help people ground what, what a powerful question might look like.

Christy Erbeck [02:56]: Sure. And we can even go to a more refined answer. The coactive coaching Institute defines a powerful question as a provocative query that puts a halt to evasion and confusion. And that by asking that powerful question, the coach or the person asking the question and invites the client to clarity, action and discovery at a whole new level. And this Institute, this coactive training Institute is a wonderful resource for people who are interested in learning more about coaching as well as, um, uh, learning about how to ask powerful questions. So we can put, um, there’s a PDF that we can put in the show notes if you’d like.

Dan Neumann [03:47]: Yeah, we’ll definitely be sure to put that in as a link so people can go explore that.

Christy Erbeck [03:56]: Another resource that I love is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, the coaching habit. Uh, his book is called the coaching habit: Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever. And he has a wonderful way of kickstarting his coaching sessions by just asking what’s on your mind and beginning the conversation in a way that allows the coachee or the person being asked the question to bring forward the topic in a way that is nonjudgmental and invite additional inquiry.

Dan Neumann [04:33]: So if we can explore that a little bit. So the non nonjudgmental facet of it. So maybe asking a question in a neutral way versus a, a loaded question. I’m trying to think of a good example of a loaded question. I know I’ve heard them, but I don’t know. There’s something coming to mind you that would not be a neutral question. I’m blanking right now.

Christy Erbeck [04:58]: Well, it’s less about the neutrality of the question and more the neutrality of the person asking and how it’s phrased. So if I were to ask you, well why did you do that? Just the tone of my voice and me starting the question with why can come across as judgmental instead of being curious to ask, how did that come about, Dan, tell me more. And, and so phrasing your question and there’s absolutely a time to ask the question why. Uh, there’s even the whole concept of the five whys and peeling the onion to get to what’s beneath the surface. And the five whys technique is very powerful. There’s a place and a time for that particular technique. And I find that when I’m confronted with somebody saying, well, why don’t you do such and such and so, or this or that, I become very, um, put off by that. I’m just not, I’m not gonna react well to somebody saying, why don’t you, because I don’t want to.

Dan Neumann [06:26]: It’s kind of a, a suggestion cloaked in a question, but why don’t you? Because it’s saying, well, this is what you should do and why aren’t you, idiot? It’s very much implied? So as opposed to maybe a question, though. What else? What else might you try? Would that be a more neutral and a more powerful way of a question?

Christy Erbeck [06:55]: Or what consideration have you given to this approach? There’s just so many ways to ask questions and oftentimes in the heat of the moment we, we, we probably ask, it might be the right question but in the wrong way.

Dan Neumann [07:16]: So as we talk about powerful questions, something that comes to mind is there are likely to be times when asking a powerful question isn’t appropriate and just to reuse the word time. It sounds like if you don’t have time to kind of debrief and explore, that would be one particular scenario where you wouldn’t want to ask a powerful question, you know, well tell me more about that, but I got to leave.

Christy Erbeck [07:44]: In the last 20 seconds that we have together, please tell me you know, your deepest, darkest secret. No, that is absolutely not the time to ask a powerful question unless you are looking to elicit thoughtful reflection as homework for that particular person or client or situation. And the other time where it’s not appropriate is potentially in a group setting. As coaches, as consultants, it’s very important that we take into consideration the dynamic of the room, whether that’s a virtual room or an in person room, and what will be the impact to not just the person that we’re asking the question to but to the greater group or the broader group if we ask this question now. And, and so unless that question is for the entire group and there’s homework and there’s something that they can action on together individually or individually and then come back together and debrief. We want to be mindful of the timing and the placement of those types of questions.

Dan Neumann [08:58]: And I think what you’re, what you’re describing would be a scenario where the powerful question that maybe doesn’t apply to everybody in the room, maybe it is for one person’s, uh, introspection. And then, um, because of that emotional safety, maybe there’s something that they just aren’t comfortable talking about in front of others. And it would be, you know, inappropriate to in a lot of cases.

Christy Erbeck [09:23]: Absolutely. And then the other thing to consider is, is now the time to ask this type of question? For example, we want to build safety into our coaching arrangements, our coaching clients, and whether we’re doing that as an individual or a group setting. And, and so there are just times where we haven’t built enough trust, we haven’t built enough safety between the two of us or, or among the group to ask a certain level of question. And so I think it’s important that we as coaches owning those powerful questions take into consideration the layering and the sequencing of questions to get to a point where it is safe for the coachee to answer that question and we have the space to hold the answer and help them explore even further.

Dan Neumann [10:19]: Mm. It makes me think of another option than as, so we’ve, we’ve talked a little bit about the person who, who’s kind of asking the powerful question and then thinking as well then being the recipient of a powerful question, maybe uninvited or at an inappropriate time or just a, you know, none of your damn business, right. It just, I’ve got, I’m trying to think of graceful ways where people maybe asked those, could um, decline the invitation for, for sharing or oversharing. So, yeah.

Christy Erbeck [11:00]: And absolutely. I think it’s absolutely okay for me as the coach to ask you or to, or to preface it by saying, Dan, I’m going to ask a question that you may not be comfortable answering at this time and if not, that’s perfectly okay. You’re welcome to think about the question and either reflect on it yourself and bring something back to me for us to continue the discussion or you know, decline answering that question altogether. I still feel compelled to ask you this question. What you do with that question is up to you and I’m going to honor the space

Dan Neumann [11:49]: I think there are, there are folks who, um, I don’t know. I think sometimes that that coaching relationship, like you said, having the room, having the space to do that, um, making sure that the other, the person you’re engaging with on the powerful question is actually interested in that type of relationship with, with you and they might not be seeking coaching.

Christy Erbeck [12:14]: Well, have you earned the right to ask the question in the first place?

Dan Neumann [12:18]: Yeah. What, what, uh, can you expand on that a little bit? Like what might, what might earning that right look like?

Christy Erbeck [12:24]: I think about some of the work that I do with leaders and, and people in the executive space and you know, there’s a level of credibility that needs to be earned or gained and a level of trust and respect that is mutual that needs to be earned or gained before other questions can be asked. And, and in doing and earning that respect. Um, I, one of the ways I do that is by not asking silly questions like, um, what’s possible, you know, where we go, very esoteric instead of, you know, executives often while they need to have time to think deeply. Often they are moving so fast that the best help I can provide is to laser in on finding, helping them find a solution. And by me helping them find a solution, it’s not about me giving them an answer. It’s about giving them the space, asking those right questions and allowing them to uncover what they know already.

Dan Neumann [13:40]: What you described sounds a little bit like knowing whether the question is designed to kind of broaden. It’s like bang the microphone, I guess the conversation. But to broaden the, the uh, my arms went out and the microphone was there. So I was looking to broaden the topics in the world of possibilities or is it in fact that they have too many options and are trying to hone in on how to make the decision or what decision to make. And so I think that might be a place where, you know, a silly question might be going against that if, if it’s, if it’s a broadening activity or an expansive like look for more options, um, you don’t want to ask something that’s honing in on one and vice versa. If they’re just about to get to the point where they maybe are able to decide then, kind of blowing the doors open in an inappropriate way. Um, of course. Unless of course that option is liable to have meaningful negative consequences in some way. And you know, kind of begs the question, how would you even know? Right. It’s their decision to make.

Christy Erbeck [14:43]: So there are times where asking the question like, what’s the opportunity here, makes a ton of sense for an executive team to explore. And to your point, if we’re right about at the end of making a decision, a better question or more powerful question might be, what do we need to do to wrap this up and have clarity around our next steps?

Dan Neumann [15:11]: Yeah, I like that question and I think you’d alluded to it like what’s preventing us from moving forward? You know, those types of things. You know, where especially where maybe a place where, um, decisions get made and then they keep getting a redecided, you know? Okay. What’s keeping that decision from actually getting enacted.

Christy Erbeck [15:33]: And understanding, you know, similar to understanding what type of type of meeting are we having, a, why are we coming together? Understanding what type of questions or decision-making needs to happen in the moment, whether you’re coaching somebody or you’re coaching a group of people, or even just facilitating a group of people. Oftentimes the most powerful thing a facilitator can do is ask the right question at the right time to move the group forward, expand the group’s thinking, as you said, narrow them in on a decision that must be made. And so understanding the different types of questions, the different intense and outcomes that those questions will provide is a wonderful skill for a coach and facilitator to have.

Dan Neumann [16:24]: You’d mentioned, um, the coaching habit and, um, coactive coaching and I was just kind of wondering if there were any collections of some, some like go to types of powerful questions. I don’t mean that in like a, those little dolls where you pulled the string and they only had three questions. They asked or three things they said like, that’s not quite where I’m going for. Um, but I was just kind of curious, are there some that you, you kind of find yourself asking more often or some types that you tend to, to ask?

Christy Erbeck [16:57]: I ask a lot of questions around, tell me more. Say more about that? What do you mean by that? If you were to clarify that? The, the, the questions that are open ended, the who, what, where, when, how, and why aspects is where I spend most of my time in asking the questions. Um, and I have a variety of resources that I rely on to get my question engine humming. And, and then the other thing that I think is important from my coaching perspective is just to have a natural curiosity and um, perspective of care when working with clients. And because if I’m curious and I really care about the person that I’m speaking with, one question is going to naturally lead to the, to the next. And when I’m out of questions in some ways and that we’re sitting with the silence, um, either that means we’ve gone as far as we need to go in the session or the silence is there for the client to ask his or her own question either of me or of him or herself.

Dan Neumann [18:39]: And so just leaving the silence hanging there, much like if one were asking a question of a, of a group and uh, potentially not getting an answer, then it’s kind of letting us run the silence. Sorry. Yep.

Christy Erbeck [18:51]: Yes. Sorry. Letting the silence hang is important and not hang, creating the space. It’s about creating the space for the silence because I’m not there to hang you out to dry and, and leave you longing or, or stuck or in a place of awkwardness. Often we don’t have or aren’t given the time or the space to be in silence and to think through and think deeply about that, which is on our mind.

Dan Neumann [19:29]: Okay. So yeah. So the difference between that and letting it get awkward. I guess maybe the awkward silence was part of what you were keying in on there as opposed to, um, you know, leaving the space for the answer.

Christy Erbeck [19:44]: Yeah. You know, one of the, as an organizational psychologist, I’m trained to outwait you so I can wait for a very long time and I’m okay with that silence. And I think part of what I do is help other people be okay with the silence.

Dan Neumann [20:05]: I love it. Yeah. Christy, you had mentioned a little bit earlier that there were some resources you’d like to go to to kind of get your question engine going and maybe you could share some of those.

Christy Erbeck [20:17]: Sure. So I have one book that I absolutely love is by Gary Pool and we’ll put the book in the show notes. It’s called, uh, the complete book of questions 1001 conversation starters for any occasion. And what I like about this book is that similar to what we talked about earlier in the layers of questions is the first question is, you know, they start really easy and by the time you’re in the back of the book and into your benign hundreds, you’re talking about spiritual topics. And so you can go very deep with your conversations. And while I might not use these questions explicitly with clients, they are thought starters for me from time to time as to Oh, this might be a great place for us to go. Or if I want to know something a little bit more about somebody, I will pull this book out and look for ideas. And again, I might not use the exact question, but I would springboard off of that.

Dan Neumann [21:22]: So it’s a nice spectrum from, you know, really, um, safe if you will, questions and you know, not terribly probative or deep all the way to, to, to deep on. Okay, cool. And then you had another one I think.

Christy Erbeck [21:35]: Well, and I’ll just give you an example. So the very first question in the book, the very first question is do you squeeze the toothpaste tube or roll it. What’s the advantage of your method?

Dan Neumann [21:51]: No, but yeah, really safe question.

Christy Erbeck [21:55]: Yeah. And then the very last question is if you could ask God one question you knew he would answer right away, what would it be?

Dan Neumann [22:06]: Oh yeah. And I’m a, I’m a bottom of the tube squeezer because it was drilled into me as a child. There were repercussions for squeezing in the middle of the tube. But how much time do we have? Yes.

Christy Erbeck [22:26]: One other, uh, uh, resource I’d like to share with the group is a card game called Vertellis. And this is a card game that comes from the Netherlands and Vertellis means tell me more in Dutch. And so there’s the family edition, there’s the romantic edition, there’s three or four different editions to this, but this has also been a wonderful way, one to connect with family members of across the spectrum. Um, my grandmother who recently passed away was a hundred over a hundred years old and we played this game with her as well as we played it with my niece and nephew who are teenagers. And it’s just a really cool way to bring the family together. And similarly, it peels the onion. There’s four rounds, you start really simple and get more, more interesting and thought provoking as you go along. And you know, it’s just a great way to bring people together. And again, it’s a springboard of questions that I use with other people. So if you ever find me asking you the question.

Dan Neumann [23:38]: And it makes me think that I don’t know if there’s a Vertellis work edition, but it seems like there’s a very small step from that question to what is it you think your teammates like about you? Much like what do you have to offer? What, uh, what do you need from your teammates? Type of question. Sometimes use team formation.

Christy Erbeck [23:58]: Exactly. You know, another one that we got asked of me the other day was what is your, your favorite characteristic about yourself? So that was the question that I got and it took me like 10 minutes to answer that question. And I learned that my family doesn’t like how long I take to think about questions.

Dan Neumann [24:20]: Your answer was not a 10 minute monologue.

Christy Erbeck [24:25]: It took me, I’m like, what is it? It could be what could it be? And then I also learned that what I think is my best characteristic, other people do not agree. They think other things. So it was a wonderful, but they can be wrong. They can have a different opinion, but it really provided insight into how other people that I am close to, perceive me.

Dan Neumann [24:53]: That’s wonderful. And so powerful questions. A little recap, right? So getting people thinking differently, getting thoughtful responses, asking those from a position of neutrality or curiosity as opposed to judgments. And then we’ll put the link to the coactive, um, sites and some of the different resources you mentioned. So I know we are recording this in a weird time with lots of COVID-related stuff going on, meaning work from homes and whatever. And I know that’s disrupted some normal habits, but I’m curious, are you, uh, are you reading something inspired by something these days?

Christy Erbeck [25:36]: I’m inspired by, um, journaling again. I took a journaling class online a couple of weeks ago at night and it just reignited my journaling habit and I love it. Um, I’m also reading a product roadmap book and measure what matters by John Doerr and, um, a book called employee experience by Ben Witter. So I am like all over the board and yet there’s just so much going on right now and I’m loving it. The journaling class ignited all kinds of creativity in me.

Dan Neumann [26:12]: Oh, that’s interesting. Was there a forum you can share? Like is that a, a class that’s still available, the journaling class or is that a, was it kind of like a one and done?

Christy Erbeck [26:22]: It’s a class that one of my, um, counterparts from the Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator (CDTLF) community runs up in Michigan and we, I can absolutely put that link in the show notes and share that with folks. Christina runs that class and it’s wonderful and I would highly recommend it.

Dan Neumann [26:45]: Very cool. Okay. Well we’ll look forward to that. I think my, uh, whatever. I’ve been re watching blacklist, so I haven’t done anything nearly as inspiring as you folks are, but I spend a lot of time thinking about work when I’m out doing my, doing my running and all that. So that’s been my inspiration lately, so thank you for joining, really appreciate it, Christy, and we’ll talk again before too long.

Christy Erbeck [27:08]: All right, sounds great. Thanks Dan.

Outro [27:12]: This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions, and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes@agilethought.com/podcast.

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