The Use and Effectiveness of Provocative Questions in Coaching
Did the word “provocative” in the title catch your attention and perhaps lead you to this article? If so, you just experienced the effect of provocation.
Which question(s) out of the options below would you select as being provocative?
- Are you ok?
- If you were going to die tonight at midnight, how would you spend your remaining hours?
- I hear that you want to __________ and I am noticing that you are doing________. I’m curious, what do you think may be going there?
- “Forgiveness is a gift to yourself.” What happens when you hear this?
- All the above.
Answer: “All of the Above.”
That is because whether someone deems a question provocative is subjective.
This article explores the delicate art of using provocative questions intentionally in a safe and constructive manner. We will look at what they are, how they can help your clients, how and when to use them, potential dangers and a few examples.
You may be asking yourself, why would I want to provoke my client? I challenge you to let go of any connotations you already have for this word, because it’s likely that you interpret it to mean “annoying” or “angering.” Let’s try on a new way of interpreting this word.
A provocative question is one that is meant to be challenging. These questions may differ from others in that they may create more of an emotional stir with the intent to stimulate a reaction, a thought or emotion in someone, or incite a certain thought or feeling. It is often synonymous with words like charged, inciting or edgy.
Provocative questions can be closed- or open-ended, hypothetical, probing and direct, though leading and loaded questions should always be avoided.
Why use them in coaching engagements?
- Provocative questions satisfy several ICF Core Competencies, and other benefits may include:
- Promotes lateral thinking. *more about this here
- Evokes awareness.
- Facilitates learning, change, growth.
- Shifts perspective, (reframing and altering mindset, etc.)
- Stimulates thought and reflection.
When should I use this type of question?
It’s likely you’ve already used provocative questions in your sessions, even if unintentionally.
There are a variety of situations and opportunities where you may want to use provocative question. As a coach, you need to trust yourself and use your judgment (yes, in this case using your judgment is a helping tool). Some common situations could include:
- When a client may feel “stuck”
- When values are “unknown”
- Finding Meaning and Purpose
- If your Client asks to be challenged in this way
How should I use provocative questioning in a safe and constructive way?
- Discuss and include this in the Coaching Agreement (if this is part of your style and service)
- Build rapport first, then nurture it
- Ask permission. Ask your client if they would be interested in a challenge or new experience and tell them that they can alter, change, reject and stop at any time. THEY are in control.
4 Allow space and silence after the question.
- Ask with purpose and check your agenda. How will asking these questions benefit your client?
- Check in with the client. You want some discomfort to occur, but too much too soon could backfire.
- Know when to pull back. Tap into your global listening and intuition and pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication. You want to provoke, not harm.
- Practice with Trauma Informed Care. Find more information on this topic here.
- Have fun. Be creative. Provoking questions can be a “homework assignment,” for outside the session, such as a writing or art project.
- Don’t be tied to an outcome and be prepared that the client may not wish to share their response with you.
Alright. Let’s end this with some fun.
Try answering these questions, and then try using them in a coaching engagement!
- If you were given the option to either stay in this life the way it is or wake up tomorrow in a new one but you will have no idea what that looks like until you get there, which would you choose? Why?
- (Can be a statement followed by a question) “There are no victims, just volunteers.” What do you think when you hear that?
- You will pass away peacefully tonight in your sleep at midnight. What are three things that you would like to remember? What are three things you would do differently if you had just one more day? Who would you like to be next to you?
- What question are you terrified of having someone ask you?
- What question do you wish you knew the answer to? How would knowing the answer affect your situation/life?
- What is one word that you would like to be associated with after your life on this Earth?
A final note to emphasize that it is not so much about the question you ask, it is about how you use this tool to help your client reach their desired outcome!
I hope this article contributes to your coaching toolbox, helps you step out of your comfort zone and encourages you to take on challenges safely and constructively, both with your clients and yourself.