Curiosity in Coaching: A Key Principle

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Curiosity in Coaching: A Key Principle

How to Build and Develop Curiosity in Coaching

By Karen L. Bruns

The role of the coach is to listen, ask questions, and to help the client reach their objectives. To be successful, the coach must be able to develop curiosity as a fundamental skill and one of the principles of coaching.  We are each born with varying degrees of curiosity, so it is a natural occurrence in us all, and it is a skill that can be practiced and developed further to build us into better coaches.

What is Curiosity?  A Fundamental Principle of Coaching

In his blog post, “Curiosity: the key to growth through coaching,” author Tom Krapu defines curiosity as “a skill at the foundation of good coaching and is a state of Being [sic] that is characterized by openness and accepting the psychological state of “not knowing”.”

Oxford Languages on Google defines curiosity as “a strong desire to know or learn something,” and it uses the example sentence of “filled with curiosity, she peered through the window.”  Yes! Curiosity is like peering through the window of the client’s story, straight into the journey itself, even into the soul of the person to see what unfolds. While Merriam-Webster’s definition 1b is, “interest leading to inquiry.” Frankly, I love this one for a coach because it tells us to inquire, to ask, right there in the definition.  Brilliant! 

When I contemplate what curiosity is to me, it is resting in the unknowing and dancing with wonder at the potential story yet to unfold. It’s listening at a deeper level and offering silence when silence needs to be offered, and asking the questions the client needs asked. It’s also about letting go of controlling the narrative. Letting go of the need to second guess, or the need to problem solve. We aren’t the hero of their story, so it’s not up to us to know ahead of time and rush in to save the day; we can sit and wait for the experience to unfold.  

International Coaching Federation (ICF) competency 5 “Maintains Presence” is defined as “fully conscious and present with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible, grounded and confident.” Can one be curious without being fully present, have an open style, be flexible and grounded?  I think not.  5.2 states “Demonstrates curiosity during the coaching process.” and more important, 5.5 states, “Is comfortable working in a space of not knowing.” This is crucial for us to coach with curiosity, to be open, to work in a space of not knowing, to set aside our biases, and to ground ourselves before a coaching session. If you are new to the concept of grounding yourself before a coaching session, you might try a method I made up that works for me.  Curiosity invites the client to think deeper, to examine, to reflect, to share. Think of what a coaching session without these elements would be like. It would feel surface level, possibly even just a gripe session, and rather than move the client forward, we’d end up just sliding them around the room leaving them tired and frustrated that they leave in the same spot or a worse spot than when they arrived.  Frustrating for us both! 

There is value for the coach too in remaining curious. It keeps us in the present moment, listening at a higher level, comfortable in not knowing, and open and flexible. 

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How to Build and Cultivate Curiosity in Coaching

There are different ways to build and promote curiosity in a coaching relationship:

  • Remember whether we were present or not with the client at the time they experienced what they were exploring, we need to remain curious.  That means be curious all the time.
  • Understand that sometimes people have different understandings of the word curious and its application in coaching. When I first heard the phrase curiosity in coaching, I equated it to being nosy, and let’s be honest, nosy is a synonym for curiosity. And, well, being nosy isn’t a redeeming quality, right?  So what’s the difference?  If we are being curious for our own sakes, then it’s nosy. Example: If our questions are surrounding the details of the issue the client brings to fill us in so we are up to speed on the matter, then it’s nosy; it’s for our information.  Though if we are being curious to evoke awareness for the client, then it’s not being nosy.  Example: If our curiosity is not surrounding the details, but rather, the outcome or affects held on the client, what they feel, what they know to be true about themselves…if our curiosity invites awareness in their analysis, then it’s not nosy at all, it’s a powerful tool to help move the client forward. Here’s a simple litmus test. If at the end of the coaching conversation, a coach leaves with more information than the client, then the coach wasn’t using curiosity the correct way. 

Let’s take a look at the difference in two coaching conversations:

Curiosity as Nosiness:Curiosity as Evoking Awareness:
Client: I had a really rough day.Client: I had a really rough day.
Coach: Oh, I’m sorry to hear this, what happened?Coach: Rough?

With the example cited in curiosity as nosiness, the coach is delving immediately into the details, while the example of curiosity as evoking awareness has the coach delving into the person with just one word, rough. With this one word, the door has been opened to the client to explore what rough means, how it felt, what impact did it have or is it still having.  The examples are small because they immediately go in two different directions, one away from the client and into the details of the day, and the other into the client.  It invites a profound difference in outcomes for the client.  When we use curiosity as nosiness, we find ourselves telling stories in our own head about what might have happened, what we would do in that same situation, and our listening level drops. Yet, when we use curiosity to evoke awareness, then we don’t have a story to tell ourselves, our listening level rises as we look for the client to discover.

  • So, what’s a person to do?  Start in real life, not in your coaching practice.  Practice being a curious human. Then gently bring that into your coaching practice with other coaches, and before you know it, you’ll be thinking like a coach, having curiosity that isn’t nosy or intrusive.
  • Have an explorer’s assistant mindset, where you arrive knowing nothing and everything is yet to be discovered and your role is to come along for the ride, the discovery will not be yours, but the clients.  You are there to help them look into themselves where their answer awaits them.

Some obstacles that hinder the development of curiosity are:

  • Forgetting the learning is for the client, we don’t need the details
  • Getting stuck in thinking curiosity is nosiness 
  • Not asking about the client’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and only asking what happened
  • Rushing into a question. Try listening to the client for the question they need you to ask. Focus on the who before you focus on the what
a coach curious about exploring for the client's learning

How Can Coaches Leverage Curiosity?

Curiosity is a fantastic coaching tool both with your clients, and with yourself in reflection.  Be curious about why you asked a question, and why you didn’t ask the question you felt needed to be asked. Keep a journal of your own curiosity journey. I’m still on the journey of letting go of curiosity as nosiness and still working on welcoming curiosity as evoking awareness. 

Some great questions to ask that leverage curiosity are:

  • “How is this impacting your day-to-day activities?”
  • “How is this impacting you at work/home?”
  • “How does this change how you feel?”
  • “Who have you become since this started?”
  • “What is it like to be you in this scenario?”
  • “How do you see this world you are in?”
  • “If you were to describe your world to someone planning to visit, what would it look like?”
  • “What are your thoughts on this revelation?”
  • “What are you thinking right now?”
  • “What feeling is this knowledge bringing up for you?”

Why is Curiosity so Important in Coaching?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality.” What if curiosity in coaching also has its own reason for existing…to invite coaches to be in awe of the client who is whole, creative, and resourceful and who holds all the answers they need inside of them.  What if as coaches, curiosity was our greatest tool to contemplate and explore the marvellous structure of our client’s reality to them, for them, surrounding them.

Curiosity is a mindset. If you’re wondering how to develop this mindset further, we welcome you to join our upcoming cohort of students!

  • Start Date: 25/09
  • End Date: 18/12


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