Reflective Inquiry in Coaching

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Reflective Inquiry in Coaching

How to Coach Successfully Using Reflective Inquiry: Examples, Questions and Levels of Inquiry

By Karen L. Bruns

Throughout history, reflective inquiry has made a few different appearances; in education, learning, and coaching.  In the context of coaching, ICF, the International Coaching Federation tells us reflective inquiry is “when the coach enables the client to think about their situation in a deeper way, see things in a new light and possibly develop new perspectives”. This concept is paramount in successful coaching.  In this article, we will outline what is reflective inquiry, examples of how to use it in coaching, and what types of questions to ask will be explored.

Reflective Inquiry: Definition

Let’s dig into the definition of reflective inquiry from the perspective of a dictionary.  Reflective inquiry is made up of two words.  Let’s explore these 2 words separately.  Macmillan Dictionary defines reflective in a few ways:

  1. “Showing a tendency to serious and careful thought”
  2. “Showing that something exists, or showing what something is like”

Macmillan Dictionary defines inquiry as:

  1. “A question intended to get information about someone or something”

These definitions seem to be telling us that reflective inquiry is serious and careful thought about a question posed by the thinking partner (the coach) that is intended to get information about someone or something the client brings. 

impact on a client whose coach uses reflective inquiry in his practice

Origin

So where did reflective inquiry begin?  The practice of reflective inquiry was first mentioned in 1910 by Psychologist & Educational Reformer, John Dewey in his book, How We Think

Reflective inquiry makes appearances in education, learning, and coaching.  Let’s explore this a bit, shall we?  With regards to learning, Dewey contended that reflective practice refers to “the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it.”  Reflective inquiry it would seem is a way of reflecting through asking questions, powerful questions.  Dewey is quoted as saying, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”  There are a number of different references that talk about 5 steps to John Dewey’s concept of reflective inquiry. References argue about the exact wording, so I’d like to stick with Dewey’s intention by quoting him:  

  1. A felt difficulty (the perplexity or problem)
  2. Its location and definition
  3. Suggestion of possible solution
  4. Development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion
  5. Further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection.

Reflective Inquiry in Coaching

In reflective inquiry coaching, we focus on the someone (our client) not the something (the problem).  There is great power for the client when we reflect back what we see and sense in response to what they bring for discussion. Let’s look at reflective inquiry through the lens of coaching. The goal of reflective inquiry in coaching is a deepening of presence and connection and its objective is for the inquiry to serve as a sort of replay where the client can see themselves, their situation, their dilemma from a distance.  In his book, How We Think, Dewey wrote that “reflective inquiry enables people to climb a tree in their mind” where they have clearer vision to make better decisions about what to do next.  It can help them learn, identify what’s in their way, see patterns of behavior that are both healthy and unhealthy.  

Marcia Reynolds’ book, “Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry” brings reflective inquiry into coaching as a tool that works on coaching presence towards mastery. 

She has identified 5 essential practices and 3 mental habits for the coach to deepen presence and connection.  The 5 essential practices align so closely to the arc of coaching that they are a perfect blend of what’s needed.  They are:

The concepts of the 3 mental habits are simple. Marcia’s 3 mental habits for the coach are: 

  • Align your brain
  • Receive (don’t just listen)
  • Catch and release judgment

Let’s focus on the last 2: Receive (don’t just listen), and Catch and release judgment.  When I first read about receiving not just listening there was an instant feeling that came over me as I read the words.  The feeling made me remember our clients need us to receive them wholly, not just their words, but how they say them, the facial expressions that go with them, their energy as it shifts and what it is telling me.  In order to do this and not to be confused with anything I make sure I ground myself before the session as I explained in the 3 Levels of Listening article. It’s the same process to catch and release judgments. We all have judgment coursing through our bodies and minds.  Sometimes our judgment is rooted in life experience, and sometimes in biases.  While that’s normal, it’s not supposed to be how we respond as coaches, as highlighted in our article on what coaching is and isn’t.  

Coaches, especially new ones, are often focused on asking the right question from a list of powerful questions they received or found online.  While such questions are great for practicing the art of not asking closed questions, they are not always helpful in the moment and can have an adverse impact on presence. I remember as a new coach right before Covid started, having the coaching arc and some sample questions in front of me. In person, that totally destroyed my presence as I searched for just the right question. Then Covid happened and everything went online, even coaching.  Still, as a new coach, I thought this was great because I could have the arc and sample questions visible on the computer screen just under the camera and look like I wasn’t using a cheat sheet. Wrong.  My presence still suffered because I was still more engaged with the screen than the person.  My level of listening remained at a solid level 1 with no wavering into the waters of level 2 or 3. I continued to try to master this approach with practice, which ultimately led to success.

In a group coaching session, my own coach suggested I experiment with dropping the arc and try to just be with the person. I pondered this a bit, well days, and finally decided to abandon the prefabbed list of questions and listen to the client and to become their thinking partner. I had decided only in this way would my awkward presence not be the loudest voice in the room. That if my presence was able to take a back seat, they could think clearer. That only when I wasn’t focusing on my coaching ability, or lack thereof, could they move into critical thinking.  When I let go of the arc and listened to the client, the questions came on their own based on what the client said.  The opportunity to see shifts that could be mirrored back to them came, and they were able to move deeper into thought and ultimately move forward instead of hovering around this awkward coach who was using notes that only served to get in the way of, well, everything.

The Coach as a Thinking Partner

Our clients need thinking partners. Coaches are thinking partners. In 1945, 35 years after Dewey’s work, Vannar Bush foretold of a new profession called Knowledge Sherpas.  These Knowledge Sherpas would become helpers that sorted through a person’s thoughts in partnership. A traditional sherpa would be a paid guide leading people through the best path over a perilous mountain or journey.  They’d walk together in partnership. This is the perfect role for a coach to embody.  When we consider our clients, they bring their own mountains to us, and we traverse them together asking powerful questions, mirroring what we see, we can make their journey a little less isolated.  

Reflective Inquiry Questions a Coach Should Ask

It should be noted there is a difference between a coach just asking questions and true inquiry. Questioning can take on different forms and can come across as the coach being interested in solving the problem instead of helping to unlock the client.  Inquiry, true inquiry, is listening for what needs to be asked, not just asking questions from a predetermined list.

QuestioningInquiry
Asking questions on the arc to move through each stop on the arc.Listening to the client for what needs to be asked.
Asking the same questions to everyone, every time.Listening to the client for what needs to be asked.
Interrogating by asking the same question more than once because they didn’t answer it the first time.Listening to the client for what needs to be asked. If they don’t answer your question, it might not be the one they need asked.
Example of questioning mid-conversation:  

Client: “I work a lot of hours every week.”  
Coach: “How many hours a week do you work?”  
Client: “60.”
Coach: “Wow, that’s a lot.” 

Summation:  That may or may not be a lot for them but by our exclamation we have just brought ourselves into focus. 
Example of inquiry mid-conversation: 

Client: “I’m working a lot of hours every week.”  
Coach: “What’s that like for you?”
Client: “Some weeks it’s really rough.”
Coach: “Rough?”

Summation:  Because our question, What’s that like for you, was crafted with inquiry, the door to depth is opened.

We don’t know exactly what our clients are going to say.  But if we maintain presence and trust, their words will tell us how to inquire. Coaching is supposed to disrupt our client’s current thinking and reflective inquiry helps to bring new ways of thinking into coaching. Simply put, it pulls the thinker out of their current thinking.

Examples of Reflective Inquiry in Coaching

Let’s continue with our previous example.  

Client: “I’m working a lot of hours every week.”  

Coach: “What’s that like for you?

Client: “Some weeks it’s really rough.”

Coach: “Rough?”

Client: “Yes, rough, it feels like my wings are clipped.”

Coach: “Who clipped your wings?”

Client: “My boss.”

Coach: “What would you be doing if your wings weren’t clipped?”

Client: “Oh my, I think I could breathe” said while they closed their eyes and took an audible breath through their nose.

Coach: “May I share an observation?”

Client: “Yes, of course.” 

Coach: “I saw you close your eyes and could hear the breath you just took, almost longingly. What’s happening for you?

Client: “I needed to breathe. I will do it again…” 

Coach: “Let’s do it together” (Both stop and take a deep breath together.) 

Client: “Thank you, that was helpful.  I think I may not be stopping to breathe deeply or frequently enough.  I used to do that all the time.  I mean ALL the time.  Why did I stop?”

Coach: “That’s a great question, why did you stop?”  

Summation:  The client gave us a metaphor and with inquiry, the door to depth was opened.

Conclusion

ICF’s list of 20 Traits of Coaches, contends that, “We see our clients as the experts of their lives—naturally creative, resourceful and whole.”  If we align with this, then what we know is they have access to what they need.  Sometimes a person just can’t unlock their own answers. The answers I have for my own problems will not solve your problems in the exact same way they solve mine.  Coaches, let’s lean into the Knowledge Sherpa role and practice the skill of reflective inquiry. This skill can help our clients traverse their mountains large and small, gently sloped, or rocky, and let’s revel in the greatness we see unfold as they discover their own answers.  

Want to improve your presence and connection with your client and integrate reflective inquiry in your coaching?  Want to get out of your own head and away from the lists of questions?  We have a course perfect for you that is starting soon. From Zero to Coach will get you started.  

References

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