ICF Core Competencies: Powerful Questioning and Direct Communication

Posted On: August 11, 2020

Written by: Jennifer Kumar (Managing Director, head Coach of Authentic Journeys) 

In this post, I would like to focus on Powerful Questioning and Direct Communication.

For the updated 2021 ICF Core Competency deep dive on Evoking Awareness, follow this link.


In the previous post, I spent a lot of time diving into the competency of Active Listening under Competency Area C: Communicating Effectively.


ICF Competency 6: Powerful Questioning
I somehow feel that this competency seems to be the most popular to explore, learn and master. This competency (unlike Active Listening) seems to one with an overflowing treasure trove of information online. So, because of that, I’ll will try to focus on a few salient areas of this competency, linking to more information.

Some coaches argue that at the heart of coaching is good questioning. After all, coaches should not advise, give suggestions or tell the client what to do. Questions, and, more specifically, powerful questions, when asked right, help direct the conversation into deeper, more intimate areas to aid in the client’s understanding of the problem, problem solving skills, personal development and self-learning.

When we actively listen to the client, use the client’s language and focus more on the who of the conversation over the what, we will [hopefully] lead into asking more powerful questions that really get the client to think. I think many people are kind of obsessesed with powerful questions as many [coaches] believe that powerful questions are what lead to ah-ha moments. While this may be true, some coaches, such as David Clutterbuck, believe powerful questions become almost like life mantras or guideposts that a client can meditate on over the span of years or decades to find the right answer.

So, what makes a powerful question?

While, some believe it’s helpful to maintain a list of powerful questions (such as this this one by (Elite Success Systems), many coaches, even the coach that developed this list would say that coaches should not have a list nearby to refer to because, as David Clutterbuck stated:

“…a question which is powerful in one context may not be powerful in another context.”

The other problem with having a list handy is that it takes us away from the present moment.

A coach will lose their coaching presence if they are focusing on a list of questions and trying to choose the right one. The right question will come at the right time. How do we know we have a good question?

To be a “good” powerful question, the question should:

  1. Be framed in the client’s way of communicating, maybe also using their words or phrases
  2. Short, simple, and too the point
  3. Talk to the who more than the what
  4. Challenge the client to think about the situation from a different perspective
  5. Open ended, may require silence to come to an answer (no quick answers)
  6. “Questions create a new future – so powerful questions do not focus on past [or even present] dilemmas.”  Jedidiah Alex ‘Jedi’, Master Certified Coach (MCC) 


Qualities of Questions in Coaching that Will Fail You in this Competency

  1. Close ended questions (One solution you could apply to change some closed ended questions to open ended questions was proposed by Walt Hastings, MCC. He suggests that starting the question with “To what extent,” could open up the statement into a question.)
  2. Too many information gathering questions (coaches do not need to be in continual requirements gathering sessions, rather leave the requirements sharing up to the client’s  discretion and comfort) 
  3. Asking leading questions
  4. Asking stacked questions [asking more than one question consecutively without leaving space for the client to answer]
  5. Asking [too many] questions about the past
  6. Coach sticks only to their learned coaching model
  7. Coach appears as if they are trying too hard to ‘help out’ (Listen to Kain Ramsay for more)
  8. The answers to the questions appear obvious


For a good reference on examples of how to change closed ended questions into open ended questions, check out this resource from Corporate Sponsored Coach Training.

Sometimes the simplest questions could either be the most powerful, or when asked repeatedly can help the client to come up with more ideas:

  • What else?
  • Anything more to add here?
  • Why is this important now?
  • What is possible?

Are "why" questions acceptable in coaching conversations?

Can we use Why Questions?
Some coach philosophies suggest to avoid “why” questions, while others suggest to use them cautiously. For instance, above the question “Why is this important now?” is listed. One could also ask, “Why is this important to you now?” However, I’d suggest to avoid “Why do you think this is important now?” Typically questions where the word “you” precedes “why” could be taken defensively. So, the further away “you” is from why, the less defensive the responder could take the tone of the question. I talk more about this here.

What differences do we see in powerful questioning between the ACC, PCC and MCC levels?

  • ACC: Focuses more on the WHAT, may also focus more on the coaching process and checking off that all the steps are done
  • PCC: May balance more between the WHAT and the WHO, and not so worried about the steps
  • MCC: Spends about 40% on the WHO, not at all worried about the process


Note that questions that relate to the WHO tie in the client’s inner motivations, values and beliefs into the WHAT.

To tie up this section, I think for me, one of the most powerful ways I have got more insight into powerful questioning is through the use of “stop coaching” exercises. I have participated in stop coaching in group mentor coaching sessions with trained coaches.

What is Stop Coaching?

In this process, one person plays the coach, the other two to four present play the coach. The person playing the coach could use some real life topic they want to be coached on. As they talk about the issue and have the conversation with the coach, each coach interjects their response to the client. The client picks a coach response they like the most to answer, and the coaching continues.

I have done this role play in a coach role and a client role. It’s really insightful in both instances. As a client, it was insightful to hear all the various questions/responses and collect different approaches to continue the conversation I wanted to have. When I was the coach in this role play, the fun part was trying to create that powerful interaction that really resonated with the client. I was always amazed how succinct and to the point some other coaches were and how skillful they were at using the client’s language to craft that “to the point” response.

In the debrief, it was always interesting to review questions to any given round to see how, if the client chose a different question, it could steer the conversation in a different direction. If you are a coach (or even if not), I suggest trying this out. It’s really a lot of fun and very insightful.


ICF Competency 7: Direct Communication

Direct Communication can be a tricky competency. In some cases the terminology, or calling it “direct” throws people off.

Being Direct or Using Direct Communication is NOT:

  • Being Directive
  • Analyzing or interpreting (coaches should never put words in the clients mouth or feelings in the client’s hearts)
  • Spending more time on the problem (the what) than the person (the who)


What does “being directive” mean and how could it impact the coaching relationship?
Being directive means that the coach offers solutions, ideas, consulting, labels thoughts, feelings, moods or other interactions, expressions or stories the client shares.

As Steve Ivaska notes,

“…in being directive… clients become dependent [thinking], “coach, I want you to give me the answer what to do…” also the “client and the coach will miss the opportunity to be themselves, bringing their full creativity to the process.”

As as Jedidiah Alex ‘Jedi’, Master Certified clarifies, direct communication should mirror the client’s words, culture and way of speaking:

“To be culturally competent, we should try to adapt to the communication style of the client (we not only mirror back or reflect or use their actual words or language, but their communication style) If they tend to be more indirect, we should adapt and utilize that approach. If they are more to the point and succinct, so should we be.” 


Interestingly, as we study more of what direct communication is and is not, we also may conclude that it really doesn’t seem to have the connotation that we may apply to it in the wider society. It isn’t telling someone ‘on their face’ your thoughts, opinions or advice. In fact, doing this will fail a candidate in an ICF coaching assessment at any level. While, in some cases, a coach, based on their expertise may offer ideas, they are typically offered indirectly after brainstorming the clients ideas, and after the coach has asked permission to do so. And, even in doing that, it should be stated indirectly, followed by a question inviting conversation. Something like this may work, “Well, what I have seen works well with clients in a similar circumstance to you is…. Would this kind of thing work for you?”

So, if direct communication in coaching is NOT the same as direct communication in real life, how can we as coaches demonstrate direct communication? Let’s explore…


Some Ways to Demonstrate Direct Communication in a Coaching Conversation
(The first four ways were identified by Steve Ivaska. The example narrations are mine.)

1. Encouraging a client:

  • “I’m interested to know more about that…”
  • “Uh…huh” “Great!”
  • “It sounds like you want to share a story about that….”
  • “What’s your experience with this?”
  • “That sounds amazing. Is there anything you’d like to share around that?”
  • “That is incredible insight!”
  • “What an amazing moment that must have been for you!”


2. Affirming, Confirming, Acknowledging:
“I remember when we first started working on making small talk with your US client that you were nervous you may offend him. However, it sounds like from the story you just told me that your client also felt the same way. Wow! By how you expressed that, and the energy in your voice, that sounds like a revelation for you!”

Standing with a Client in a Hard Place:
“From the sounds of it, you are really drowning in a lot of work, and can’t seem to find the time to add something new to your plate. However, you did find time to talk to the client about the pros and cons of adding the new feature to the app. How has having this conversation impacted your workload?”

(Note, as a coach, I should only use the metaphors or idioms “drowning in work” or “on your plate” if the client has used those phrases. As a coach, I never want to put words in the client’s mouth, and more so as I tend to coach English as Second Language speakers who use different idioms and metaphors from their own culture, they may not always understand my American metaphors, so I tend to stay away from them for cleaner communication in a global audience.)

Refocus on the Agenda or Outcome
“It sounds like there are many instances where this has happened with your client. How can we redirect our conversation to get the most out of this discussion today?” (This may be one of the times to interrupt the client.)

Sharing Observations/Sensations
“We’ve been coaching completely in English for an hour. I remember when we first met a few months ago, you shared with me at the 30 minute mark that it was a little exhausting to have an entire conversation only in English, and look! Now, a month later, you have increased this up to one hour! How is it going?”

“Can I share what I found interesting about our mock client interaction?”
[Client says “yes.”]
“Actually, before I do, would you mind sharing anything?”
[Client shares a few things that we discuss, then I share my observation]
“Client, I noticed that before our mock, and even now in our conversation, you sound cool, confident and very even paced when speaking. Your English sounds professional and polished. However, when we did the client mock session, I noticed your voice started to crack. You mumbled in a few places, but talked really fast in a few others. It was actually hard to understand what you had to say. I got the basic idea, but it wasn’t as clear as, say it is now, when you are not thinking I am the client. What happened inside you during the mock session that caused this to happen?”
(Corporate Sponsored Coach Training refers to this as an interpretative observation.)

A few other ways to demonstrate Direct Communication in Coaching:

  1. Ask for permission to share your feedback (“Would you mind me sharing my impressions here?”)
  2. Bottom-lining or summarizing what the client has said
  3. Checking in to see where they are in the conversation (for keeping on track and/or accountability) 
  4. Mentioning any observations on changes in body language, tone of voice and how it relates to the deeper meaning of what is being discussed


An Example of What Direct Communication IS NOT and how to Fix It
Wrong: “You are not able to take the next step to talk to your manager about the promotion. You should just to go in there and talk to him anyhow” [I cringe at the thought of even thinking of saying this because it’s way too direct AND directive. It actually sounds mean!]

Right: “I get the feeling that something is holding you back, as you mentioned “you are hitting a brick wall” when it comes to talking to your manager about your promotion. However, I’m not quite able to capture what it is that is making you hit the brick wall. Would you like to explore that further?”

If we break this down- typically “you” statements do not work out. You statements are very directive, and can put the other on the defensive. In my estimation, while “I statements” may work better when “you” is coming so close in the sentence to “I” (similar to “why – you” questions), we must use “I statements” with care in word selection and tone.

For example:
Sentence above: You should just to go in there and talk to him anyhow. (Too directive.)
Made into an “I statement:” I think you should just to go in there and talk to him anyhow.
Even better would be to remove this all together and ask an open ended question: What do you think is possible here?

We also changed the first sentence in a similar way:
Wrong: “You should just to go in there and talk to him anyhow”
Better with “I statement:” I get the feeling that something is holding you back, as you mentioned “you are hitting a brick wall” when it comes to talking to your manager about your promotion.

This type of “I statement” still has “you” in it, but it elaborates on why the coach may be suggesting this interpretation in reference to the client’s language (“hit a brick wall”).

Direct communication has to be in honor of the client. The coach should not have attachment to their integration (if the client notes that the coach’s interpretation is not right, the coach should not get upset about that (listen to this video from Corporate Sponsored Coach Training for more).

Jedidiah Alex ‘Jedi’ also mentions that in all competencies the difference between ACC, PCC, and MCC – “at MCC it’s not a matter of me USING the skill it’s about WHEN it’s the most appropriate time to use it.”

So, it’s not about using the skill as part of the coach training process, but ensuring that the skill matches the need IN the moment (coaching presence)

Take a look at a coaching conversation I had with an English learning professional about improving fluency here. Can you pick out the skills mentioned in this post?

I hope you found some useful insights into these ICF coaching competencies in this post. Feel free to check out our insight into the other areas of ICF Competencies: Setting the Foundation, Co-Creating the Relationship, and Active Listening (under Communicating Effectively). If you’re interested to discuss the competencies or schedule a coaching session, get in touch with me.



Jennifer Kumar, author and ICF PCC credentialed coach initiated the Coach 2 Coach Mastermind through the ICF High Country Chapter in 2021. Members who join the chapter can get a great deal on attending future cohorts, or look to this page for more information. The Coach 2 Coach Mastermind deep dives into the 2021 updated ICF Core Competencies 3 through 8 through discussion, application, peer coaching and feedback. Upon completion, you will receive a certificate of 7.5 CCEUs from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). We hope you can join us.


Related Links:
Questions that can be used to nudge a client along in a conversation from the University of North Texas



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