There are multiple generations in almost every organizational and business setting. If not at start up, then during transition periods of one kind or another. Older generations don’t get younger ones; and younger ones don’t get the older ones. Are you puzzled by why it always seems to be that way?

One of the possible reasons, and the most common in my experience, lies in the confusion between coaching and mentoring. Many otherwise effective and successful business people are terrible business coaches because they would rather tell stories and give advice (mentor) than ask people questions (coach) that allow them to come to the “right” (most effective) answers. The real irony is that all generations struggle with that same malaise.

So, whether you are coaching down one or more generations, or up one or more generations, the most important concept about coaching is remembering to ask questions rather than tell your story. And what questions are the most effective? Here are some that I have found helpful in coaching others.

  • What is the most useful question I can ask you right now? This question will always be given some context by the person asked; and it will generally be what’s uppermost in his/her mind. It might be something that worked, or it might be something that didn’t turn out so well. Sometimes the response is “I don’t know.” When you get that answer, come back with “Well, if you did know, what would it be?” (Thank you, Richard Brefi!)
  • The next four go together, and they help the person you are coaching consider the intended and unintended consequences of an action, however you define it, currently being considered (Thank you David Molden and Pat Hutchinson):
    • What would happen if you did that?
    • What would happen if you did not do that?
    • What would not happen if you did that?
    • What would not happen if you did not do that?

Depending upon the circumstances, these questions can be rephrased to become “how” questions. The least effective coaching questions begin with “why”. For many people, “why” questions trigger a defensive reaction that is only intensified by whatever generational differences exist.

By asking questions in a respectful way, you not only demonstrate you believe the other person has worth, you avoid the “I crawled across a desert of cut glass to become successful” monologue that may enhance your standing in your own mind, while creating a compelling urge to yawn in your listener’s.

Pope Francis was recently quoted as saying that we must find new ways of talking with each other. Asking questions fits into that category. This is particularly true in coaching. Some of the people you work with literally think out loud, so unless they hear themselves talk, they can’t think. Giving them a chance to speak also gives them an opportunity to think, and that’s how they can begin to grow their ability. Listening is also how you grow into a more effective coach!