Good evening. I hope you are well, and that those of you in education are off to a good start to the school year. I spent most of today coaching principals, and Wednesday is the first day of the Center’s Coaching Institute, so coaching has been on my mind a lot lately, obviously. I’m going to pick one aspect of coaching to talk about that I think is misunderstood and doesn’t get enough attention, and is applicable to anyone whose job it is to support the thinking and development of another professional. To wit, this Coaching Letter is about asking “why?”

Did you know that coaches are frequently trained not to ask “why?” If you Google ‘Ask what not why’, you will get a bunch of blog posts that basically have the same message: asking why tends to get either a self-defeating response or a defensive response, so you should avoid it. (A self-defeating response is one that negates one’s own decision-making. For example, if I ask, “Why did you choose to start with that example?”, a self-defeating response would be, “Do you think I shouldn’t have done that? I don’t think I planned that as well as I should have.” A defensive response is one that justifies the decision such that the justification serves as a self-protection mechanism. For example, if I ask, “Why did you ask Gemma the question about the elephants?”, a defensive response would be, “I had no idea she would get that wrong, because she told me she loved the book and read it three times with her brother the night before.”)

I don’t disagree with the afore-mentioned blog posts, but I don’t think they capture all there is to say about asking “why?” Here is, I think, a more useful way to think about it: When we ask or answer the question “why?”, we are not always clear about the meaning of the question. Sometimes, we answer a question as though the behavior we are being asked about is an effect, and we are being asked about the cause. Sometimes, however, we answer as though the behavior in question is the cause, and we are being asked about the intention. When we think we are being asked about an effect, we are more likely to infer that our judgment is in doubt, and are therefore more likely to respond in a self-defeating or defensive way.

The classic example of this in psychology is abusive relationships—more specifically, how abusers describe their cruelty. Abusers explain/excuse their behavior by saying things like, “I couldn’t help myself; she made me so angry”—in other words, justifying their behavior as a reaction that was out of their control. This is, however, self-delusion. The abusive behavior is, in fact, perfectly intentional. Abusers know exactly what they are doing, and it is goal-oriented—as it says on the WebMD website: “The goal is always to get and keep power over an intimate partner,” and emotional or physical abuse that subjugates, humiliates, and isolates the other person is the method for achieving that goal. Typically, a therapeutic goal in treating abusers is to lead them to recognize that their behavior is not, in fact, the fault of the other person; that they were not “out of control”; that they had a particular result in mind when behaving abusively; that they are, therefore, responsible for their actions.

The application of this idea, as a supervisor or as a coach, is that you should be clear about whether you are asking for an explanation of causation or an explanation of intent when you ask why. Most often, you are trying to get at what the other person was trying to achieve, and so you should be clear about that, either by qualifying your use of the word why, or by avoiding it and replacing it with a different phrasing, such as, “When you asked Gemma about the elephants, what kind of response were you trying to elicit?” or “Talk to me about your goal in using that example.” One of the best ways to open a post-observation conference or a coaching conversation is to ask about the goal of the lesson (and not, by the way, to ask, “how do you think it went?” for the simple reason that, if the teacher disagrees with your assessment, then you have introduced tension right from the start).

Why does this matter? Because it does no one any good if your questions lead to defensive or self-defeating responses. And because what you really want is to scaffold and support the other person’s thinking, and intentionality is key to that. And identifying a goal is key to self-regulation, so in asking questions that require clarity about goals, you are supporting self-regulation also. I think everyone agrees that there is a big pay-off to asking better questions, and this is one small but powerful way to refine that skill.

Which brings me to another point. Supervisors need to know these ideas and have these skills just as much as coaches do. But few leaders come to our coaching training—which makes me think that it’s a mistake to call it coaching training. Not sure how to fix that, except to point it out and encourage leaders of all stripes to come to our Coaching Institute, whether or not they have coach in their job title.

I hope the rest of your week goes swimmingly. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Coaching Letter:


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