Should a coach be curious?

On Twitter recently I have noticed a few people talking about the qualities that a good coach might have. One of the qualities that has been raised more than once is that of being curious. During the last #educoachOC chat, I had this interchange with two respected voices in educational coaching, Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Chris Munro.

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

And it got me thinking. What might be the focus of a coach’s curiosity? Does being of valuable service as a coach involve being curious? Does being curious mean showing genuine interest in a coachee and demonstrating eagerness to hear the details of their experiences? Is it about paying close attention or finding out more? Does a coach’s desire to find out more make a coachee feel valued and empathised with, or does it sidetrack the purpose of the conversation?

The notion of coach curiosity rubs against the grain of Cognitive Coaching in which the coach–while encouraged to be open, inquiring, flexible, caring and compassionate–is instructed to set aside the following unproductive patterns of listening:

  • Autobiographical: This is ‘me too!’ listening in which the listener is compelled to share experiences of their own that they see as relevant to the speaker’s experiences. The coach needs to restrain their urge to be drawn into thinking or speaking about their own stories.
  • Solution: This is listening in which the listener is drawn to thinking up their own solutions to the listener’s problems. Rather than problem-solving, the job of the Cognitive Coach is to assume that a) the coachee knows their own context and problem best, and b) has the capacity to solve their own problems, using the coaching toolbox to help that person access their own internal capacities and thereby developing their self-efficacy.
  • Inquisitive: This is curious listening in which the listener wants to know more about the details of a particular situation. However, the purpose of a coaching conversation is not for the coach to know intimate details, or to provide advice, so what purpose does curiosity serve in a coaching conversation? Who is it helping?

This is what Art Costa and Bob Garmston write about inquisitive listening:

Inquisitive listening occurs when we begin to get curious about portions of the story that are not relevant to the problem at hand. Knowing what information is important is one critical distinction between consulting and coaching. As a consultant, a person needs lots of information in order to ‘solve the problem’. As a coach, a person needs only to understand the colleague’s perspective, feelings, and goals and how to pose questions that support self-directed learning. (Costa & Garmston, 2006, Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, p.65)

Coaching is a form of self-restraint: setting aside personal preferences; refraining from telling one’s own stories; withholding one’s own ideas or advice. Coaching is a service and the coach a servant. The coach is mirror, conduit, bucket in the well, water on the grass; a gentle influence that helps the coachee be the best version of themselves, and move towards where it is that they want to go with increasing capacity. In Cognitive Coaching this capacity development is focused around the Five States of Mind: consciousnesses, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility and interdependence.

So, should a coach be curious, or is curiosity a form of self-ish, rather than self-less, listening? If a coach’s questions are focused on seeking to understand the inner details of a coachee’s experiences, is that of value to the coachee? Often I find that as a coach I don’t need to know details. The coachee knows the details of their own situations and their thinking is benefited by being able to focus on where they want to go, rather than recounting minutiae for my benefit.

When I am being coached—my thoughts flying and forming and jelling and tumbling—I don’t necessarily want to be diverted by the well-intentioned interest of the coach. A coach’s curiosity to know more can sometimes take me from my own desire to move forward in my thinking, backwards or sideways to having to explain the specifics of my situation. My coach might not know the context or background of my issue, but I do. I don’t need help knowing the situation I am in; I need help to think my way to future solutions and successes. I want a coach to be present, to listen attentively, to hear, to paraphrase, and to ask me well-crafted questions that I haven’t thought to ask myself. Coaches might ask themselves: ‘If I’m being curious in this conversation, is that about me and what I want to know, or is it of benefit to the coachee?’

What do you think? Should coaches be curious, and if so, about what? If coaches are on a need-to-know basis, what exactly do they need to know?

8 thoughts on “Should a coach be curious?

  1. Hi Deb,
    Thanks for another brilliant post. I love the way that our coaching community, who may be adopting slightly different approaches to the process and application of coaching in our contexts, identify tensions in the language and help each other to tease these out. The end product, more often than not, is greater clarity and the identification of common underpinning principles and philosophies of coaching.
    You’ve made me examine the nature of being curious and how we explain the subtleties of what this means in a coaching context. The three “set asides” you describe are really helpful and I can see how the term “curious listening” could be interpreted as listening for the (selfish) benefit of the coach rather than for to assist the coachee’s thinking. I agree that coaches need to exercise self-restraint or conscious self-management so that they avoid becoming ‘sucked in’ by their own interest in the issue at hand. I think that this is part of the coach ‘paddling hard under the surface’ that you’ve described before.
    Clearly, the kind of curiosity that you’ve described is not what I had in mind when I used the term.
    If curiosity, or inquisitiveness, are about a general way of being that conveys presence, interest and a learning partnership, then I’m still happy with it. I also associate curiosity with adopting a ‘beginners mind’ when entering into a coaching conversation. We could probably use another post to tease out these terms too! I think that curiosity for the benefit of the coachee (as it always should be) is about listening to understand and seeking clarity (for the coachee) and in doing so, raising their awareness of what’s happening and what’s wanted. I think a certain amount of probing is needed to gain clarity and to trigger new ideas and ways of seeing things. Part of the skill of the coach is in ‘reading’ the conversation and judging when to intervene and with what sort of question (or paraphrase). They need to judge whether to ask a question that expands, deepens or focuses the coachee’s thinking.
    Jim Knight explores curiosity in Better Conversations (2016) (albeit in a broader conversational context than coaching) and says the following:
    “When we are curious, when we really want to know what others think, we communicate respect for them, and that respect greatly increases the likelihood our partners will speak freely with us.” (p. 93)
    This has turned into a very long comment! Thanks for the provocation and for sharing your thinking and helping me to clarify my own. I think we agree 🙂
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for another great post Deb. I remember in my first day of Cognitive Coaching where we were introduced to coaching set-asides, I immediately identified inquisitive listening as my area of weakness. I am so dar curious, and it has taken me sometime to learn how to suppress the inquisitiveness.


  3. Pingback: #educoachOC Chat 12: A Coaching Way of Being – #educoachOC

Leave a Reply to Dr Deborah M. Netolicky Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s