Effective coaching can be a delicate balance between manager and rep. While often, the best way to drive behavioral change is through observation and feedback, it can be a landmine to navigate. In this article, we’ll explore ways to help your team members give themselves feedback.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I am not a fan of prescriptive coaching questions. I believe that the best coaching questions arise in the moment, based on the conversation. However, three big questions (and variations) can support better coaching interactions. Here’s how they work:

The 3 Power Questions

Let’s say that you are coaching a sales rep. You’ve observed a sales interaction, so you have a good assessment of this rep’s strengths and gap areas.

The First Question

When you begin coaching the rep, your first power question should be one of the following:

    • Would you mind walking me through the interaction?
    • What were the high points of the meeting for you?
    • What were your thoughts on the meeting?

As the rep answers, listen, ask clarifying questions and jot down a few notes (not so many that it is distracting).

The Second Question

The second power question is, “As you think about the meeting (or call), what do you think that you did well?”

Here is the critical piece to this step: Don’t rush it. Take the time to explore the positive things the rep says. Be curious, and ask questions. Asking this question isn’t a step that you take so that you can deliver the bad news next. It is every bit as important — if not more important — than exploring the gaps. If you really want to make someone’s day and build trust, always have at least one more positive comment than he or she does. Be specific, and be genuine.

The Third Question

The third power question is one of the following:

    • With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you’d do differently?
    • Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
    • If you could have a do-over on any part of the call or meeting, what, if anything, would it be?

These questions are intentional; don’t ask, “What do you think was bad or wrong or a negative?” A question that has judgment embedded in it runs the risk of shutting down the conversation.

You’ve probably noticed that these questions have a bit of a hypothetical embedded in them — which is important. A hypothetical tends to remove defensiveness, because it also removes judgement. For example, you’re not saying, “What should you have done differently?”, which has judgment embedded in it. You’re not necessarily saying that there is anything the rep should have done differently; you’re simply asking them to reflect on whether or not there is anything that they would change in the future.

When a coach follows these three steps, the reps usually land on a gap that is similar to or the same as one that the coach identified. The other benefit to this approach is that when reps are the ones to offer up their own feedback (on both their strengths and their gaps), they “own” the feedback, and they don’t argue with it. Think about how much easier your coaching will be if, instead of trying to give feedback, you help your reps give themselves feedback!

The Question Funnel

Coaches are there to facilitate the learning of the person being coached, and our questions are there to direct their learning. With those important considerations in mind, when a rep doesn’t land on a relevant gap, you can use the question funnel, which has three components:

    • The top of the funnel, where questions are broad.
    • The middle of the funnel, where you can start to narrow your focus (but not too much).
    • The bottom of the funnel, where the focus becomes narrow.

Why is this sequence important? If you begin with a bottom-of-the-funnel question, it will come across like a court of law, which will never be effective. The funnel is a way to lead the conversation gradually to a narrower focus, if need be.

For example, let’s say that while observing a sales rep, you noticed that he had a gap in the discovery process. Most specifically, he didn’t learn about the customer’s priorities for the coming year. When you asked power question 3, he replied, “Nothing. I think it was a pretty good call.”

Instead of just telling him your feedback, a better approach is to navigate him through the funnel by saying something like, “I agree that it had a lot of good aspects to it, and I’m a little curious about something …” With this statement, you’ll rarely meet with resistance. Then, you can proceed through the funnel:

Top-of-the-funnel Question

“Would you mind sharing with me what you learned in discovery?”

With this question, you direct your attention to discovery but without stating that the rep missed the mark. Instead, you’re starting with everything that he learned in discovery. Then, you take the time to explore what he tells you.

Mid-funnel Question

“With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything else that would have been helpful to learn?”

Most of the time, this question will help reps discover what they missed. In fact, a majority of the time, they will lead themselves to this question with the top-of-the-funnel question. But, let’s play devil’s advocate and say that the rep says, “No, I think I have everything I needed.”

Bottom-of-the-funnel Question

“Can you remind me what they said were their priorities for the coming year?”

This question is intentional. Consider these additional ways of asking it:

    • “What did the customer say were their priorities for the coming year?”
    • “What do you think their priorities are?” (Asking for the rep’s opinion)
    • “What are their priorities?” (Asking for the rep’s opinion)

Develop Their Self-Awareness

The great thing about the power questions and the question funnel is that you are helping the person you are coaching to develop his or her self-awareness — which is at the heart of coaching. By using the three power questions and the question funnel, whether you’re coaching virtually or in person, you can help your reps develop a new level of self-awareness and give themselves feedback that they believe in and will act on.

Think of how that awareness could benefit your team!