Asking Powerful Questions: Using Coaching Skills in Learning Design

Here is my lightning talk presented at LXDCon 2021 conference last month. I often use “how” and “what” questions for the sticky problems I’m trying to solve with learning design. Besides asking short, direct questions — the key is to WAIT and listen as either someone or a team figures out the next best direction to take. Although this animation focuses on how coaching skills can be utilized for learning experience design, I know that powerful questions have the power to unlock meaningful answers and better solutions in a number of workplaces — so I hope you find this applicable to the work you do as well. Enjoy!

How will powerful questions show up in your work? What powerful questions will you ask next?
Created by Laura Pasquini


Asking Powerful Questions: Using Coaching Skills in Learning Design

What is your past experience with coaching? One of my early coaching memories was being part of a swim team. To be competitive, my coach was a guide on the side to:

  • Improve stroke techniques;
  • Offer feedback on flip turns and starts;
  • Motivate me to get into the pool at 5 am; and
  • Provide focus before each swim heat on race day.

partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

The International Coaching Federation (or ICF) definition of coaching

Now that I am beginning to coach professionals to find meaningful career pathways that align with their talents and skills, a number of these early coaching experiences and skills related to coaching show up in my daily work as a learning designer.

In LXD, we are always working to solve problems with learning solutions. Coaching skills are critical for training development because:

“How we solve the problem is just as important as the solution.”

One key coaching skill I bring to my own learning design work is – asking powerful questions. Powerful questions help us “Dive Deep” and empower “Ownership” as we find clarity around any issue, problem, or challenging topic.

Here are 5 elements that make up a Powerful Question:

  1. Short and Direct – to get to the point as quickly as possible with minimal context or rambling questions
  2. Open-ended– to encourage detailed, reflective responses on any issue; they often start with a “what?” or “how?” stem; avoid the “why” questions, as others might feel you’re challenging their motives
  3. Curious & Non-Judgmental – originating from a true place of inquiry; so, avoid any leading or interpretive questions that reflect your opinion or biases – show that you’re curious
  4. Focused – on the other person’s perspective and contributions; these questions are directed to reach a specific goal or outcome from the person you’re talking to
  5. Followed by Silence – avoid offering your solution – pause and WAIT to listen to the response. W.A.I.T. is also an acronym for “Why Am I Talking?”

In LX work we are asked to design and develop with and for our stakeholders. To truly partner and collaborate, it is important to address both the need and clarify the solution before starting any project. But remember NOT to ask a solution-oriented question – that is a piece of advice with a question mark pasted on the end of it – you know you’re heard or used these ones before: Should you; could you; will you; don’t you; can you; are you.

If the second word in the question is “YOU” you’re in trouble. Instead, think of these questions as an open door, that invites everyone into the conversation. Powerful questions can:

  • Kickstart a meeting, by asking “What’s on your mind?”
  • Unpack a root problem not shared, by asking “What’s the real challenge here?”
  • And reveal an idea that was never even considered, by asking “And what else?”

Powerful questions can help our teams reach our shared goals and surface issues or ideas early on in the project planning process. We often offer solutions, but perhaps a powerful question will unlock more answers and offer incredible insights to how we work backwards for learning design. When you ask others coaching questions first it:

  • Reveals all the information that is going on
  • Creates buy-in to get results
  • Develops leadership capacity and responsibility
  • Empowers others to take action and be accountable
  • Offers authentic ways to build trust and transparency between colleagues

Consider the next time you meet with someone on your team or involved in a learning design project to enter into a coaching conversation as an exploration adventure.

Identify the goal or purpose of the meeting, and then allow for exploration questions such as “Tell me more…” or “What’s behind that?”

Next time a sticky problem comes up, don’t let your advice monster appear before asking a few powerful questions, like:

  • What do you want?
  • What do you need?

This way you can moving into lets you brainstorm questions by asking “How do we remove this barrier?” or “What have you done in similar situations?” or “What options do you suggest?”

Before moving towards making a decision and the follow-up actions, you will want others to be accountable for their next steps:

  • What was most useful to you?
  • How can I help you achieve your goals?
  • What are you taking away from this conversation?

Now that you know this, my coaching challenge for you, and you’re learning design work:

  • How will powerful questions show up in your work?
  • What powerful questions will you ask next?

Learn more at:

This video features the song Drops of H20 (The Filtered Water Treatment) by J. Lang available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.