I started my blog A Practical Introduction to Coaching with the thought that coaching is about asking questions. The second blog in this series on coaching (The GROW Model) highlighted the importance of asking the right questions. But what are the ‘right’ questions? And is the art of asking questions just limited to coaching? This blog answers the first question but also asserts that asking questions is a key life skill (“The discerning heart seeks knowledge.” – King Solomon), necessary to gaining wisdom (“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon ) as well as in business when, for example, developing strategy.

The most commonly used framework for asking questions is probably the ‘Five Ws’ (What? Where? When? Who? Why?). It is, however, quite common to add another question – How? – even though it does not begin with a W.

A quick search on Wikipedia shows that this framework has a great, and long, pedigree. Hermagoras of Temos, a first centruy BC teacher of rhetoric, devised a method of dividing a topic into its “seven circumstances” (who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means). Cicero, a first century BC Roman philosopher, is thought to have used a similar set of circumstances and over the centuries this approch became the basis for religious and legal questioning.

But whatever its provenance the framework can be used by anyone to better understand any given situation. It can be used as a technique in coaching or when developing strategy. As if Five W’s and an H are not enough, Simon Ash, in a recent article on the Urban Times website adds another ‘W’ – Which? – to the list in order to address what he calls “the concept of selection (and therefore of options and risk)”, thereby making the framework more useful when strategising or helping the client think about the future.

The fact that this framework has long been used by journalists and those involved in research, policing and incident management demonstrates how useful it can be in a coaching session, helping the client come to a better understanding of what it is he really wants. Similarly it is a useful framework when considering the bigger picture during a time of strategy development.

The secret of the Five (or Six) W’s and an H, is that it enables the coach to ask open questions. Questions starting with Who …? What…? When …? Where…? How …? Why …? and Which …? give the client no opportunity to give closed answers such as yes or no and therefore give the coach the opportunity to explore ideas, options, values etc with the client.

But of course it is of no value asking the right questions if we don’t listen to the answers. So the next blog in this series will be on listening, something that is harder than we might imagine.