Circular Questioning in Coaching

4.1.1Coachees sometimes get locked into a certain way of looking at an issue or a situation and do not know how to move forward. Circular questioning can help expand a person’s perspective.

Circular questioning is not so much a single method as it is a certain way of asking questions within a coaching relationship. Those questions are called circular because they help look at situations in a circular rather than a linear way.

They are designed to help coachees interact with other perceptions.

Before we move onto exploring circular questioning, our understanding of the coaching role needs to be clear. The role of a coach is not to give all the answers and find the solutions needed. The task of a coach is to facilitate an effective coaching process that allows coachees, among other things, to find ways out of fixed perceptional patterns. In order to accomplish this goal, coachees need to detach themselves from their way of looking at things (linear) and choose a circular interactive perspective. In other words, they need to look away from themselves and include perceptions of others within their social systems e.g., family members or team members, as they reflect on a specific issue or situation.

What does all this mean in practical terms? Coaches not only need to ask coachees to share their own perceptions but also to consider the perceptions of others. Even though they may not have asked others for their insights or received any feedback in order to really know, as coaches we can ask them to speculate on how others might see and feel about a specific issue or situation we are reflecting on in the coaching session. This will help coachees interact with the perceived reality of others within their social networks and open up their personal perspectives.

Let me give you a few examples of circular interactive questions:

  • “If I asked your team leader, how would he/she describe your situation?”
  • “If you take steps A and B, who else would have to change as well? And who else would be impacted by those changes?” (A question like this one will make coachees think through the consequences of their behaviour and help them identify with others. This activity will broaden their perspectives and stimulate new thinking).
  • “If you changed your behavior in this setting, who would be most delighted? How would this person respond? Who else would respond to this person’s favorable response? Who might not realise any of those responses?”

Coachees often respond to these kinds of questions with amazement: “I have never looked at the situation that way.” They realize that they get new insights into their behaviour and their social systems. Those insights allow them to break out of fixed thought patterns and develop new and creative solutions. But that is not all. Even coaches benefit from circular interactive questioning because they receive additional information about the social systems of their coachees, information that helps them generate new thinking that is tested by asking good coaching questions.

In summary, let me share an easy way of learning how to apply circular interactive questioning.

Get together with two other individuals and do the following exercise:

  1. Person A shares with person B (coach) about a frustrating relationship with a family member, a team member, a friend or some other close person, while person C listens in.
  2. Person B (coach) asks A questions on the views and reactions of others who belong to the same social system.
  3. B continues by asking questions related to the effects of changes: How would a certain type of change impact on others within the same social system? What would they be thinking? And how would they respond? How would individuals involved respond to others?
  4. Person C keeps observing.
  5. Assess the interaction in your group after 10 minutes: What has been effective? What has been less helpful?
  6. Change roles and repeat steps 1-6 (for a total of 3 cycles).

Colin Noyes

 Colin is the Director of ResourceZone International. He has thirty years of ministry experience as a pastor, college lecturer and consultant/coach to consultants, denominational leaders and local church pastors. He can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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