The Power of Reflective Inquiry in Coaching - International Coaching Federation
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The Power of Reflective Inquiry in Coaching

Posted by Hemant Deshpande, PCC | November 23, 2020 | Comments (10)

The phrase “reflective inquiry” is made up of two words. Reflection means serious thought or consideration. And inquiry means investigation or an act of asking for information.

In the context of coaching, reflective inquiry refers to when the coach enables the client to think about their situation in a deeper way, see things in a new light and possibly develop new perspectives.

We all use a mirror as an everyday utility. We use it because a mirror has the quality to reflect exactly what is put in front of it. Without a mirror we cannot see ourselves. In the context of coaching, a coach can sometimes see what the client is not able to see about themselves (or at least cannot recognize that easily). For example, a client of mine had a tendency to often look at “what can go wrong” about her situation. When I shared this with her as my observation, she was surprised that it had become her pattern. And then I asked her, “What could be other possible outcomes of this situation?” She went into a deep reflection.

Inquiry is not the same as a coach asking questions just for the sake of asking them, but the questions must be relevant, timely and in the context of moving the client forward. The right questions can expand the client’s awareness beyond their current awareness. It can help the client see their thoughts, thinking patterns, feelings, beliefs, assumptions and perceptions in a new light. A coach’s role can be seen as a “thinking partner” for a client. It does not mean that the coach is doing the thinking for the client but rather the coach helps the client think more clearly and beyond their current boundaries.

Why do we need a thinking partner? Because we, as human beings, are oblivious to our own ways of thinking and behavior. We consider our view as the truth and not as a point of view. When a coach helps the client see that their point of view is “one of the many views” that can be there, then the client can open up to the possibility of alternate views. Considering and coming up with newer points of view could be useful to the client in the context of what they want. It also expands their thinking beyond what they think is possible. In other words, a coach can potentially help the client identify their blind spots, and once they find those blind spots, then they can see more clearly and widely.

Here are a couple of examples from my coaching conversation with my clients where reflective inquiry proved effective in shifting the client perspective and moved them forward.

Client 1

A client who wanted to grow in his career mentioned to me, “The enthusiasm and confidence I had eight years ago is now missing. It’s frustrating.”

I asked, “What has changed for you in eight years?”

He responded “Now I am afraid of failing. I applied for a couple of internal job positions, but I was rejected. So, I am always worried that people look at me as a failure.”

I asked him, “Who is saying that you are a failure?”

The client seemed surprised with the question. After a moment, he responded, “Nobody is saying that except me. Oh, I have been saying this to myself for a few years now.” He had a big laugh and his eyes lit up.

Client 2

My client, a leader in a large multinational manufacturing company, said in a complaining tone, “As a leader my focus is on productivity and meeting my performance metrics, but my team is always short of my expectations. I don’t know how to handle this.”

I asked him, “What makes you a leader?”

He promptly responded, “I am handling a team of 40 people who work in my unit.”

Then I reflected back to him, “So, while you are focusing on productivity and performance metrics, what about the people?”

He went into a deep thought. A few moments later he told me, “I never consciously thought about my team. I always took them for granted.”

This conversation paved the way for new actions that he took later.

In summary, our clients are completely capable of creating their own solutions; sometimes they are just stuck in their stories. Through reflective inquiry, a coach can make them aware of what and how they are thinking, the underlying beliefs and assumptions, the self-talk, their blind spots, etc. Once the client can see more clearly and beyond their usual points of view, they can discard limiting beliefs, expand their thinking, and create new perspectives and new actions. There is nothing more fulfilling for a coach than to see clients maximize their potential.

hemant deshpande headshot

Hemant Deshpande, PCC

Hemant Deshpande, PCC, is a certified Executive Coach based in India. He has 23 years of global experience, having worked with Fortune 500 companies across North America, Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. He has coached many CXOs and senior leaders across industries such as IT, banking and financial services, manufacturing, construction and engineering, FMCG, retail, pharmaceuticals, media and more. In his coaching, he leverages his rich global business experience, cultural awareness, experiential learnings, study of human behavior and strengths-based approach.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (10)

  1. Latha says:

    Very well shared Hemant. It is a powerful tool for going deep beyond the questions. I enjoyed your anecdotal illustrations of usage in your coaching

  2. Aniruddha Kulkarni says:

    A precise and simple articulation of the topic with real-life examples/experiences.

    Looking forward to more articles, Hemant 👏👏

  3. Ranu Mishra says:

    Excellent, relatable experience.

  4. I liked the example of mirror. Indeed we are mirror for our clients and as you rightly said, helping them identify answers looking in that mirror is the most important part of being a coach. Thank you for sharing the golden nuggets !

  5. Raman Nanda says:

    Excellent analysis. And examples. Liked it a lot.

  6. Shyam Kalle says:

    Wonderful article and very informative either the examples given.

  7. Abhijit Ghorpade says:

    Simple and yet so powerful !!! Coach is like a Guru guiding you to those finer details which we tend to miss. Every individual does have the capability to think but it’s just those minor things that a coach can help with and that in itself becomes a game changer. Thanks Hemant for sharing this article!

  8. says:

    Excellent article, Hemant. Reflective inquiry is something I’ve been incorporating into my practice and I appreciate your insights.

  9. Thank you for sharing as a piece for us as coaches to remind ourselves. about both presence and deeper inquiry. I agree everyone can benefit from a Thinking partner as we authentically support people towards clarity and sensible steps forward. Our ongoing development with reminders like this and such a supportive coaching community are what will ensure the professionalism of the profession.

  10. says:

    Nice….insight tapped into and received.

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