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What Are Powerful Questions? Health Coaching in Action

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by MaryAnn Jones, A-CFHC

“How are you?” is a question we are repeatedly asked. How do you typically reply? Perhaps with the standard four-letter word … “Fine.” Now, instead, I ask you: “What are you feeling grateful for today?” Perhaps this would cause you to pause, think, and answer in a meaningful way versus offering a robo-reply. Welcome to the world of powerful questions.


I am an ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coach (Chris Kresser likens us to change agents). I am also an Enrollment Advisor for the Kresser Institute, and I have the pleasure of spending part of my day talking to wellness warriors who want to share their passion for Functional Medicine and optimal health. We created a series of articles to forward the understanding of the vital role health coaches play in helping clients achieve positive health outcomes. Via a Q&A format, we hope to give you a window into the exciting and growing field of health coaching. I look forward to your feedback and would love the opportunity to ask you some powerful questions.

Powerful questions invite understanding and elicit insight—and they’re essential in health coaching. Find out more about how powerful questions work in this Q&A from health coach MaryAnn Jones. #healthylifestyle #changeagent #kresserinstitute

What Are Powerful Questions and Why Are They an Important Tool for Health Coaches?

They Forward Understanding and Motivation

Powerful questions are opportunities—small boats that cross the space between the coach and client to invite understanding and possibility. The right question helps us remember what we already know, draws out our strengths, and dissolves judgment and misunderstanding.

Closed questions are about: Powerful questions are about:
Short answers Eliciting insight
Data Possibilities
Judgment Understanding
Closed (problem-centered) questions sound like: Powerful (solution-focused) questions sound like:
What went wrong? What would you prefer instead?
Who else is sabotaging your efforts? Who can support your efforts?
How long have you done this? What small change are you ready to make?

What I Learned about Powerful Questions While a Student of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program

“Powerful questions are designed to be thought provoking. They are difficult to answer; that is, they require thought and reflection. They represent an opportunity for the client to reflect, for the client to develop self-insight, to plan next steps. In many ways, coaching change in a client is facilitating an interview made up of questions designed to get the client to think about their own life and resources in new ways to help him or her articulate their goals and to plan out steps to accomplish these goals.” — Robert Biswas-Diener

I had been working as a health coach for eight years before enrolling in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, but I still felt I had a lot to learn about the art of coaching. I had the information, but so does Google. Incorporating powerful questions into my coaching sessions enhanced my coaching practice and benefited the clients I serve.

What We Can Learn about Powerful Questions from Jan Cummins

Jan and I are fellow Enrollment Advisors and were ADAPT Health Coach Training Program classmates. We are proud alumnae of cohort 1 of the program. Jan exemplifies the special blend of warmth, empathy, and professionalism that makes for an effective agent of change. She brings her skills and gifts to every aspect of her life, and I feel fortunate enough to call her my colleague and friend.

Getting to Know Jan

Q: What were you doing before the ADAPT program?

A: I had spent decades in the legal field and was working 60+ hours per week when I enrolled in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

Q: What inspired you to seek a certification in health coaching? 

A: I have always been passionate about health and wellness, and had reached a point in the legal world where I felt an absence of purpose; my work was no longer aligned with my values or passion. I wanted to be doing something both more meaningful to me and that would have a significant positive impact on others’ lives.

Q: How are you incorporating your training into your work? 

A: My ADAPT training comes into play in all areas of my life—my health coaching, my work at Kresser Institute as I engage with prospective students, and my personal life, where I find I now have far more meaningful conversations with friends and family. If only I’d had these communication skills when my children were teenagers! My coaching work feels very rich as well as effective because of my use of motivational interviewing techniques, positive psychology, empathic communication, and—of course—powerful, open questions, all of which I learned in the program.

Q: What is your favorite quote or mantra about coaching/questions? 

A: My mantra about powerful questions is: be curious and expansive! My favorite coaching quote is a variation on Mother Teresa’s quote about prayer, but I’ve changed “prayer” to “coaching”: “I used to believe that coaching changes things, but now I know that coaching changes us and we change things.” And since I can’t choose just one favorite, here is an Ella Fitzgerald quote: “It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”

Practicing Asking Powerful Questions

Q: Were you always aware of how your questions influence the answers and outcomes? 

A: Not at all! The ADAPT program brought so much awareness to this. I find that many of my conversations with friends and family are much richer since the ADAPT training, and I learn so much more about the other person when I ask an open-ended powerful question and pause long enough for a thoughtful response. And the same is true with my clients.

For instance, a client came to me convinced that she had no answers of her own and that I would tell her everything she needed to know to make healthy food choices so she could lose weight. Through open, powerful questions, we explored what her life might look like if someone were to wave a magic wand, turning her into her best version of herself.

I asked her to envision where she would be, who she would be with, what she would be doing. She got to dream about possibilities. When I asked, “What would it mean to you to make this happen,” tears leaked out of her eyes, and that is when she found her “why” that was her motivation to move forward. She knew she didn’t want to die young like her mother and not get to see her children and grandchildren grow up. The vision she dreamed of was of an energetic, beaming, free-spirited woman running on the beach with her dogs and children, rather than the hunched, joyless woman who could barely walk two blocks. She began to trust that my questions and guidance could empower her to find her way to that vision. As the session progressed, I asked her what might need to be different in her life for her to begin making changes. By the end of the hour, she had created a realistic plan for some baby-step changes she could realistically incorporate that week. And it suddenly dawned on her that she had, in fact, been the one to find her own answers, and I saw the beginnings of that beaming, free woman.

Q: How has your training influenced your questions? 

A: Instead of thinking about my next question while the client is answering the last question, I truly listen to what the client is saying, and I don’t formulate the next question until I hear the last thing the client has said. Our clients give us everything we need. Listening well is 95 percent of asking powerful questions. My questions are more focused on getting beneath the surface talk, understanding why something is important to the client and how it will change or benefit their life. This ultimately leads to more lasting change when a client can focus on their “why.” In addition, the training cured me of my “closed” question habit, questions that usually lead nowhere.

Q: How has it improved your personal relationships? 

A: The training taught me deeper listening skills and greater presence and focus. That, along with curiosity, has enabled family and friends to open up about more meaningful topics, rather than surface chatter. And asking powerful questions leads to much richer conversation than a “yes” or “no” closed question. People really do open up more when they feel heard.

How Powerful Questions Work in an Actual Health Coaching Session

Q: How do you incorporate powerful questions? 

A: I use them throughout the coaching session.

The initial engagement:

  • What’s on your mind today?
  • What has gone well since we last spoke?

Setting the agenda:

  • What’s one thing that’s really important for you to discuss today?
  • What about that is important to you?

Evoking: 

  • What would need to change to make this happen?
  • What would it mean to you to make this happen?

Drawing on the client’s strengths: 

  • What has helped you make changes in the past?

Planning action steps: 

  • What’s emerging for you as the next step you might take?
  • Who or what could support you in this?
  • What will progress look like? What will make it stick?

Closing the session:

  • What have you learned about yourself today as we unpacked this?

Q: How have you found powerful questions effective in forwarding the client’s understanding? 

A: They really get the client thinking. You know you’ve asked a powerful question when the client says, “Hmmm, that’s a good question,” or they really have to pause and think through the answer. It helps the client dig deeper to understand how a change will benefit them and why it is important. Powerful questions definitely help the client come up with their own answers.

Q: How does this enhance your ability to motivate your client toward transformation?

A: When you understand the importance and find a “why” for making a change that comes from within yourself, the change is far more likely to stick. It improves one’s level of motivation. When the client comes up with their own solutions, it empowers them; they take ownership of the changes they’ll be making because it was their own idea.

Q: Can you give us an example of how powerful questions have helped propel a client’s success? 

A: A particular session that comes to mind went, in part, as follows:

Coach: What would you like to talk about in our time together today?
Client: I honestly have no clue. There are so many things I want to work on.

Coach: If you look at your vision of optimum health we worked on recently, is there something there that jumps out for you?
Client: Ah, for sure; it’s losing weight.

Coach: And what in particular about losing weight do you want to focus on today?
Client: Maybe a plan to work out more.

Coach: I know we talked before about how that would benefit your life, but what are you feeling today about why that matters to you?
Client: There’s a party I want to go to and I don’t want to feel horrible about myself. I have nothing I can fit into, so I’m thinking of not going.

Coach: So you really do want to go to the party, and you want to feel good about yourself when you’re there, and it sounds like working out might help with that. What does that look like in an ideal scenario?
Client: Right. I want to walk into that room and be my old confident self who’s ready to join any conversation and even get out there and dance.

Coach: What would need to be different for you to be able to feel and do that?
Client: I’d need to lose 15 pounds.

Coach: And what else?
Client: Well, an amazing outfit would help, and feeling like I matter.

Coach: Tell me more about feeling like you matter.
Client: Even though I feel too big, I also feel invisible, not part of the group.

Coach: What in the past has made you feel part of the group?
Client: Having my ex there with me. Now I feel like a fifth wheel all the time.

Coach: I’m curious how that ties in with our focus today of exercising and feeling good about yourself?
Client: Hmmm, good question. I think when I exercise, I am more of my old confident self. But it has to be outside, with no mirrors.

Coach: Okay, so outdoor exercise brings you back to feeling more confident. I’m curious, other than no mirrors, what is it about being outside that helps?
Client: When I’m running on a trail in nature, I feel like my true self; I feel connected.

Coach: How do you think you could hold on to that true and connected feeling elsewhere in your life?
Client: I think I need to be out doing that regularly, and maybe I could also put up some pictures of nature and pictures of me running that will remind me of that feeling.

The coach and client then discuss action steps, and then wrap up as follows:

Coach: You’ve put a lot of thought into moving toward this goal of exercising more. What has shifted for you since we started?
Client: Oh, a huge revelation that dreading going to that party is less about what the scale says and what outfit I wear, and so much more about me feeling good in my own skin, and I think the outdoor workouts will really make a difference there.

Coach: Anything else you’ve learned about yourself?
Client: I guess I’m more than just my outside appearance and stronger than I think.

Coach: Thank you for being vulnerable and working hard on this today. What you just said reminds me of a Winnie the Pooh quote you may know: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Takeaways about Powerful Questions in Health Coaching

Q: What is one simple thing we can do each day to improve our question-asking skills?

A: Always be curious. A good question to practice with and to get people talking in your everyday life is, “I’d love to hear more about that.” And then truly listen and be present.

Q: What resources can you share that would inspire us all to ask questions that invite transformation? 

A: Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, Oren Jay Sofer; Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills, Tony Stoltzfus; Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter, Will Wise; Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie; and Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding, William R. Miller.

In the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we help our students develop the skills and competencies needed to make a living by making a difference. Our year-long, virtual course is built on an evidence-based curriculum that covers the art and practice of health coaching, Functional Health, and professional development. Find out how our program can help you become a Functional Health coach.