The Curious Coach’s Questions: Coaching Skills for Healthcare Leadership

Curiosity and Open-Ended QuestionsThese vital competencies should headline skills labs for healthcare professionals with the dual intent of enhancing their own abilities while developing others.

Our quiver of leadership skills is incomplete until we add coaching inquiries, delivered from a true attitude of curiosity, allowing us to learn together with those we lead:  patients, clients, employees, coworkers.  Precious moments spent to ask for input may seem wasteful in a pressured environment, especially when directives could be delivered more quickly.  However, the time allocated to ask, listen, and understand will ultimately save future problem solving efforts and increase personal engagement.

Too often, we assume we understand the motivations of individuals in our lives, when in fact, knowing the rationale behind their behavior will offer new perspectives as to how they think and prioritize.  Fully appreciating their thought processes will also allow us to help them reason through any gaps or potential pitfalls, assisting them to fully understand their own tendencies and patterns.

Let’s explore an example of the benefits of a spirit of curiosity and open-ended questions.

You are a Curious Coach type of healthcare manager.  Two additional personnel were added to staffing for the Saturday day shift and you have been nastily notified by the CFO about this budget excess.  Rather than charging forward and delivering an ultimatum to the weekend staff about adhering to the budget guidelines, a coaching stance would recommend the following set of questions:

Begin with inquisitiveness and an open mind, rather than an anxious or blaming intention:  “Please tell me about what was happening last weekend.”  If that question doesn’t lead to information related to staffing issues, continue with: “I heard about the additional RNs on Saturday, and since I wasn’t there, I am curious about what thoughts went into staffing decisions over the weekend…”   And wait for a response.

How will the Curious Coach reply to different responses?

1.  Inappropriate Use of Resources Response

If the response is “Gee it was Nurses Week!  We had a potluck planned; and we deserve an additional couple of staff to make it an easy day because we are tired and upset!” then there are several options for further questions: “Yes I know it’s been busy with unexpected patient deaths –And people are heroes for working on holidays and Nurses Week” But after acknowledging the need for support and relief, add “what are some other ways that we could support our team instead of using our staffing budget dollars when they are not needed for patientsWe can’t continue to use staffing for that purpose.” And wait for a response, and/or explain the budget situation if necessary. A subsequent and more directive question could be “Would you bring our need for a break or stress relief to our unit-based council to decide on the best ways to approach this need? 

2.  Clinical Planning Response

If the response is “We had 2 dying patients and families disagreeing over end-of -life treatment so we had to prepare for codes, and/or ICU transfers, AND we were slammed with 6 ER admits at change of shift” then a reasonable response is “Thank you for the great patient-family centered foresight! I’m wondering what or who else was missing?  In the future, what other people or professionals could we use to help us during these kinds of challenges on the weekends or even at admission? What could we do to prepare for this kind of situation in the future?”  The team can begin some longer term problem solving to garner extra support for critical end-of-life treatment and patient care planning on weekends.

Now, Curious Coach, aren’t you glad you approached your colleagues with respect and support instead of being contaminated by the CFO’s irritation? An immediate directive response is rarely needed except in case of emergency.  Maintaining an accusatory stance or pre-judging a team member’s motivations or decision-making capabilities would not serve to educate or change behavior.  Curiosity brings a leader to understand the true rationale for decisions, and helps trace healthier paths for decision-making within a transformative team environment.

For additional coaching tools and questions, consult Ruth Hansten’s most recent of her seven books:  The Master Coach Manual on at

For more information about your own leadership coaching, or developing an internal coaching program, email, or 360.437.8060,,

(This Blog Posting has been previously published on LinkedIn Pulse, 4/29/2015 by Ruth Hansten)

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