Here's a recording of a webinar in which I explain how asking questions when a client is stuck can be counterproductive.
You can watch the video here, and I've also attached a transcript of the main points.
As a coach you are taught to ask questions.
The ICF even requires that you ask “powerful questions”.
The problem that you have is that every question you ask is constrained by the context and the content of the coaching session.
And every question you ask is therefore limited by the limits that the client places upon themselves.
Even a question such as “What could you do if you had no limits” is still limited. If we analyse the language, we see that the negation ‘no limits’ is actually a reference that assumes and imposes limits.
Questions are often more effectively than simply telling the client what to do, partly because that’s what their family, friends and colleagues are doing. However, wrapping up advice as a question isn’t what a coach should be doing. “You should talk to your boss and sort it out” is the same as “Have you thought about talking to your boss and sorting it out?”
We know that the solution to the client’s problem always sits outside of their current frame of reference, so why do coaches still ask questions that are constrained by that frame?
Naturally, we want our questions to make sense. We want to appear smart, clever, insightful, we want the client to think that we are a good coach, that we ask good questions. We want to show that we are really listening. That’s all good – but it’s not what your client is paying you for!
Of course, if we really want to show the client that you are listening then the last thing you should do is ask questions. As soon as you ask a question, you have set the agenda. The client is now talking about what you want them to talk about. On the other hand, if they only talk about what they want to talk about, they go round in circles.
In fact, if you let them talk, that’s exactly what they will do. They will tell you the same story, over and over again. Or they will tell you different examples of the same underlying problem.
And the biggest problem of all is that you think that your client is telling you about the problem, and you will therefore start asking questions about what they’ve told you which presuppose your solution.
Your client is not describing their problem to you. They are telling you a story about their symptoms, and that story is not exactly true. Firstly, it is coloured by their frame of mind and perception. Secondly, they are only telling you as much as they want to do, so that you do what they want you to do. Often, that means that they’re telling you enough to give you something to do your coaching on, but not enough that you will make them uncomfortable or afraid.
However, since the barrier which keeps them going round in circles is their fear, getting through that is inevitable if they are to move on and achieve their goals.
As a coach, you have many options for achieving this, and they tend to involve a lot of practice, hard work and the ability to get out of rapport with the client. If you are in rapport, you will feel their discomfort and you will be pushed back by it. You will go round in circles together.
I’m going to show you a much easier way, even a fun way, to get past that fear barrier so that you can take the client into a more productive space.
In this webinar, I’ll share with you some advanced concepts from psychology and neuroscience to show you how your questions can be more effective. However, let’s look again at the ICF’s requirement for ‘powerful questions’.
Doesn’t it put a huge amount of pressure on the coach to come up with powerful questions? And is the client passive in this? Do they sit there and wait for the next powerful question that will empower their choices and inspire them to take dramatic action?
As a coach, you cannot empower your client. You are not a battery that can lend some of its stored power to another battery. You cannot give them confidence, you don’t have confidence to give them.
A question cannot be powerful. If it could then you could simply email it to the client and save time. Something else must be happening for that question to bring insight and change to the client’s behaviour.
So we have some technical challenges to overcome if we, as an outside observer, are going to effect change in another person’s mind. This timing issue is particularly tricky, and if you take a look at some of my videos on YouTube you’ll see me demonstrate ways to overcome that.
The sequence of repeating behaviours that I mentioned is not really a sequence, it’s a cycle. Time might pass on the clock, but in terms of the person’s mind and behavioural programs, they’re right back where they started. That cycle repeats because the person can’t get to where they want to be, so they circle back to where they were.
There are many different approaches and techniques for solving this problem, and the first step is in realising that this is what’s happening. If we ask questions about the client’s story, it will take a long time to figure that out. Typically, that happens after a few weeks or months of coaching sessions where you start to think “Hold on, I’m sure we’ve had this conversation before”.
And, on top of this, the cycle of repeating behaviour is not the only pattern of behaviour that will hold the client back and prevent you, the coach, from being effective in supporting them.
What we really need is a simple tool that would work in any of these scenarios, because in fact the fundamental problem in coaching is always the same – that asking questions about what the client is telling you only serves to reinforce what the client is telling you. When you ask a question that is relevant to the client’s context, you implicitly agree that what they told you about that context is true. You have entered that shared reality and immediately ceased to be effective. Remember, the client is not telling you about their problem – they are telling you a story about the symptoms, and that story is designed to influence you in order to maintain the status quo, because in that there is familiarity, comfort and safety.
The Unsticker is an amazing problem solving tool that uses the power of the right questions to unravel even the stickiest of problems.
Many people have said that, after only 4 or 5 questions, they can’t even remember what their problem had been! The Unsticker will, at the very least, change the way you thought about a problem, making it much easier to tackle.
There are multiple versions of The Unsticker – a free Android app, The Unsticker book, you’ll find it inside my book Coaching Excellence, and there’s a free online version that I’ll demonstrate to you now.
To use The Unsticker, simply take a moment to think of the problem that you want to solve, then follow these four simple rules:
Select questions randomly
Turning to random pages isn’t good enough, because you’ll tend to use only the middle of the book. Instead, look around you for numbers, pick digits from telephone numbers, roll dice, throw darts, use a random number generator, ask a stranger to pick a number.
Ask every question that you select
Don’t look for a ‘good question’, and don’t skip any questions if they don’t make sense. The Unsticker works because the questions don’t, at first, make sense.
Take time to properly consider every question
It helps to have someone else ask you the questions so that you can take time to think of your answer. If you’re using The Unsticker by yourself, make sure you take time to, at least mentally if not out loud, form a full answer for each question.
Keep asking questions until the problem changes
That’s all there is to it!