A well-known management development agency invited me to take part in a masterclass in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) some years ago, at around the time when AI was first becoming popular in the UK. The idea was that I would write a review of the workshop afterwards that would be published in the agency's monthly journal. I have to confess that I wasn't exactly blown away by the experience. Phrases like 'Emperor's New Clothes' came to mind and I wrote a critical review accordingly. Needless to say, it wasn't published!
I have, however, used aspects of AI on numerous occasions since with different people and organisations and I have to say I've been impressed by the results. I like its emphasis on imagination, positivity and solutions. It fits well with my beliefs from social constructionism about how we create and co-create our own realities. Its discover, dream, design and destiny phases can envision and energise, inspire and motivate people far more than any problem-solving approaches I've seen or used. A simple question such as, 'What has inspired you in the last month?' really can transform the focus and energy in a team.
The best article I've read on the foundations of AI and what it involves in practice is by Richard Seele (2008): An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. If you're interested in the AI and to learn more about it, Richard's article is well worth a glance. I have used, adapted and applied aspects of AI without ever having worked systematically through its 4-stage process. I'd be interested to hear from you if you have: what was the issue/opportunity you focused on, how did you approach it, what questions did you pose at each stage, what happened as a result?
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What are your favourite coaching questions? I often use 3 that I’ve found can create a remarkable shift in awareness, insight and practice, especially in team coaching. I’ve applied them using variations in language and adapted them to different client issues, opportunities and challenges. They draw on principles from psychodynamic, Gestalt and solutions-focused coaching and are particularly helpful when a client or team feels stuck, unable to find a way forward.
* ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’
* ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’
* ‘What would it take..?’
Client: ‘These meetings feel so boring! I always leave feeling drained rather than energised.’ Coach: ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ Client: ‘Excuse me?’ Coach: ‘What do you do when you feel bored?’ Client: ‘I drift away, look out of the window.’ Coach: ‘What might be the impact on the wider group when you drift away?’ Client: ‘I guess others may disengage too.’ Coach: ‘How does the meeting feel when people disengage?’ Client: 'Hmmm…boring!’
Coach: ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’ Client: ‘It would help certainly if we could negotiate and agree the agenda beforehand, rather than focus on things that feel irrelevant.’ Coach: ‘So you want to ensure the agenda feels relevant to you. What else?’ Client: ‘If we could meet off site and break for coffee from time to time, that would feel more energising.’ Coach: ‘So venue and breaks make a difference too. Anything else?’ Client: ‘No, that’s it.’
Client: ‘I don’t think I can influence where and how these meetings are held.’ Coach: ‘It sounds like you feel quite powerless. How would you rate your level of influence on a scale of 1-10?’ Client: ‘Around 3’. Coach: ‘What would it take to move it up to a 6 or 7?’ Client: ‘I guess if I showed more support in the meetings, the leader may be more open to my suggestions.’ Coach: ‘What else would it take?’ Client: ‘I could work on building my relationship with the leader outside of meetings too.’
These type of questions can help a client grow in awareness of the interplay between intrapersonal, interpersonal and group dynamics, his or her impact within a wider system, what he or she needs to perform well and how to influence the system itself. They can also shift a person or team from mental, emotional and physical passivity to active, optimistic engagement. What are your favourite coaching questions? How have you used them and what happened as a result?
It was an energising experience, facilitating a group of leaders this week who are keen to build a new high performing team. We pushed the boundaries of normal ways of working to stimulate innovative ideas in all aspects of the team’s work. We used photos to create an agenda and physically enacted people’s aspirations to avoid falling into conventional patterns of heady, rational conversation.
It felt very different to meeting ‘because that’s what we do’. There was a different dynamic, energy and momentum. Participants leaned actively into the conversation, not leaning back in passivity or boredom. Yet it can be a real challenge to break free from tradition, from norms that trap a team in ways of doing things that feel familiar and safe but, deep down, lack inspiration or effectiveness.
In our meetings, how often do we pause before diving into the agenda to ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we should be focusing on?’, ‘How are we feeling about this?’, ‘What is distracting us or holding our attention?’, ‘What could be the most creative and inspiring way to approach this?’, ‘What do we each need, here and now, to bring our best to this?’, ‘What would be a great result?’
So I presented a simple model to the team with four words: content (what), process (how) and relationship (who) encircled around goal (where). In all my experience of working with individuals and teams, whether in coaching, training or facilitation, whether in the UK or overseas, these four factors are key recurring themes that make a very real difference.
They seem to be important factors that, if we get them right, make a positive impact. They lead to people feeling energised, more alive, more motivated and engaged. Conversely, if we get them wrong, they leave people frustrated, drained of energy, bored or disengaged. Worse still, if left unaddressed, they can lead to negative, destructive conflict that completely debilitates a team.
We can use a simple appreciative inquiry to reflect on this.‘Think back to your best experience of working with another person or team. How did you feel at the time?’, ‘Think back to a specific example of when you felt like that with the person or team. Where were you at the time? What were you doing? What were they doing? What made the biggest positive difference for you?’
One of the things we notice when asking such questions is that different things motivate and energise different people. That is, of course, one of the tricky parts of leading any team. So a next question to pose could be something like, ‘What would it take for this team to feel more like that, more of the time for you?’ and to see what the wider team is willing to accommodate or negotiate.
Now back to the model with some sample prompts to check out and navigate with a client, group or team. Notice how the different areas overlap and impact on each other. It’s about addressing all areas, not just to one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need
Goal: ‘What’s your vision for this?’, ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What are you hoping for?’, ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, ‘What would be the benefits of achieving it or the costs of not achieving it?’, ‘Who or what else is impacted by it and how?, ‘Where would you like to get to by the end of this conversation?’, ‘An hour from now, what would have made this worthwhile?’
Content: ‘What’s the most important issue to focus this time on?’, ‘What is the best use of our time together?’, ‘What is the issue from your perspective?’, ‘How clear are you about what this issue entails?’, ‘What feelings is this issue evoking for you?’, ‘What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?’, ‘Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?’
Process: ‘How would you like to do this?’, ‘What approach would you find most inspiring?’, ‘What might be the best way to approach this given the time available?’, ‘Which aspects to we need to address first before moving onto others?’, ‘What would be best to do now and what could be best done outside of this meeting?’, ‘Could we try a new way that would lift our energy levels?’
Relationship: ‘What’s important to you in this?’, ‘What underlying values does this touch on for you?’, ‘How are you impacted?’, ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘What are you noticing from your unique perspective?’, ‘What distinctive contribution could you bring?’, ‘What is working well in the team’s relationships?’, ‘What is creating tension?’, ‘How could we resolve conflicting differences?’
The versatility of the model is that it can be reapplied to coaching, training and other contexts too. In a training environment you could consider, for instance, ‘What are we here to learn?’ (goal), ‘What material should we cover?’ (content), ‘What methods will suit different learning styles?’ (process) and ‘How can we help people work together well in this environment?' (relationship).
In a coaching context it could look something like, ‘How do you hope to develop through engaging in this coaching experience?’ (goal), ‘What issues, challenges or opportunities would you like to focus on?’ (content), ‘How would you like to approach this together?’ (process) and ‘What would build and sustain trust as we work on these things together?’ (relationship).
I’d be interested to hear from you. Do the areas represented in this model resonate with your own experiences? Which factors have you noticed tend to be most attended to or ignored? Do you have any real-life, practical examples of how you have addressed these factors and what happened as a result? In your experience, what other factors make the biggest difference?
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
You may have heard it said, the longest journey a person must take is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. It’s as if we can grasp an idea rationally, conceptually and yet still not allow it to touch us, to move us, to motivate us into action. What is this journey from passive assent to active commitment? What does it take to engender and sustain genuine engagement?
What could it entail, look and feel like in practice?
I did some work with a leadership team recently. In conversation beforehand, it was clear they believed that certain behaviour changes would enhance their effectiveness. They were convinced in principle about this but hadn’t yet tried it. At this stage, it felt like a proposition, a possibility. It was still at the head level, a compelling idea that made good sense rationally. We decided to experiment to see what would happen experientially.
The team chose three principles to focus on and practice. ‘Let’s be aware of space and pace (ensuring the right time and speed for each topic); rationality and intuition (being sensitive to analysis and feeling or discernment); speaking and listening (saying honestly what we are think and feel and tuning in to hear each other).’ We invited each other to hold up a green card each time we saw these principles being modelled.
It felt a bit clunky at first but the team members gave it a go and the effect was amazing. The conversation felt focused, deep and purposeful. The quality of contact between participants was enhanced and the work became more inspiring and effective. We paused to reflect on how well the team was modelling these principles at the end of each meeting and, over a short space of time, the impact was transformational.
I facilitated another group recently on solutions-focused brief coaching. It was a 90-minute workshop, a new event designed to inspire and equip leaders with a fresh approach to relationships. I wanted participants to leave with an experience of the difference this approach could make, to feel the positive impact rather than simply to understand the principles and concept. The
participants were enthusiastic and gave it a go.
We opened the workshop by inviting each person to share a current issue with the person beside them. The other person’s role was simply to help them think it through. The conversation had a 7 minute time limit, at the end of which they would reverse roles and repeat. We ended that piece by asking participants to give and receive feedback on how they had experienced the conversation, what had helped etc.
I then introduced the core principles and sample techniques of solutions-focused coaching, working interactively with the group to flesh them out. We looked at contracting, solutions-focused vs problem-solving questions and moving towards action and commitment. The group grasped the principles but I wanted to progress the workshop from idea to experience, from conceptual
understanding to compelling determination to follow it though.
So I invited the group to run a second 7 minute conversation with the person beside them, this time consciously practising this new approach. Again, after 7 minutes they reversed roles and repeated, followed by giving and receiving feedback. The shift in experience was extraordinary. The participants looked surprised and pleased at such a marked shift in their own skill and the positive impact on their partners.
The pivotal moment in each of these examples, in the team meeting and the coaching workshop, was the shift from rational awareness through physical/emotional experience to genuine conviction. Conviction based on experience can have a remarkable and truly transformational effect. It has the potential to lead forward from belief-in-principle to positive engagement, sustainable effort and profound change.
Have you ever found yourself facing a problem, an insurmountable challenge, that leaves you feeling frustrated, tired or stressed? Have you ever found it difficult to get an intractable problem out of your head, to step back and view the whole situation from a radically different perspective?
Carole Pemberton’s book, Coaching to Solutions (2006), presents a practical and hope-inspiring approach to coaching that aims to draws a client’s attention away from problems, diagnostics and analysis of the present or past towards future-orientated goals, resources and resourcefulness.
It strikes me as a bit like appreciative inquiry. It’s an optimistic approach that focuses on the positive. ‘What would a great future look and feel like?’, ‘What are the strengths you can build on?’, ‘What resources are available in your environment to draw on?’, ‘Let’s plan the next steps.’
Anthony Grant (in The Coaching Psychologist journal, Dec 2011) explores this approach further in ways I found helpful so will share some of them here. He draws links between solutions focused coaching and insights and practices from other, more overtly psychological based schools.
Firstly, solutions focused coaching has a ‘non-pathological orientation’. This is essentially means that when a person describes a problem he or she is facing, the coach sees this as an opportunity or challenge for the client to work on, rather than as some inherent deficit in the client.
Secondly, it is ‘future orientated’. This is perhaps one of the greatest differences between solutions focused and traditional analytical approaches. The principal focus is on the client’s desired goals or future state, not on how or where he or she is now or on how he or she arrived here.
Thirdly, it focuses on ‘constructing solutions and disengaging from problems’. It believes that when a client becomes preoccupied with a problem or the causes of the problem, he or she can get stuck. Instead, the coach challenges the client to focus on solutions that will move things forward.
Fourthly, it is ‘outcome or goal orientated’. This means the coach will work with the client to help him or her envision a desired future and to plan the practical steps that will help him or her to achieve it. This could involve actively ignoring current problems and refocusing on solutions.
Fifthly, it involves ‘utilising and activating existing client resources’. This means the solutions-focused coach will help raise the client’s awareness of personal resources (e.g. strengths, capabilities) and contextual resources (e.g. finances, networks) that he or she can draw on to move forward.
Grant draws interesting parallels with other psychological schools. For instance, enabling the client to disengage from problems is similar to tackling rumination (persistent preoccupation with an issue) or problem-saturated thinking in cognitive behavioural therapy or coaching practice.
Solution focused coaching’s emphasis on envisioning goals, where goals are ‘internal representations of desired states or outcomes’, is similar to principles in goal-setting psychology and client resource activation is similar to the strengths-based aspects of positive psychology (‘what am I good at?).
So what might all of this look like in practice? Allow your mind to dwell for a moment on a problem you are facing currently. It may be large or small, recent or persistent. Now imagine putting it to one side and focus on what you want the future to look and feel like. Try to imagine and feel it vividly.
Now allow your thoughts to ponder different ideas or approaches that could help you move towards that goal. Don’t be constrained by what you’ve tried previously or where you’ve become stuck. Allow yourself to think freely, to be playful as you imagine possible ways to achieve it.
Jot down what resources you have that you could draw on to move forward. For example, previous experiences, prayer, expertise, money, friendships, contacts, personality traits. Again, allow yourself to be free and creative. Remind yourself of where and how you have been successful previously.
Finally, capture your vision on paper. Perhaps draw it as a picture, a symbol, a journey. Something evocative and compelling for you. Add the resources you can draw on to move forward. Write down your next steps and, in doing so, make them practical – and choose to do them.
This can feel easier said than done when doing it alone, hence the value of working with or as a skilled coach or therapist. If you find it difficult, try doing it with someone else who’s prepared to guide, pose the questions and to gently challenge any unhelpful or unfounded assumptions.
Solution focused coaching can feel encouraging, empowering and releasing. It helps to break negative patterns of thought that drain our energy and limit our effectiveness. It isn’t a magic bullet for all situations but it can make a refreshing change to traditional analysis and problem-solving.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.