‘Behind every problem, there is a question trying to ask itself. Behind every question, there is an answer trying to reveal itself.’ (Michael Beckwith)
Second-guessing. It creates all sorts of risks. ‘What time does Paul’s meeting finish?’ Is that a simple request for information, or is there a question behind the question? ‘I’d like to meet with Paul this afternoon. What time will he be free?’ That’s better. ‘I need you to present an urgent strategy update to the Board.’ Again, is that a simple instruction, or is there an issue that lays behind it? ‘I’d like to demonstrate to the Board next week that our investments are achieving the desired results.’ Better.
A problem with a question that fails to reveal the question, the issue, that lays behind the question is that it leaves the other party to fill in the gaps. In doing so, they are likely to draw on their own assumptions – which could be very different to your own – or sometimes their anxieties. ‘Is he complaining that Paul’s meeting is over-running?’ ‘Is she inferring there’s a problem with my work on strategy delivery that I hadn’t been aware of?’ Simply stating our intention can make all the difference.
‘Human existence is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself – be it a meaning to fulfil, or another human being to encounter lovingly.’ (Viktor Frankl)
Existential coaching is a powerful and introspective approach that can empower individuals and groups to confront life's fundamental questions, find meaning and embrace personal and social responsibility. Rooted in existential philosophy, this coaching method guides clients through self-exploration, enabling them to confront their fears and uncertainties and make authentic choices aligned with their values. Here are some examples of existential coaching questions:
Existential coaching recognizes that we all face inherent dilemmas, and embracing these challenges can lead to personal and social growth. Using this approach, the coach serves as a supportive ally, helping clients to confront their concerns, explore their inner personal-cultural truths and develop a deeper understanding of themselves. The client can learn to navigate life's complexities with greater clarity and intention, leading to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
[Further reading: Monica Hanaway, The Handbook of Existential Coaching Practice (2020); Yannick Jacob, An Introduction to Existential Coaching (2019); Emmy van Deurzen & Monica Hanaway, Existential Perspectives on Coaching (2012)]
‘No matter what happens, we always have a choice.’ (Napz Cherub Pellazo)
‘What are your options?’ is a good question in coaching, except when it isn’t. Many people come for coaching in the first place because they face an issue or a dilemma, and they can’t see a way forward. Sabine Dembkowski and Fiona Eldridge observed this phenomenon in their article, ‘Beyond GROW’ (2023): ‘Clients often experience a stuck state…where they feel trapped as if there are no alternatives or keep circling around the same issue without being able to generate new options.’ Against this backdrop, ‘What are your options?’ can be met with a bemused, ‘I don’t know. That’s why I’m here.’
An inexperienced coach may feel stuck too at this point and perhaps, hoping to find a way through, ask something along the lines of ‘What have you already tried?’ Again, this may elicit little more than feedback on what the client has already done and found to be ineffective (which the client knows already anyway), and bring both parties back to square one. An alternative, and potentially more useful, framing could be something like, ‘Given what you have tried already, what is the crux of the issue for you now?’ This may stimulate fresh insight and, in turn, raise new possibilities into awareness.
A different approach can be to pose questions that aim to stretch the boundaries of the client’s current constructs and imagination, for example: ‘What would you do if you had a blank cheque?’ ‘What would you do if you felt no fear?’ ‘What could you do if you were not answerable to anyone?’ Claire Pedrick might invite a stuck client to generate a spectrum of options, from ‘Do nothing’ to whatever they would regard as a ‘Nuclear option’. Ian Gray deploys a fun and radical brainstorming technique, where every third option or idea must be ‘illegal, immoral or absolutely unworkable’.
If a client still feels completely stuck, I may invite them to take a large, blank sheet of paper, draw themselves at the centre, then co-create radical options in the form of a mind map. In order to help minimise the risks of instinctive psychological and emotional resistance or push back from the client, I emphasise that the options simply represent possibilities, not what the client may want or consider right to do. Against each option, I then invite the client to respond to two questions: ‘If you were to do this, what would it make possible (or right)?’ and, ‘If you were to be do this, what would you need?'
[See also: Out of the building; Worst possible idea]
‘If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.’ (Albert Einstein)
Action Learning is a powerful way to explore an issue, formulate a solution and enable personal agency to act and influence change. It can also be used effectively to enable a group with shared interests or concerns to work on and address an issue together. The first step in this latter approach often entails helping a group to formulate its own question or hypothesis at the outset, a bit like when conducting action research, to establish appropriate focus and boundaries.
As a facilitator, we can invite the group to reflect on criteria and wider considerations as it performs this initial task. Here are some examples: a. In relation to this issue, who are they key stakeholders in the system? b. Do we have the right people in the room to address this issue? c. Is it feasible to make useful progress on the issue in the time we have available? d. Are there any ethical, intersectional, reflexive or relational issues we should pay attention to in how we do this?
Sometimes, I notice that one or more participants may have an intuitive awareness, a feeling or a hunch that something is, say, anxiety-provoking, challenging or stuck in their system, yet they may struggle to articulate it. In that case, I may invite them to, for instance, draw a picture, tell a story or enact a stance to help surface whatever issues lay beneath for them. Then, we continue the process (above) to reach clarity and agreement, as a group, before we move forward.
'I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.' (Richard Feynman)
When a person introduces an issue they are facing, we and often they are not always clear at the outset what underlying challenge that issue is posing for them. Rather than asking more questions about the issue itself, however, we could invite the person to reframe the issue as a question. ‘What questions come to mind as you think about this?’ ‘What question is this raising for you now?’
I worked with a strategy consultant who asked great questions; for example ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to make strategic decisions?’ In Action Learning sets, we could ask a presenter, for instance, ‘What are the questions you’d find most useful for us to ask?’ And, in high-challenge coaching, ‘What’s the question you’re hoping I won’t ask you?’
Priest-philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed that a good question can set a person off on a quest; a restless and intense journey of searching and discovery. It’s very different to providing a superficial answer that can close thinking down. I sometimes go one step further and ask, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ It can raise tacit, subconscious and intuitive knowing into view.
‘The smart ones ask when they don’t know. And, sometimes, when they do.’ (Malcolm Forbes)
We sometimes discover in new Action Learning sets that participants are unsure about the distinction between questions for clarification and questions for exploration. Participants may wonder, similarly, if and when closed and open questions should be used. This can lead to all kinds of awkward mental and linguistic gymnastics such as, for instance, wanting to ask a simple question for information, yet trying hard to frame it as an open question.
I find that one useful way to mark the difference between clarification and exploration questions is to consider, ‘Who is the answer to the question for?’ If I ask a question for clarification, the answer is for me, so that I will know or understand something better. If I ask a question for exploration, it’s offered as a gift that may, I hope, enable another person to gain insight and know or understand something more deeply or broadly for themselves.
We also sometimes discover that participants get a bit stuck when thinking about how to transition from questions for exploration to questions for action. They may wonder if, for instance, questions for action are questions for exploration that focus on action. I find a useful way to mark this shift is to think of questions for exploration as divergent (opening out) and questions for action as convergent (drawing together, to enable a close).
What we see here is that what makes a good question in Action Learning is determined less by rules about the structure of a question itself (e.g. whether it is an open or a closed question), and more by the focus and orientation of questions at each stage of the process. Participants pose questions in service of the presenter and, at the end of the day, it’s for the presenter to decide which land usefully for them or enable a shift towards a solution.
‘To venture involves risks, but with the potential for great gain.’ (Fook & Askeland)
A critical success factor in coaching and Action Learning is a willingness for participants to disclose opportunities or challenges they are facing, in order that they may learn through critical reflection and increase their sense of agency. At times, this may involve surfacing subconscious personal and cultural assumptions to enable self- and peer-examination. In doing so, we may draw on fields of learning and practice including Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s double and triple-loop learning.
The originator of Action Learning, Reg Revans, urged, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness’. Yet, although this can sound simple in principle, in some contexts it may run against norms and conventions of behaviour. In some cultures, for instance, to disclose a difficulty – especially in a group – could feel politically risky or even shameful. If a person were to share openly in that context, peers from the same cultural group could also feel anxious for that person and desire to protect them.
This safeguarding instinct may be amplified in health and social sector contexts where participants may be used to working with vulnerable people and groups and-or have lived experience of trauma. If their professional training has evolved from or been influenced by counselling or therapy, they may find posing high-challenge questions uncomfortable or threatening; especially if they associate asking searching questions with, for instance, investigations or judgements re. access to services.
In some cultures, to disclose personal rather than strictly situational challenges can be regarded as inappropriate and unprofessional.
In some cultures, rationality and objectivity may be regarded as having higher value than intuition, subjectivity or emotion. Participants may find themselves preoccupied with problem analysis and formulating definitive answers and solutions, rather than enabling a person to sit with ambiguity, uncertainty and tension. A vital role for a coach or facilitator is to build trust, curiosity and critical reflexivity; drawing on any filters, biases and experiences that emerge as tools for transformation.
‘If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you can use the plane the next day, that’s an outstanding landing.’ (Chuck Yeager)
‘I think I just crashed the plane!’ That made me laugh. We had been toying with the metaphor of flying an aircraft to think about different stages of a coaching or action learning process. My nephew, a trainee pilot, had explained to me previously how landing a plane after a flight can be the tricky part. There’s a risk that, having touched down, the plane bounces off the runway and takes off again, resulting in something like a kangaroo-effect along the runway until it finally comes to a halt.
During an action learning facilitation training workshop this week, a participant guided the group successfully ‘down’ into the action stage, only inadvertently to have it take off again as she opened up to further questions for exploration. In the learning review afterwards, one of her fellow participants commented with a smile that it felt, perhaps, more like a turbulent landing than a crash into the runway. That was a relief. Yet, how to land a plane without the bumpy-bounce effect?
Tony Stoltzfus in Coaching Questions (2008) offers a useful guide that focuses on three successive stages to help create a shift, from possibilities to decisions to committed actions: Could do; Want to; Will do. Could-do raises possibilities and options into the frame. Want-to touches on energy and motivation. Will-do moves towards determination and traction. We could picture this sequence as something like: What could you do? Is that a step you want to take? What will you do, by when?
Stoltzfus goes on to highlight potential issues to look out for and to attend to, including ‘insurance’ and ‘equivocation’. The former involves helping a person to identify and address critical factors that could either ensure or undermine their success. The latter can be useful if a person appears to be feeling ambivalent or only superficially committed to a course of action. It’s the person’s own choice as to whether they follow-through. This is, however, about helping them to land themselves well.
Examples of insurance-type questions are: ‘Are there any obstacles to getting this done?’ ‘Who else do you need to check with?’ ‘On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you’ll complete this step by the deadline?’ ‘What would it take to raise that to a 7, 8 or 9?’ ‘How could you change the step or the deadline to make this more realistic?’ ‘What could you do to increase your chances of getting this done successfully?’ ‘Do you need an accountability person or mechanism to help you do this?’
Examples of equivocation-type questions are: ‘Are you ready to commit to that next step?’ ‘You said you might take that next step. Is there anything holding you back?’ You said you ought to do this. What would make it something you’ll do because you really want to do it?’ ‘You sound like you're procrastinating. You can choose to do this or not to do it. What will you do?’ ‘Is there anything we need to discuss or change about the step you’re considering that would help you to make a more decisive choice?’
Stoltzfus ends by offering some tips on tentative language to listen out for at the action phase that could indicate a person is equivocating, or hasn’t yet reached a decision point: ‘I could…’ ‘I might…’ ‘I’m thinking of…’ ‘One possibility…’ ‘Maybe I should…’ ‘I ought to…’ ‘I’d like to…’ ‘Someday…’ It’s analogous to hovering above the runway without yet having achieved touch-down. Try: ‘How do you feel, here and now, as you consider each option?’ ‘If you were to land this, what would you need?’
[See also: A good ending; Get a grip; Grit]
‘Revolution starts in the mind. Question everything.’ (Bryant McGill)
If – a tiny word, one of the shortest in the English language – framed as a question, can open up a whole array of possibilities. It can raise insights and ideas into awareness by presenting a hypothesis that stretches the imagination and creates the potential for breakthrough. Used in coaching, consultancy and action learning, it can help shift a conversation beyond the what-is to the what-could-be; from a place of stuck-ness towards radical and liberating solutions.
Posed in invitational, coactive tone: ‘If we were to have a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ ‘If we were to introduce this change, what would it mean for you?’ ‘If we were to move ahead with this, what would you need?’ ‘If you were to do this with confidence, what would you be doing?’ ‘If you were to be successful in this venture, what would that make possible?’ ‘If you had a good-enough answer to this question, what would it be?’
If you were to draw more on the power of ‘if’, what difference could that make?
That was a scary moment. My Dad had developed a dangerous arrhythmia and drastic action was needed to save his life. Paradoxically, the solution lay in stopping his heart. After what felt like a breathtakingly-long pause, the cardiologist restarted his heart to re-establish a healthy rhythm. Thank God it worked and we could all breathe again.
More recently, my laptop got into a mess. It was operating so slowly and experiencing so many glitches that I wondered if I needed to replace it. An IT trainer friend, Rob, had a look and discovered that, for some time, I had been closing the lid to power it down, rather than turning it off-and-on again to reboot it. He restarted it and then it worked.
A teacher friend, Kathrin, commented that people professionals who deal with challenging relationships, complex issues and wicked problems can get into a tangle too. Over time, it can feel harder to see the wood for the trees, a bit like having pressed on day-after-day without sleep. If you're feeling stressed or burned out, you need a restart.
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I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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