‘You ask way too many questions, pal.’ (Homeless person – to me, 1982)
I was excited, intrigued and a little nervous to visit my first homeless project in London. As a young Christian activist, I wanted to learn from the lived experience of people in need so that I could use my own life to make a positive and tangible difference in their world. In my enthusiasm and a genuine spirit of curiosity, I asked this homeless man question after question about his life. After a while, he cautioned me politely but sternly – to stop. It was a stark, timely and important lesson.
Questions lay at the heart of coaching and facilitation; questions that aim to enable a person or group to think through an issue more deeply or broadly and to reach their own solutions. We may talk about powerful questions, or impactful questions – questions targeted at a person: what he or she is thinking, feeling and doing, rather than at the broader issue itself – to enable the greatest shift. It’s a language that, in a safe space, speaks of constructive challenge with a positive intent.
Yet what happens if we are working with people or groups where the very experience of receiving questions, however well intended or framed, evokes considerable anxiety or stress? We can think of various examples: e.g. a refugee who has been subjected to violent interrogation in their country of origin; an asylum-seeker who associates questions with having to defend an appeal for help; a person who has endured abuse from a controlling partner who challenged her/his every action.
The language of power-ful questions can itself raise issues of power dynamics implicit in the coach or facilitator relationship with a person or group. After all, the coach is the person posing the questions – not feeling a need, pressure or expectation to answer them – and may at some level reflect or represent the type of person, group or authority the client regards as oppressive. Similarly, impact-ful can sound like hitting, violence, done-to, to a person or group living in a state of anxiety.
The homeless man I alluded to above explained, with pain in his eyes, that my questions were taking him to places in his past that he was trying hard not think about or deal with because they felt too traumatic. I was, in effect, inadvertently re-triggering the emotional effects of experiences he had lived through. I remember feeling horrified, apologising, and falling silent in shame. Yet I learned the vital need to pay attention to sensitive relationship and mutual contracting in these fields of work.
Given these risks and dynamics, it could feel tempting to shrink back altogether from coaching or, say, action learning with vulnerable people or groups. What if we make a mistake or make things worse? Is there a risk that we will inappropriately stray or be drawn into the realms of counselling or therapy where we are and feel out of our depth? Is there any guidance that could help us navigate such potentially difficult terrain? I will offer some practical insights here that I’ve found helpful:
Some vulnerable clients may feel concerned about why they are being asked questions, how they are expected to respond (the ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ answer, in that context), who will have access to their responses and what they might do with them. This may be especially the case if they have been sent for coaching or action learning, perhaps as a remedial measure, or if they come from a personal-cultural background where posing questions as a developmental approach is unfamiliar.
In my experience, vulnerable clients rarely raise these concerns explicitly. They are more likely to surface during contracting as something like, ‘How can I be sure that what I may share here will not be shared elsewhere?’ This points to a need for trust-building. I may ask a client, ‘What would give you the reassurance you need?’, ask other participants (if in a group), ‘What are you willing to commit to?’ and explore and agree explicitly what we will do if, say, a conflict of interest should emerge.
Claire Pedrick offers a simple and useful frame that helps ensure healthy and constructive focus and boundaries: ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ The language of ‘we’ points towards a coactive conversation in which both parties discuss, negotiate and agree their terms of engagement. Claire also regards the client positively, whether an individual or group, as resilient enough to engage in the process – unless it transpires that they aren’t – and contracts accordingly.
Geoff Pelham, drawing on Gestalt psychology, focuses on creating an authentic human relationship (‘contact’) with the client rather than a purely transactional one. This can help to create a safe-enough space for coaching to be effective. He may inquire with empathy, ‘What do you need?’ – and listen carefully to the response – before discussing and agreeing how to address respective needs and to move forward. (Attention to need is framed as a healthy foundation for growth, vs ‘needy’.)
I may ask a client, ‘Where would you like us to focus our attention?’, ‘What questions is this raising for you?’ or ‘What questions would you find most useful to explore?’ I will also discuss and agree explicitly with the client what he or she may do if I (or others, in a group) pose a question that, for whatever reason, he or she would prefer not to answer; e.g. simply to respond with, ‘Thank you.’ This enables the client to exercise choice and control throughout and, by doing so, to enhance their own agency.
Finally, Karen Treisman encourages us to beware of 'pathologising' the client; of focusing on his or her vulnerability as if it’s their sole defining characteristic and, instead, ‘To see the whole person, their story, their world – to magnify, celebrate and learn from people’s survivorships, strengths, resources and what they truly bring to the table.’ I’m keen to learn: what has been your experience of working with vulnerable people or groups? What trauma-informed principles help to guide your practice?
(See also: A Safe-Enough Space)
(For further research and resources in this area, see: Dr Karen Treisman, A Treasure Box for Creating Trauma-Informed Organizations: A Ready-to-Use Resource for Trauma, Adversity, and Culturally Informed, Infused and Responsive Systems, 2021).
27/10/2021 05:42:14 pm
Powerful piece Nick. Thank you for sharing'. The homeless man I alluded to above explained, with pain in his eyes, that my questions were taking him to places in his past that he was trying hard not think about or deal with because they felt too traumatic...' This stands out. I would say that before we ask deep questions we need to have built a trusting relationship with the other person - also to be sufficiently sensitive and respectful and tuned in to see whether asking deep questions or indeed any questions is going to be helpful.
27/10/2021 11:06:19 pm
Thank you, Stella. Yes, one of the risks of focusing too much on questions-as-techniques in coaching, without paying equal attention to relationship and trust, is that we can lose sight of the person - or group - in front of us.
27/10/2021 10:46:29 pm
Most clients have the same response
27/10/2021 11:11:26 pm
Hi Marie. I'm interested. Can you say more about, 'Most clients have the same response'? I'd like to understand more. I agree that listening to what is said, and not being said, is very important. I also aim to enable the client to listen to what is said and not being said in their own responses too.
28/10/2021 06:31:57 am
Nick! I needed this. Thank you!
28/10/2021 07:41:40 am
Hi Gwen. You're welcome!
28/10/2021 12:21:22 pm
Thanks again Nick. The first thing I thought about upon reading yet another interesting, thoughtful and insightful post was my training as a Coach. I was trained at a Business School and my Diploma was about Leadership and Performance. We were warned not to go too deep into the emotional world of the coachee as we'd cross the boundary into counselling, and anyway, we weren't trained to deal with the coachee's emotional problems. It took me many years and many hours of coaching to see this was a false dichotomy. My most effective coaching was always about helping coachee's achieve a new understanding of themselves. I was conscious not to go into their life story unless invited to do so. And often, even with seemingly well-balanced and high performing individuals, there was something in their past - yes, let's call it trauma - that was floating around in the mix of things they brought to the session. I've often had people cry in my sessions - and not because I have questioned them to death about their trauma, but because they were acknowledging their trauma for the first time. My follow up was always to invite them to contextualise what they had just said into the here and now. For many, the trauma was previously so locked in and unacknowledged that they had little or no insight into its importance. The release, letting go, of the trauma by the coachee was the most exhilarating and privileged experience for me as a coach. And completely outside of my training.
28/10/2021 07:06:25 pm
Thank you Richard. I loved the way in which you shared that relationship between your training and what you have observed and experienced in practice. I was really struck by your closing comment: '...And completely outside of my training.'
28/10/2021 09:50:40 pm
Thanks Nick for your kind words. In one of those happy synchronistic coincidences, I came across this article about a woman's trauma and how she was helped by psychodynamic therapy. Her description of the effects of her trauma were illuminating in understanding how trauma can affect sufferers. If you read the article, I'd also love to know what you think of the therapist's methodology. I was quite shocked at its directness and her openness to transference: https://psyche.co/ideas/psychodynamic-therapy-helped-me-overcome-trauma-when-cbt-couldnt?utm_source=Psyche+Magazine&utm_campaign=86af3af234-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2021_10_25_04_25&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_76a303a90a-86af3af234-72224684
2/11/2021 09:08:37 am
Hi Richard and thank you for sharing the link to such a fascinating article. I have worked with a number of psychodynamic therapists-as-coaches who have modelled similar insights and approaches. As you may be aware, working with dynamics such as transference and countertransference is sometimes called 'use of self' in psychological coaching (see: https://www.nick-wright.com/blog/use-of-self-in-coaching).
28/10/2021 02:53:50 pm
Thanks Nick. This is really helpful. It really resonated with some work we're doing with a couple of very vulnerable families in Bath at the moment. I could just imagine one of them saying “You ask too many questions!” So your pointers for ways ahead were very useful!
28/10/2021 07:08:17 pm
Thank you, Rick. That is encouraging feedback and good to hear!
28/12/2021 10:52:00 pm
Don’t Expect too much or too little. The whole world is happening internally. Your job is too open a door safely.
28/12/2021 10:54:45 pm
Hi Emma. I like that. Perhaps our job is to stand alongside the client as they open their own door…as wide as they want to and in their own time.
29/12/2021 10:34:44 pm
Nick, totally agree. And they also need to be able to know they can close it at anytime. But also that you are also comfortable to hold the door if needed.
29/12/2021 10:39:55 pm
Hi Emma. I'm loving your use of the door metaphor. :) You reminded me of an approach from Gestalt coaching of co-creating, with a client, a 'safe emergency' - an opportunity for the client to experiment with fresh possibilities and experiences, yet always with the option to step back or close the door if and when he or she wants to. I'm curious - do you have an example from experience that you would be willing to share here, to show what the approach you have outlined could look like in practice?
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