Good morning, good afternoon or good evening, wherever you are.
This month’s topic really builds on our discussions over the previous two months. In January, I spoke about what we listen for (as opposed to “to”) and then last month I adapted Myles Downey’s Coaching Communication cycle to look like this:
So, we have a foundation to start answering the question where great questions come from. Actually, when I look at the previous newsletters now, I notice three structures referred to there that assist us in answering this question:
- Listen in your client’s head – the great questions come from them.
- Listen for Michael Neill’s “little fires and loose threads”.
- Use the Iceberg metaphor to get to the really great questions.
Often as inexperienced coaches (and experienced ones) we listen in our own heads; that is, we search for the right question, perhaps the next question in our coaching model, or from our list of favourite questions. When we listen in our heads it really means we are not fully present to our client and consequently limit our ability to respond fully to them. We need to show up fully, listen in their head so that we can understand what they are saying and can respond to their “little fires and loose threads”.
For Michael Neill, “little fires” are client’s Aha! moments, their moments of insight, often manifested in a change of energy or body language or an expression of that new insight. Neill suggests this is a great moment to add fuel to the fire, to deepen the learning of that moment. I remember coaching my mentor coach years ago. We were going along just fine when all of a sudden, she teared up. I allowed us to sit in silence for what I deemed an appropriate and respectful time and then asked if she was okay, and then proceeded with the session. In feeding back to me, she referred to that moment and asked how I might have used that moment better – her version of how I might have added fuel to the little fire. What would have come out if I had just asked, “What’s happening for you now?”
There are always “loose threads” in a client’s narrative – whilst they may have been telling themselves this story for a long time, it’s not a prepared speech but it is rehearsed! Their current narrative has been going around in their heads for a while even if this is the first time they may be articulating it. As such, there is certain “evidence” that the client clings to as the basis for their narrative. If we use the iceberg metaphor, this “evidence” might be in the form of behaviour and actions (external, above the waterline) or reasons for those actions or behaviour (internal, below the waterline). I have put “evidence” in inverted commas because we often use our beliefs, values, way of thinking etc (below the waterline) as ways of interpreting our own and other people’s actions and behaviour in a way that sounds factual – it’s actually our views, opinions or assumptions that we use as explanations for what happened. It is our reality that we have created from our perceptions – not reality itself. Do you see the loose threads hanging around? They hang around both above and below the waterline. My personal rule of thumb is to look below the waterline for a loose thread for that’s where the deep questions (excuse the pun!) lie, the ones that help you coach the person more than coaching the issue, it’s where transformation lies. (Of course, the permission to go there depends on the nature of the programme or session goal.)
Whilst I hope I have answered the question where great questions come from, there is still the question as to what a great question looks like. The ICF talks about “clear, direct, primarily open-ended questions”. My personal view is that “clear” and “direct” speak at least partially to conciseness. My best questions, as well as those asked by coaches I have listened to, are concise and almost inevitably start with “what” or “how”.
Whilst we are on the concept of conciseness, Jonathan Reitz MCC, in his book, Coaching Hacks, talks about limiting one’s questions to 7 words. I think that’s a marvellous rule to live by as coaches as long as you don’t take it too seriously or make it prescriptive. Sometimes your questions will be (a little) longer and sometimes shorter – the main point is to get away from long, unnecessary reflections and get to the point! The concise question that picks up on a little fire or a loose thread and helps you go around the coaching communication cycle one more time!
I hope you will experiment and explore some of the thoughts I have shared in this newsletter. I would be delighted if you would share some of your thoughts on the subject with me by using the “Comment” button below.