Article Rich Questions


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Asking unfamiliar, unexpected and unavoidable questions is an effective way of moving coachees forward, says
Deni Lyall

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Article Rich Questions

  1. 1. COACHING FEATURE Rich questions Asking unfamiliar, unexpected and unavoidable questions in coaching is an effective way of moving coachees forward, says Deni Lyall R ecently, I was running It was unexpected, unfamiliar. expensive wine. For him, expensive a presentation skills It grabbed my attention and the wine, with its luxurious palette, is a workshop. We had cogs in my brain whirred into real treat. He knows that if he reg- spoken about visual, action in an effort to define “a fine ularly drinks expensive wine, this auditory and kinaes- introduction”, to differentiate it experience will be lost as the tex- thetic language patterns, and from merely “a good introduction”. ture and taste become the norm. the use of rich language as a way For me, it has more elegance and It is the concept of the ‘unfa- of engaging your audience. The standing. Another question sprang miliar’ that I find I apply to my speeches of Martin Luther King to my mind: “What had made coaching questions, although are outstanding examples of this. Paul use ‘fine’? What message did I had not realised this. During One participant, Paul, was natu- he want to convey with its use?” coaching practice sessions, partici- rally very good at rich language. One thought led to another and pants have remarked how different He enthralled us all for six min- another, all from the use of one my questions are to their ques- utes with nothing other than his unfamiliar word. tions. Also, they feel that coachees words and a copy of the book he respond to my questions with was recommending. What struck richer, more pertinent answers. It me most, as I listened avidly, was “Rich questions demand is only now, after Paul’s presenta- the unfamiliar choice of some of tion, that I feel I can answer their his words and phrases. rich answers, which are question as to what it is that I am These leapt out of the presen- doing differently. tation and grabbed my attention. unfamiliar and sometimes I believe the difference is that They fascinated me and created a richer image of what Paul even unexpected” I ask ‘rich’ questions that are unfamiliar and unexpected. They was saying, rather than the dull compel people to think, as the thud of the stale and overused It was a captivating six-minute answers cannot be pulled from the phrases we have heard so many presentation and the recommend- pile of ‘pat’ answers requiring only times before. ed book was in my son’s Christmas a moment of thought to deliver. One phrase in particular stands stocking. I may even read it myself, Rich questions demand rich out from the rest. It was the although it’s not my usual taste, as answers, which are unfamiliar and use of the word ‘fine’ instead of I am left curious about whether it sometimes even unexpected. They ‘good’. A single word made such lives up to Paul’s recommendation. require searching thought. They a difference to my attention, my Picking up on the theme of make and break connections that thoughts and my engagement. If familiar versus unfamiliar, Martin do not always provide answers, but Paul had said: “… and this book Seligman, in his book Authentic always provoke thought. makes a good introduction to the Happiness, talks about how ‘treats’ Coaching is about moving the sci-fi fantasy genre”, it would have become commonplace and the coachee forward. If, at times, you glided over my ears without a sec- norm if they are overused. They feel that progress could be quicker ond thought. However, he chose lose their excitement and the if only you could ask some fine to say: “… and this book makes a ‘treat’ is lost. He describes how he questions, rich questions maybe f ine introduction in to the sci-fi still buys reasonably priced wine, useful to you. Sometimes a fantasy genre” even though he can afford to buy good, thought-provoking ques- 60 TJ June 2008
  2. 2. COACHING FEATURE tion where there is a search for and gain new insights. If you can an answer, even if no answer is ask the right unexpected question, found, is worth far more than people can make radical shifts in questions that can be answered their progress. without any thought. The The exercise with the picture of coachee’s subconscious will go on the young/old lady (left) is a good searching and searching, and a example of this. By positioning the rich answer bubbles up at a later upfront conversation around ‘old’, point. participants usually easily see the There are three main forms of old lady. The scene has been set rich questions that I use: and people duly respond with the • Unfamiliar questions with an same train of thought. Sometimes, unfamiliar word that deserves this blinkered train of thought understanding and gives refine- needs to be broken. Unexpected ment to a situation. questions shatter the assump- • Unexpected questions that jump tions that we are reinforcing in an out in front of you and turn you are rich and put the emotion back Old woman attempt to gain a new and useful around to look at things from a into the discussion. or young insight, a way forward. different perspective. “What concerns do you have?” lady? Therefore, if I have been work- • Unavoidable questions that take “What really scares you about ing with a coachee and something you beyond the decision and the this?” goes awry – if there is a dip in deadline, and force you to look “What did you do well?” energy, a momentary hesitation, back at the choices you made. “If you were in the audience, which could be the deciding what was the most impressive moment between giving up and The unfamiliar question moment?” success – I’ll ask: Usually, during a thorough conver- Unfamiliar questions are specific “How could this be the best sation, we almost know the types and, therefore, their answers are thing that could have happened?” of questions to expect: “What did more tailored and pertinent to A bit of a surprise question for you do well?”, “What could you the conversation. This can often a number of people, but said with have done better?” Like Martin save time, as two questions can be the most honest of intentions: to Seligman’s expensive wine, these replaced by one. enable. My intention with this questions have become com- “What will make this project question is that it is only at the monplace and therefore, we don’t successful?” and “Which of these point when you start to think bother to think about them – we is the most important?” could be about “What can I do now?” or just assume we know the answers. replaced by: “What three things “How can I move forward?” that The expected answers! They are are essential for this project to be the conversation is useful and also generic questions that lead truly successful?” regains momentum. to generic answers. However, Coachees frequently use meta- Sometimes I work with some- an unfamiliar question contains phors and analogies when they are one who has a particular person at least one word that captures talking. These provide easy access who is being less than helpful in a the attention, demanding to be to unfamiliar words and phrases project. The usual train of thought deciphered and to have meaning that connect directly to their world is to condemn the person, to look attached to it. and thinking. Using their words to minimise their impact or even These questions give rise to an makes for the most successful sideline them. The unexpected unfamiliar answer, one that has unfamiliar questions. question asks: been thought through and has dug “How can this person be out- into the depths of your memory, The unexpected question standingly useful to you?” making new connections. It leaves The unexpected question does Again, my intention springs the subconscious to mull and not follow an unworthy train of from the fact that sometimes your chew over the new possibilities. thought. It catches coachees by worst detractor becomes your An unfamiliar answer helps the surprise, jumping out in front of greatest advocate if they ‘see the coachee move forward. them and taking them to a differ- light’. Or that destructive people The unfamiliar element needs ent viewpoint; giving them a dif- become constructive, once their to home in on the essence of what ferent angle. You pick them up and energies are channelled in the is required. It defines what really put them somewhere else. same direction as the project. will make a difference to the topic It is this shift in perspective that Often, we cannot change the being explored. These questions causes people to make connections people we want in a project team, June 2008 TJ 61
  3. 3. COACHING FEATURE especially in such a matrix-man- contemplated fully which of the Yet many coachees act as if they aged world. We can, more easily, alternatives they may prefer or can somehow never reach that change our view of them, and it is what could be the real decider point. Life will continue and the amazing how often they recipro- that ensures the success of his fork will remain in the future. cate and, in turn, change. chosen path. Unavoidable ques- The unavoidable question will not tions are invaluable for exploring allow you to maintain a position The unavoidable question these areas before the fork in the of ‘nothing will happen’ or ‘I can Sometimes, when working with road occurs. procrastinate for ever’. It forces a coachee, there is going to be a Unavoidable questions usu- you to go beyond the decision, the point, in the future, when an event ally work in sets of two or more, deadline. It turns you around to will happen – a fork in the road depending on the number of alter- look back and face up to the deci- – and one or other of the routes natives. Essentially, they are the sions or choices that you made, for will have to be taken. actual alternatives that have to be better or for worse. I rarely find that a coachee has faced up to – the things that are It digs deepest into those faced up to that decision and actually going to happen. thoughts of “if you really felt you 62 TJ June 2008
  4. 4. COACHING FEATURE couldn’t fail, or if you had 100 per second question, I say with excite- cent conviction, what would you ment and encouragement. This do differently?” It allows you to adds to their thinking, as it con- experience what really will make a nects a feeling to the question. difference, and have a taste of how Sometimes, the coachee does each route may feel once taken. not know which option he might When I use unavoidable ques- like to take. A modified form of tions, I set these up with the the unavoidable question will be coachee because they are not as helpful in that case. It is important succinct as the previous question that each alternative is said with styles. These questions require a equal tone and clarity so that all scene-setting introduction which options are fairly weighted. works best if it truly triggers the coachee’s feelings as if each choice The first alternative had actually been made. “Okay, it is Thursday morning A simple example of where an and you have just put down the unavoidable question works well phone in your study. You sit back is in working towards getting in your chair. You’ve just found out another job. Once you decide to that you didn’t get the job. How go for it, there will be a fork in does that feel?” the road – the day you find out whether you have got the job. If The second alternative possible, I would ask the coachee “Okay, it is Thursday morning when they expected to find out and you have just put down the the result of the interview and phone in your study. You sit back where he might be when he in your chair. You’ve just found out receives the news. Then I set that you have got the job. How the scene, pose the first question does that feel? and get a response. I set “What have you learned about the second scene and pose the the options you have in front of second question. you?” My intention with unavoid- The first alternative able questions is to unearth vital “Okay, it is Thursday morning and actions that will heavily weight you have just put down the phone the outcome in favour of what the in your study. You sit back in your coachee wants. So many times I chair. You’ve just found out that hear people say “I knew I should uncovered, created, debated, you didn’t get the job. How do you have done…” or “Gosh, I’m really viewed, challenged and progressed. feel? (Response). Now, what do glad I did… I nearly didn’t do I believe that, just as rich lan- you really, really wish you’d done?” that.” To enable the most robust guage from a presenter creates an action plan, it is worth uncovering inspired audience, rich questions The second alternative these actions before the fork in the from a coach create an inspired “Okay, it is Thursday morning road, and not leaving them totally coachee.  and you have just put down the to chance. phone in your study. You sit back Overall, I find rich questions Acknowledgements in your chair. Great! You’ve just a useful addition to the more 1 Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive found out that you have got the standard and fundamental coach- Psychology to Realize Your Potential for job. How do you feel? (Response). ing questions. If you follow the Lasting Fulfillment, Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D Now, what are you really, really coachee’s train of thought and ISBN: 978-0-7432-2298-3 glad that you did do?” use their own brand of words and How the scene-setting element phrases, they will come naturally. Deni Lyall is managing director of Winning and the questions are delivered Like anything that is rich, if used Performance Associates and special- can be significant, as I want the excessively they may prove too ises in performance improvement through coachee to feel the difference in much for the coachee’s appetite. facilitation, coaching, team development each alternative. In the example Being useful as a coach means and people skills training. She can be contacted on +44 (0) 7973 273009 or at above, the first question I deliver providing a stimulating envi- in a flat tone and downbeat. The ronment in which thoughts are June 2008 TJ 63