Last night I went to an Open University Business School South Coast Alumni Network event - a presentation by Curly Martin , one of the UK’s leading life coaches. She was energetic, passionate and persuasive about the benefits of life coaching both for the client / coachee and for those in the audience who might be considering life coaching as a profession.
Prior to the session starting I got chatting to some of the other delegates about coaching in general, about the difference between directive and non-directive practice and about coaching principles, one of which is that the client / coachee already has all the resources they need themselves. Martyn Stainer, co-incidentally a Resource Group Manager at BAE Systems and I were considering what you do as a coach when you ask your client/coachee a question and they respond with ‘I don’t know.’ How do you help them without giving them an answer on a plate?
Curly neatly addressed this issue during a concise and effective demonstration of life coaching with a volunteer from the audience. One of the questions Curly asked was, ‘ And what action are you going to take?’ The answer came back, ‘I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t know.’ Curly wasn’t phased by this at all, she didn’t make a suggestion or give advice. What she then asked was, ‘Well, if you did know, what would it be?’ This is a very useful little NLP question, which works by getting the client/coachee out of an I-don’t-know-the-answer rut for a few seconds, which is often long enough for a creative solution to emerge.
Other ways of tackling the I-don’t-know-the-answer response are:
1. Ask your client / coachee to think of someone they know whose skills, abilities or qualities they admire. Once they have someone in mind, ask them what this person would do in their situation.
2. Disney Creativity Strategy (Robert Dilts)
This is another NLP technique which allows the client / coachee to look at an issue from different angles. It involves anchoring four spaces on the floor, one for ‘Realist’ one for the ‘Dreamer’, one for the ‘Critic’ and a Meta position. Have your client / coachee step between the Meta position and the first three, considering their issue from that point of view. This technique enables people to identify other courses of action (as well as other potential downsides!).
3. Cartesian Logic questions – these are particularly useful when your client / coachee is stuck for an answer or is unsure about something. They help to test the boundaries of normal thinking, and loosen up limiting beliefs. You ask:
Q What would happen if you did XYZ?
Q What would happen if you didn’t?
Q What wouldn’t happen if you did?
Q What wouldn’t happen if you didn’t?
The questions allow your client / coachee to consider something from all possible angles, and might enable them to see both possibilities and limitations that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
4. Even as a non-directive coach it is OK to make a suggestion as long as you ask the client / coachee’s permission to do so first. Even better if you create an anecdote (‘I know someone in a similar position and they found XYZ helpful’), thus leaving the client / coachee free to decide whether they take it on board or not.
Finally, it really is worth persevering with your questioning in order to help the client / coachee come to their own decision about what action they’ll take, because they are far more likely to be committed to it. Having said that, if you test the level of their commitment (using a simple scale of 1-10) and they’re not on 10, remember to ask, ‘And what would it take to get you up to 10?’.
After all, people are far more likely to take action that they have thought of, and that they are fully committed to.