June 11, 2010

The art of asking irresistible questions

Sometimes I feel that the core of solution-focused coaching and managing comes down to the art of asking irresistible questions. Now and then, on forehand, situations and problems seem so complex that you wonder how it will be possible to bridge differences, to stimulate cooperation and to start finding ideas for solutions, let alone to make progress. Even though, as a solution-focused coach, you may have had lots of experience with how problematic and seemingly hopeless situations have eventually turned out good, when a new one comes along, you may again wonder how this next one can possibly go right. At least I do. When reflecting afterwards on these situations, it is interesting to think about what worked. How was it possible in this situation to 'get' people to cooperate and to focus their attention on desired outcomes, on past successes and on steps forward? Usually I conclude that powerful questions contributed a lot. Solution-focused questions at their best can be so powerful; you might even call them irresistible. Sometimes clients and participants in our training programs say things like: "I just had to let go of my anger, I could not hold on to it any longer", or "That question was such an eye opener, it helped me to see my situation completely different".

Here is one example of a question which has this irresistible quality. Imagine an involuntary client who, at the beginning of the conversation with his solution-focused coach, says he is very angry about the fact that he has to talk to the coach. In fact, he is so angry that he even hesitates about whether he should sit down and start the conversation with the coach. He asks: "Why the hell can't they just leave me alone and do my job?” Then, the solution focused coach says the following: "I realize you are an independent minded person who does not want to be told what to do and I can imagine you want to be left alone to do you work. What do you say you and I sit down and try to figure out what would need to happen for them to leave you alone so that you won't need to come here any longer than necessary?" The client thought for a few seconds, his facial expression change, he said down, and said: "Alright. Sounds fair, let's talk."

Have you ever asked or been asked an irresistible question?

9 comments:

  1. So...if we were to try to pick out a structure in your example, might it go something like this:
    1) Make a descriptive matching statement that let's the client know that you have heard him,
    2)Ask them a question that invites him to get what he really wants,providing of course, that you have a little visit about it.

    Those seem to be necessary to constructing an "irresistable" question, but are they sufficient?

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  2. Hi anonymous (feel free to use your real name - with such good comments, I'm always curious who's behind them),

    What you have written looks like a good start of a formalization of what happens here. Here are some are some additional words to describe what happens here.

    The phrase "I realize you are an independent minded person who does not want to be told what to do and I can imagine you want to be left alone to do you work", contains several elements, such als summarizing in the language of the client to acknowledge what he says. By doing this you make clear that you work with the perspective of the client as it is now.
    The phrase also contains an element of reframing: "you are an independent minded person".
    The second part, "What do you say you and I sit down and try to figure out what would need to happen for them to leave you alone so that you won't need to come here any longer than necessary?" is framed as an invitation to accentuate the choice of the client. It works with the (minimal) goal of the client and at the same time implies that the external goal will have to be met.
    Of course, this is only the start of the conversation but the opening is created.

    What are your further thoughts on this?

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  3. Coert,

    This is actually a brilliant way of handling the situation. It reminds me a little bit of NVC (Non Violent Communication). In NVC you would suggest to the person what they might be feeling and what they might be wanting. With SF you don't identify a feeling for the person. Clearly that is not necessary and you can go straight to suggesting the solution the client is looking for.

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  4. Love the real-time example and Rodney's link to NVC. The nugget for me:
    1) Affirm who client is.
    2) Ask, "What do you really want?"

    These are irresistable statements and questions...like handing the keys to a shiny car, asking "Where do you want to go?", and noting the tank is full of gas...

    Curt--had problems posting this; if duplicate please post this one. thanks.

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  5. Coert/Rodney,

    As I read the comments, my first response was that the process of "joining" seems to open the door between the client and the coach.

    So when I read Rodney's comment about being able to "go straight to suggesting the solution," I thought, "No! You have to join first!"

    And then I realized, what if the solution is so enticing that the client forgets to hold onto their unproductive state of mind.

    Perhaps, joining removes some of the barriers between client and coach, but perhaps some invited solutions are so powerful that joining is unnecessary?

    Thoughts?

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  6. Hi Jim,

    I agree with the importance of joining. see my post first Join, then ask: http://bit.ly/bgUY26

    In the example I mentioned in this post, the question is to some extent irresistible but it is preceeded by joining.

    Another example of this can be found in this post: Redirecting attention from negative to positive in 3 small steps (P->C->O) - http://bit.ly/dyJQGi

    However, there is one example in which I think joining and asking seem practically the same. I am refering to reframing. With reframing we put what the client has said in a more constructive light. Example: Client: "I hate the fact that I receive that information so late. Now I have to generate the information myself!" Coach: "So you'd like to receive the information a bit sooner so that you could use your time for other things?

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  7. By the way, Jim, I have quoted you on twitter/facebook:

    "The process of 'joining' seems to open the door between the client and the coach" ~Jim Mortensen

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  8. Coert,

    Good point. I like the P->C->O approach.

    For me reframing is one of my strongest tools. It's less important that the new frame be "true" so much as that it suddenly frees the person from the "jail" of their previous perspective.

    Jim

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