The scaling question: flexible and versatile technology for progress-focused professionals
In 1965, psychologist Hadley Cantril wrote an article describing an intervention he called The Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. This intervention can be considered a precursor to what has now become one of the most popular techniques used by coaches: the scaling question. The scaling question came to fruition by the developers of the solution-focused approach, Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer, and their colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in the United States. They added important new elements to the question of scale. Over the years, its application in coaching practice has been further refined and its applications have become broader. Scaling questions are among the most flexible and versatile techniques coaches use today.
How to use the scaling question
When scaling questions are used completely and in the standard manner, the following basic steps apply:
- Explain the scale: This can be done as follows: Imagine a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 represents the situation as you want it to be (describe this 10 if necessary based on what the client has said about what he/she wants to achieve). The 0 represents the situation in which nothing of the desired situation has yet been achieved.
- Ask about the current position: Where are you now on this scale?
- Ask about what is already there: Focus on what is already there between 0 and the current position. Example questions: How have you managed to get to the position you are now?, What helped? What worked especially well? What else helped? Ask questions carefully and encouragingly about the answers the client gives until, as a coach, you can vividly see what the client did that worked.
- Ask about a previous success: Look for a situation in the (preferably recent) past in which the client was already somewhat higher on the scale. Questions you can ask are: Have you ever been a little higher than your current position? What is the highest position you have recently been on this scale? What was different then? What did you do differently then? What worked well then? Encourage the client to take a moment to look for an example. Ask carefully in a curious tone until you can vividly visualize what the client did that worked in this situation.
- Visualizing one step up: Invite the client to vividly describe what it looks like at a higher position on the scale. Example questions are: What does one step higher on the scale look like? How will you soon notice that you have taken one step higher? What will be different then? What will you be able to do then?
- Ask about one small step up: Invite the client to think about what step up he/she can take. Example questions: Has what we discussed given you ideas about how you can take a step forward? What does that step look like? Ask about what exactly the step looks like and in what situation the client wants to take the step.
Illustration of the scaling question
The image below summarizes the use of the scaling question:
How do you formulate the 10 position on the scale?
The 10 position on the scale describes the client's desired situation. The scaling question works best if this desired situation is clearly described. A good description of the 10 position is a description in which you can clearly see what is better in the client's situation. Ideally, you can also see clearly what the client does differently and understand what the benefits of that are.
The desired situation should preferably not be described in ideal or perfectionistic terms. There are two ways to understand why this is unwise.
- The first way is that ideal, perfect situations will never be achieved. If you describe the 10 position in ideal terms, you can assume that the 10 is unattainable for the client.
- The second way is that formulating an overly positive 10 position can discourage the client. This excessively positive 10 position increases the contrast with the client's current position, widening the perceived gap between the current and the desired situation. This can lead to the client becoming less confident in the feasibility of his goal.
Scale walking is an exercise which can be done with an individual client, but also with groups. It goes like this:
- You ask people in the group to imagine that one side of the room represents the 0 and the other side represents the 10.
- Then you ask them to imagine their current position on the scale as N and you ask everyone to stand at position N.
- Then you ask them to think about how they have already managed to get from 0 to N.
- Then you ask them to turn around and tell you what they see when they look at point 10.
- Then you invite them to stand at position 10 and visualize in their minds what it would be like to be at 10 and what would be possible.
- Then they step back to position N and you ask them to imagine what a small step forward might look like.
- And then you invite them to take the step as soon as they have thought of it.
Process Scales for Dilemmas and Unsolvable Problems
Other Types of Scale Questions
- An example of such a variation is the competing-goals scale. You can use this scale when clients are dealing with two goals that they both find important but that are in some degree in conflict with each other. Think, for example, of the goals of time and quality. A client finds it important to deliver a certain product on time but also finds it important that the product he delivers is of good quality. How to deal with this? A scale question can help. You could pose the scale question in different ways. A first example is: Imagine a scale from 0 to 10 where 10 represents the situation where you have delivered the product and can be satisfied with how the timeliness and quality of the product. The 0 represents the situation where none of that desired situation has been achieved. Where are you now on that scale? Another way to pose the scale question with these competing goals could be: Imagine a scale from 0 to 10 where 10 represents the situation where you know how to effectively deal with the tension between time and quality. The 0 represents the situation where you know nothing about how to effectively deal with this tension. Where are you now on that scale?
- A second example is the optimal-zone scale. This is a scale where the optimal point is in the middle. Here you can read an example of an application of this type of scale question where a client wanted to become more assertive but found it important not to overshoot in this.