On coaching questions

My blog entry from last week on coaching questions triggered some responses, mainly asking for a definition of a coaching question. I am not good at defining, but maybe at providing examples. Let’s explore the concept of a coaching question with some examples.

The dinner at a conference

Suppose we meet at a conference. It’s late, I ask you whether you would like to join me for dinner. You do.

We chat over stuff. I complain about work, you complain about home, I complain about all my gardening, and that it takes me 1.5 hours to mow the lawn. I also complain a lot about all the renovations that I need to make to our house.

“What have you seen or heard that led you to that conclusion?”

That’s a coaching question.

The peer

I work with a colleague at a client. We visit some teams, different ones, and exchange our thoughts in the evening. One team is doing well, another not so well. There is a conflict in the team. The ScrumMaster leaves the Sprint Retrospectives – upset. My colleague tells me that she had that same situation with that particular ScrumMaster, and there is a conflict between those two persons on that team.

“What have you seen or heard that led you to that conclusion?”

That’s a coaching question.

The personal coach

I have a monthly call with my personal coach. I ring her. She answers. She asks me how I am, and what I would like to talk about today. I start with that difficult situation in that training class two weeks ago, and how that still puzzled me. That attendee of mine reacted so abnormal, and really drove me and the whole class nuts.

“What have you seen or heard that led you to that conclusion?”

That’s a coaching question.

The question

Note, that I tricked you, and provided one example of a coaching question. Also note that I provided contexts for that same question. Whether I consider one of these questions ok with me depends on that context.

In the first situation, we just met. We don’t have any agreement about what you can offer to me, or what I might be offering to you. We are hanging out, probably drinking some beers if it’s after 6pm. By asking the question in such a situation, you are revealing that you see yourself in the position of a coach when it comes to our relationship. We never had that agreement. That coaching question is not ok. God will kill that kitten.

In the second situation, I am out with a colleague. We exchange our thoughts about the client. We work together, and want to reach a shared understanding about various things. In that situation (that I have in mind), that coaching question is not ok. It might be ok, if we had a chat about our relationship at the client, or she asked me to help her reach another level professionally. We didn’t. That question wouldn’t be appropriate.

In the third situation, I worked with the personal since 2011. I pay her to provide me with new insights. We have talked about various things regarding her coaching contract with me. We have talked about lots of things like overloading myself, me experiences with the loss of my parents, my relationship with my family. We worked on the coaching relationship since three years, and I agreed that’s ok with me. That coaching question is ok.

What’s the difference?

Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a German psychologist, came up with a model on communication that is quite similar to Virginia Satir’s. According to Schulz von Thun, there are four elements in every communication message: context, self-revelation, appeal, and the relationship to the one you are communicating with.

According to Schulz von Thun, we not only speak on each of these levels, but also listen on each of these levels. Now, comes the tricky part. If I listen to your message on a different ear than you wanted to speak to me, we will misunderstand each other.

That’s the case in the first situation above. You ask me a question, probably aimed at the context-level. However, I “hear” that message with the co-notation of how you define our relationship. I don’t agree with you on the definition of our relationship. Now, things go awry.

Contrast this with the third situation. We had a chat about the relationship between each other. My personal coach asks me a question with regards to what I perceived. I agree with the relationship message, since we had settled with that coaching contract. I can now focus on the context of the question.

In the second example, the situation may be different. Maybe the colleague is senior to me, does not like to be challenged by a junior, and opposes my message on the relationship level. Maybe my colleague is junior, learns a lot these days, and welcomes that reflection moment.

That might be a coincidence, though, and I better should settle a coaching contract if I observe myself asking lots of these question regularly. At least we should have a conclusion on how we want to learn from each other.

There are alternatives

Finally, consider the alternatives in the situations above. These stem from Schulz von Thun’s model as well.

In the first situation, you could have said: “Sorry, I don’t understand what you are saying. What’s the thing with your house? I think I need more details to support your conclusion.”

That message addresses the self-revaltion part: “I don’t understand what you are saying.” It also addresses the relationship level in another way as the question before. It addresses the context, that is my house being intensive on renovations. Finally, it comes with the appeal that I should define more details so that the other party can share my conclusion.

A similar phrase or approach may be used in all of the other cases. The thing with my opposition to coaching questions is this: if I don’t share your definition of our relationship, things may go bad. That is since coaching questions leave a large room for speculation. “Why is that guy asking that question?” “What’s the context that he needs to have?” “What is your appeal to our communication?”

Maybe, the only thing that I would need in support of the coaching question is the self-revelation part. Please don’t give me a coaching question, but also consider to reveal something of yourself when asking me without permission. Thanks.

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4 thoughts on “On coaching questions”

  1. Hi Markus,

    I cannot see a connection between von Thun and Satirs thoughts on communication. There is no argument in your post which points to the mentioned similarity.
    In addition please cite psychological models correctly and provide a link to your source. You are right when saying von Thuns communicationmodel knows four different elements in a message. But, as far as I know, there is no element called context. A short look at wikipedia (the very first and untrusted source) under “four-sides model” shows four sides/ elements of a message that are ‘factual information’, ‘self-evelation’, ‘appeal’ and ‘relationship’.
    On the first look Satirs model seems to be based on ideas of Freud (different psychological conditions in one person) and a little bit of transactional analysis.

    1. Hi Florian,

      the reason why I didn’t provide a reference for Schulz von Thun’s model (that’s his full last name), is that I am only aware of German references, for example this one: http://www.schulz-von-thun.de/index.php?article_id=71. Schulz von Thun has also influences from transactional analysis, Gestalt therapy, and Satir.

      I deliberately translated the information content as context, thereby merging together Satir’s and Schulz von Thun’s models. I think there is an overlap, i.e. the “theirs” part in Satir’s model overlaps with the self-revelation and appeal part from Schulz von Thun.

  2. Hi Markus,

    thanks for your reply.
    Your idea of an overlap between Satir’s and Schulz von Thuns models sounds interesting. I would like to read more about this topic. Please explain why there seems to be an overlap.

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