Sorry, can you repeat the question please?
How often as a coach do you find yourself asking the same question over and over? And if you did, what sense would you make of that?
As I’m pondering on how you, my reader, might be reacting to this blog, a variety of images and stories come up for me. The first is a humorous ‘Basil Fawlty’ steamroller-style reaction when someone doesn’t appear to understand. Say the same thing BUT LOUDER, surely they’ll hear us then?
But sometimes repetition can be helpful. And powerful.
I learnt ‘The broken record’ as a strategy for assertiveness. This is when you have a message to communicate that might be unpopular, or you find difficult to say. Often in these kinds of challenging situations, naturally what people do is start offering countless alternative reasons and additional information to their original statement. However the more one protests, the more dilute the message. Broken record means you repeat the same core message, all the while still empathising and listening to the other.
But that’s for imparting information, surely every question should be different and unique, to get different and unique answers, yes?
And… have you ever seen a small kid using the ‘why’ question to get to the heart of the matter (and, often their own way!). Conversations that go like this:
Why can’t I have a new bike? Because we can’t afford it
But why? Because I refuse to work longer hours which might mean a promotion
But why? Because I care about you and what to have quality time to spend with you
But why? Because one of my core values is around being a nurturing parent
And so on to infinity and beyond…
(There is actually a problem solving technique called the ‘five whys’ – check that out here.)
Sometimes asking the same question means you circle around the same point and gradually get deeper… or go wider.
The difference that makes the difference is that each round of repeated question is asked of the most recent response that emerged. In this way, it becomes an iterative, recursive process.
I used to be frightened of words like ’iteration’ and ‘recursion’ as they sounded too mathematical to me, without a place in the world of soft-skills and coaching.
Yet, they are pretty important terms to get your head around to understand how minds work, especially when solving problems and/or being creative.
Iteration is the process of repeating steps to reach an outcome. A coaching conversation therefore, consisting of a sequence of questions and replies, is always iterative to some degree. In mathematics and computer programming, iteration follows a certain pattern, in that each of the iterative steps uses the output from the previous step as the input for the next. This is what ensures we don’t just go around in circles repeating the same thing over and over! Good coaching conversations involve skilful selection of the emerging insights to continue the ‘thread’ and ensure some progress is made.
Recursion is often part of iteration, and this is where one of the steps doubles back to the start by referencing itself. Creating a mini infinity loop. Like a boomerang the question keeps coming back. An example of this might be
“What do you know about that?”
“Is there anything else you know about THAT?”
“And is there anything else you know about THAT?”
“And is there anything else you know about THAT?”
The conversation could go on forever! And, what usually happens is that at some point, the person being asks begins to notice the pattern of responses and makes a mental leap in understanding themselves.
What happens is a little feedback loop of self-enquiry – like holding a mirror up to the mind, so it can see itself and reflect on the process it’s using to generate the responses to your questions.
To get that kind of self-enquiry activated in coaching can be pure magic.
David Grove, the New Zealand counselling psychotherapist who created Clean Language, absolutely loved scientific terms like iteration and recursion. He took these scientific principles that work so well, for instance, in creating algorithms that search engines use to send out enquiries for the closest match to a question (or key words). And he applied the principles to coaching conversations. How can we ask a question that encourages the client to go on a journey of self-enquiry?
From this came his notion of reflecting back the client’s words exactly, rather than paraphrasing, And also ‘Emergent Knowlege’. This branch of David’s work features a number of coaching questioning models that feature asking the same question in multiples of six (The question set above is an example of this).
Curiously often clients don’t even notice they are being asked the same question. Because each time they hear it, they are in a different mental place. Each question has a cumulative effect, the ‘THAT’ in the example above points to all the previous responses given, creating an ever-growing hub of ‘knowing’ that eventually reaches a tipping point and insight can occur, All from looping around the same question!
To learn more about iterative questions and Emergent Knowledge see our Module One training course information (now available to attend any time as a self-study course):