Essential Questions for the Conflict Coach – Part 1

Essential questions for the conflict coach - Part 1: Five people holding up question cards to emphasize the importance of specific questions

This week (and for the next two weeks after), I would like to discuss conflict coaching. Today will be the introduction which will include a preliminary discussion of a model of coaching that I have applied to conflict coaching. This one will be followed by a further discussion and then I will conclude a week after that with the final discussion in this three-part series.

Coaching can take many forms and works differently for each individual. What I would like to present today is a model that uses seven essential questions to assist in the coaching process taken from Bungay Stanier’s (2016), The coaching habit: Say less, ask more & change the way you lead forever, who the first Canadian Coach of the Year. I use this model to assist me in building a coaching habit with a client for conflict coaching. It takes about 10-15 minutes a day once we have established a coaching-for-performance foundation for our sessions.

I tend to follow Knight’s (2007) seven partnership principles to guide that focus on coaching for performance as a framework for the essential questions. Equality means that the relationship between the coach and the client is one of mutual respect so that we each bring to the table our own backgrounds and experiences and they help shape our time together. Choice is recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach is not beneficial for the relationship and will definitely not work since each situation is unique. Voice necessitates that we are both honest in our genuine curiosity so that we want to get each other and the situation better. Reflection is a major tenet of the partnership as we need to think over what has happened in the past to focus on the present so that we can change the future: the more reflective we are, the more effective we are. Dialogue involves a two-way communication that means more reflection on the part of the coached person and less “supervisor talk” from me so that we engage in a genuine discussion. Praxis is a fancy word for what we do to get to the resolutions when dealing with conflict in our lives. It is the exercise or practice of an art, science, or a skill. Lastly, Reciprocity is critical as it means not only does the client walk with more than they came with but also the coach gets something out of the experience whether it is learning more about specific workplace dynamics (e.g., three-union environment) or whether to move more quickly or slowly through the process.

The seven essential questions are: (1) The Kickstart Question; (2) The AWE Question; (3) The Focus Question; (4) The Foundation Question; (5) The Lazy Question; (6) The Strategic Question; and (7) The Learning Question. I have adapted them for the purposes of conflict coaching.

The Kickstart Question opens the discussion as to what is on your mind so that we can begin with the issue at hand. The point of this question is to have an overt presentation of the issues and to create a focus for the initial session. My role is to see what matters to you most without any judgement and to assist us in finding a starting point for how I can help the client through and with the conflict. We also consider the three Ps which each relate to the conflict and often overlap: the project (i.e., content of the situation), patterns (i.e., behaviour present now or in the past), and people (i.e., relationships and roles people play in the conflict situation). For example, the dialogue might go something like this:

Coach: Where would you like to start?

Client: I’d like to start with what happened yesterday in our staff meeting

Coach: Walk me through what that looked like and remember the 3 Ps.

Client: Well, Bill started with the reasons why we did not get the funding granted and lambasted the whole team.

By digging through the details, we can have an open dialogue on the conflict (project), what people were doing (patterns), and unpack who is involved (people).

I use the AWE Question, as coach, want to get further details either because what the client, left out might be useful to know or the client has not gotten to the heart of the conflict with what the client has to share—in other words, I need to know And What Else (AWE) should be shared. In this way, I can use a very quick and easy way to uncover and create possibilities. What we both want to do in this exchange is to stay curious and be genuine in that curiosity. I want to repeat the question several times so that we can dig deeper, to recognize success in what the client says and does, and to move on when it is time to do so. On a pragmatic level, this repeating of the AWE Question also allows for more options and decisions since the question gives the client an open window to come to those on their own. For the coach, it permits self-control if the temptation is to jump in and give advice rather than have the client get there on their own. It also buys time for the coach since asking the question might shake the cobwebs loose when you cannot quite figure out what comes next. A sample dialogue might be:

Coach: Tell me what has happened since we last chatted.

Client: The situation hasn’t gotten any better. Jim still dominates the meetings and cuts me off whenever I try to make a point and then shoots daggers at me when I am forced to raise my voice to be heard.

Coach: So, you are frustrated that you cannot get your point across and feel undervalued by Jim and maybe others. And what else?

Client: Well, I think that others are just as frustrated but they do not want to speak up.

Coach: So, they might feel stifled as well then. And what else…?

As the dialogue goes back and forth, more details, options, and decisions and their related strategies come out that help to build objective criteria for dealing with conflict scenarios.

In the end, these first two essential questions will set the stage for a really fulsome coaching session. Next week, I will discuss the next three questions that will expand on today’s post.

For further reading, I would highly recommend:

Bungay Stanier, M. (2016). The coaching habit: Say less, ask more & change the way you lead forever. Box of Crayons Press.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership to improving instruction. Corwin Press.