Essential Questions for the Conflict Coach – Part 2

Essential questions for the conflict coach - Part 2: A young lady deep in thought about the three questions with question marks in the background

Last week, I discussed two of Bungay Stanier’s (2016) seven essential questions and outlined how they can be applied to conflict coaching. Those two were the Kickstart Question and the AWE (And What Else?) Question; the former opens the discussion as to what is on your mind so that we can begin with the issue at hand so the point of this question is to have an overt presentation of the issues and to create a focus for the initial session and the latter allows you to add to your conflict narrative by expanding on what other related issues need to be brought to the forefront. To remind you, 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. Today, I will add three more essential questions to the first two to be considered in the conflict coaching sessions.

The Focus Question allows the coach to centre on the problem from the perspective of the client. The question is related to the client and not to others (i.e., what’s the challenge for you?) so there is not an opportunity for externalizing the issue. In this way, the coach assists the client in stopping three crucial actions: focusing on the wrong problem, trying to solve the problem on their own, and bringing the progress to a standstill. Often the client will be “stuck” and not be able to move away from an issue so the question forces them to look at the challenge as it pertains to them and not to other people and concentrates on development coaching (i.e., process) and not performance coaching (i.e., product). An example segment of a coaching session follows:

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, what did you hope to happen in the meeting?

Client: I thought that, after I pointed out to him in private, what the impact of his behaviour was on me, that the situation would improve but there is little changed.

Coach: Thinking back then, what challenges can you anticipate will come up in a future interaction?

In this manner, the coach brings the dispute back to the client so that they can focus on how they, themselves, can do something about the problem rather than focusing on what others are doing.

The Foundation Question helps the client to articulate what they want rather than what they need. In this way, the client takes responsibility for what they get out of the session and with future interactions with people with whom they have conflict. I often discuss the role of the amygdala when laying out the difference between what a client would like to happen (i.e., wants) and what a client must have (i.e., needs). Specifically, I demonstrate how that almond-sized part of the limbic system rules the emotions so that when the client reacts emotionally, the pre-frontal cortex is either not used properly or is bypassed and we do and say things that we later regret or cannot take back. It is also the source of the fight-flight-freeze reflex and most clients understand that argument and become more cognizant of the role of emotion in conflict. The essential question of “What do you want?” is so direct that the client gets down to brass tacks and describes what would be ideal within the parameters of the situation but slightly beyond—essentially what mediators recognize as the Miracle Question based on solution-focused therapy. A sample coaching dialogue could look like this:

Client: I am finding that Sheila has gotten better but her sarcasm does come through quite often.

Coach: Tell me about that sarcasm. … Give me an example.

Client: Yesterday, she pointed out that my design ideas were very good and then followed it with a comment about a clock being right twice a day.

Coach: Thinking back to that exchange or about future exchanges, what do you want?

By having the client, after several attempts, articulate what he would ideally like to happen, to be sure, some of their needs come out, we get a better idea of where we can go next in the conflict journey.

The Lazy Question is a direct and clear request from the coach to the client: How can I help? (read, what can be done by the coach for the client). It can be (and is by Bungay Stanier) conceptualized using Karpman’s Drama Triangle familiar to most mediators and coaches. In other words, it recognizes that a person can play a Victim (or Persecuted), a Hero (or a Rescuer), or a Villain (or a Persecutor) in any given daily drama at work, home, or place of worship and that we are constantly playing these archetypal roles but can become more aware of what is happening and “who we are”. The coach’s role is to help the client recognize which role or where on the triangle they are and then what can be done with the assistance of the coach. An exchange between coach and client follows:

Coach: I can see that something has been bothering you. Please share with me.

Client: As you know, I am on the Project Planning Committee with Bill and Betty but I am doing all the work (Victim) which I don’t mind since I know what I am doing and know that they don’t work well (Hero) and it will help the department (Rescuer).

Coach: Just so I understand you, what role or roles do you think you just described to me?

Client: [Re-tells the anecdote and the coach asks them to stop and single out the role].

Coach: So, out of curiosity, what can I do to help you?

The last phrase, “out of curiosity”, is useful as it guards against the client articulating a request that would be outside of the coach’s responsibility such as telling the client what to do or say in that situation. The focus would be to get the client to recognize the archetypes and what the client can do once they see where they are (or not) on the triangle.

In summary, these three questions help the client and the coach unpack the conflict narrative and, by providing honest and open answers to the poignant questions, the coach can assist with strategies to be used in the conflict environment. Next week, I will wrap up the three-part discussion of asking essential questions by outlining the Strategic Question, and the Learning Question.

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.