Your Strategy for Asking Powerful Questions

Asking the right questions is a challenging task, especially when you do not want to impose your own opinion on the person or team you are coaching. In this fifth and final blog post about Systemic coaching we will explore the four question types of Karl Tomm.
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Welcome to the fifth and final blog post in our series on Systemic coaching in the context of Agile and Change Management.

In case you have missed some of the previous parts, here is the list of all the blog posts in the series:

Asking the right questions is a challenging task, especially when you do not want to impose your own opinion on the person or team you are coaching. Great coaching questions are open-minded, open-ended, non-judging, and help to foster new ideas and visions about possibilities. These kinds of questions are what we call powerful questions.

There are several approaches to practicing powerful questions. They depend on which coaching school you are coming from. One approach is to practice a deck of questions until you know them by heart, thereby being able to choose the right one in any given situation. Another (and more intelligent) approach is to learn a strategy for designing the right question at the moment. This strategy comes out of a model developed by the Canadian psychologist Karl Tomm.

The Past and the Future – Simple and Complex Understandings

The approach of Karl Tomm has its roots in Systemic theory. It encapsulates circularity and the understanding that each of us has a different view upon the facts about any given situation. No one has a monopoly on the truth. The model pictured above shows two dimensions: Time and understanding. The past vs the future on the horizontal axis and simple vs complex understandings on the vertical axis.

Some of our powerful questions are aimed at what has already happened, and others are aimed at what could happen. Some of our powerful questions presume that there is one and only one truth (linear or simple questions) and others acknowledge the diversity in our understanding of the truth (circular or complex questions). Truth in human interaction is plural, as the late Ralph Stacey would say.

When we ask questions that are past-oriented and linear, we ask questions like a detective in an interrogation:

  • “What happened?”
  • “Who did what?”
  • “Who’s fault is it?”

Here we are looking for facts that help us understand the issue.

When we ask questions that are past-oriented and circular, we ask questions like an anthropologist doing research:

  • “What do you think was their motivation to do so?”
  • “From which point of view could the action he did make sense?”
  • “Could it be that she saw something that the rest of you did not realize? What could it be?”

We are looking for intentions and expanding our understanding of the intentions.

Questions we ask as future-oriented and circular questions have the intention of exploring opportunities and expanding possibilities. Here we ask questions like a future researcher. We might also ask questions that suggest that a miracle has happened overnight:

  • “If you were to come to work tomorrow and the problem has disappeared overnight, how would you notice?”
  • “When you, in three months, have solved this matter and look back on today, which decisions did you make that made a difference?”

Questions in this category might seem a bit strange at first, but give it a try. The advantage of questions like this is that they disconnect the coachee from the current and constrained situation, freeing up energy to see new perspectives and decide new cause of actions based on those perspectives. They help the coachee to see which part of the miracle or the desired future are already present today, and how they can be used as stepping stones towards the goal.

Finally, we can ask simple or linear future-oriented questions. They are questions that captains would ask. They are more direct and serve the purpose of setting direction for the wanted change:

  • “What is the first thing you are going to do?”
  • “Who will you talk to?”
  • “How can he or she help you?”

Like in a retrospective, this is where the specific tasks are defined and prepared for action.

It’s Like Driving a Car

When coaching someone, we are mostly looking at the future and the change we are going to make. However, from time to time we must look back to the past to understand what has happened and why we are in the current situation. It is like driving a car: We are mostly looking out the windshield at the traffic in front of us, but from time to time we also look in the rear mirror to know what is behind us.

There is no specific route you must follow when using the model of Karl Tomm. Personally, I find that most of the time I start as a detective, then become an anthropologist, then investigate as the future researcher, and finally ending as the captain. But on my way, I may jump back and forth when my intuition tells me to.

Asking powerful questions is a valuable tool you can use as a coach, and with practice, you can, in time, be fluent in this approach.

Are you interested in learning Systemic coaching in an Agile context?

Below is a list of our currently scheduled trainings. Read more about this program here.

Closing Comments

This blog post concludes our series about Systemic coaching in the context of Agile and Change Management. I hope you found value in reading it. Systemic coaching is a strong tool that can provide a huge impact on those who are experiencing it, so let me end this with a couple of important comments.

First of all, you obviously do not become a full blown Systemic coach by reading a couple of blog posts on the internet. It requires proper education and a lot of practice. There are many coaching schools who are providing this education. The techniques described in this series are also being taught in our Agile Coaching Professional training with ICAgile certification. I suggest you choose what is best for you, but if Agile coaching is your focus, I will of course recommend our program (you can see a list of currently scheduled trainings above).

Secondly, Systemic coaching is for well functioning human beings who want to make a change in their way of acting. It is not therapy so do not fall into the trap of becoming a pocket psychologist. You might experience people who come to you for coaching, but what they really need is therapy. Unless you are a trained psychologist or therapist, you should stay away from experimenting with such human beings as there is a risk of you providing more damage than help. Let them know that you are not the one to help them – maybe even guide them in finding proper professionals that can help instead of you.

Thirdly, do not coach without permission. Over time, you will most likely experience a change in how you talk and act when people come to you seeking to address matters, and that is fine. But do not roll out the full coaching toolbox unless you collectively have agreed on coaching. You can always offer your coaching capabilities but sometimes people just need advice.

And finally, coaching is not the answer to everything. There are situations where coaching is appropriate and there are situations where coaching is not. For example if you are to provide feedback about undesired behaviour or under-performance – and even worse – if you have to lay off people, then coaching is an absolute no-go. Trying to provide coaching in such situations you risk becoming a manipulator rather than a coach. Let’s avoid that.


The four question types of Karl Tomm

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Your Strategy for Asking Powerful Questions

Asking the right questions is a challenging task, especially when you do not want to impose your own opinion on the person or team you are coaching. In this fifth and final blog post about Systemic coaching we will explore the four question types of Karl Tomm.

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