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Conflict Coaching: Seven Essential Questions

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). 

The AWE Question is used when I, 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. 

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.

The Strategic Question brings the client back to the three Ps (project; people; patterns) by asking the simple question: if you are saying “Yes” to this (project/people/patterns) request, to which requests are you saying “No”?. In this manner, the client gets to the realization that if they do not agree to something that is asked of them, then the worst-case scenario is usually something that can be handled. Often clients in conflict situations are there because they truly believed that they were pushed into the situation or because no one else would or could do what is asked. This reality check helps them to decide under what circumstances they should say “yes” rather than agreeing to do something that is not really a true interest. Corollaries also include helping them to stay curious in what they like to do or would like to accomplish and to keep them away from or off the Drama Triangle as a Hero or Victim. Here is how a typical session would look:

Coach: Let’s chat about what has been bugging you. You alluded to it in our last session.

Client: I am really stretched right now with all the “extracurricular work” I am doing. I just can’t turn down anything.

Coach: Tell me about this “extracurricular work”.

Client: What I mean is that I have my assigned work on the project and everyone else has their assigned work but they don’t move at my pace so they are behind and I pull up the slack. I’m doing the work of three different people!

Coach: If you said “no” to the others’ work, what would be the stress points? If you said yes, what or who would be missing out?

In other words, by asking the essence of whether the universe would collapse if the client did not do something, the client gets a reality check on what the actual, versus the perceived, fallout would be. Often it is not as horrific as the client believes, of course.

Lastly, the Learning Question allows both client and coach to have a reality check or an informal assessment of how the coaching sessions went by simply asking “what was most useful for you?”. In other words, by asking the question, the coach is getting to the core of the sessions and asking bluntly for a genuine answer and is clearly curious each and every time for what comes from the client. For instance, a session might go:

Client: I have really learned a lot in our sessions together and I appreciate how much you have helped me with my workplace problems. 

Coach: Thank you and I have enjoyed working with you. If I may, I am curious as to what was useful for you after you think back to our eight coaching sessions together. 

Client: I learned a ton and would be hard pressed to say them all.

Coach: Tell me three then that would show your learning between the two of us. 

Bangay Stanier argues that this question has six advantages for both coach and client: (1) embedded in the question is the notion that the sessions were useful to the client and helps both coach and client to get to the actual useful elements; (2) the actual big ideas can be unpacked and since each client is unique, those ideas are not always predictable; (3) the question makes it personal to the client so that they can really explore how and why the elements were useful to them; (4) the feedback given by the client is useful to the coach for future sessions with this client and with other clients; (5) the answer to the question outlines the learning process for the client and coach and is not a judgement of the coach’s abilities; and, (6) the responses to the question remind the client how useful the coach has been and how useful the client is to the coach.

All of these questions need not be addressed in a given coaching session (and usually are not addressed in one session) but they serve as a guide for the coaching experience. I modify them and use them as ways to unpack the issues that the client brings forward. I also invite the client to try one or two on their own and let me know how they worked.

For further reading, I would highly recommend:

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

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

#ConflictCoach, #Coaching, #EssentialQuestions



Andrew Kitchenham

Dr. Andrew Kitchenham has dealt with conflict for most of his adult life and decided to become a conflict consultant some years ago. He now works part-time as a conflict consultant specializing in workplace disputes and civil mediation. He is certified in Conflict Resolution and Leadership (JIBC) and in Conflict… MORE >

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