“The inquiry is the intervention”

Change Starts From the Very First Question

Someone new to coaching might think that we should ask questions to help the client explore their situation, at the same time gathering information to clue ourselves in to what’s going on for them; and only after that does change start, as we prescribe some actions they should take (if we’re doing directive coaching) or ask the client what they could do to improve things (if we’re trying to be non-directive).

In reality, that’s not how change in the coaching relationship, or any human conversation, works. There are no independent observers where human beings are concerned. We can’t inquire into any human system – whether it’s a society, an organisation, a team, or an individual – without our presence affecting that system.

This is especially true when we’re gathering information through questions, because questions – even supposedly neutral, ‘objective’ questions – create change in the mind of the listener.

In fact all language does this. When I trained in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and hypnosis many years ago, my trainers often used to say that everyone is a hypnotist, but most of us don’t realise it. What they meant was that any time someone says something, that acts as a hypnotic suggestion, in the sense that their words create and sequence ‘internal representations’ in the mind of the listener (‘internal representations’ essentially means images in the broadest sense – not just visual images but maybe sounds, feelings, internal dialogue, and perhaps even smells or tastes – which might be memories, interpretations of present experience, or imagined future events).

Because most people aren’t trained to think about the hypnotic effects of language, the effects they evoke in the minds of the listeners may not be helpful to the message they’re trying to communicate, or may even have the opposite result to what they intended. By way of illustration, I used to say to my students “Don’t think of a blue rhinoceros!” – with the result, of course, that they couldn’t help thinking of a blue rhinoceros, as you probably did too for a moment.

So the language we use inevitably affects what our listeners and readers think about, and the way they’re thinking about it. This is particularly true of questions, because as soon as we ask a question, part of the listener’s mind starts looking for an answer. Every question invites the listener to turn their attention in a new direction, so that they’re thinking about different things, and possibly in different ways. The more you ask your coaching clients about their problems, the more they will think about them, the more the ‘Task Positive Network’ in their brains will be activated, and, quite possibly, the more stressed, defensive, and (possibly) helpless they may feel. If, instead, you ask them about successes, strengths, and their best experiences, they will start feeling better and go into Default (‘empathic’) mode.

The process of encouraging your client down one path or the other starts with the very first question. Hence the common saying in the Appreciative Inquiry literature: “the inquiry is the intervention”.

When I covered the Simultaneity Principle as it applies to working with teams and small groups in my previous book, Practical Appreciative Inquiry, I started the section with a quote from Appreciative Inquiry’s principal originator that bears repeating:

“It is not so much, “is my question leading to right or wrong answers?” but rather “What effect is my question having on our lives together… Is it strengthening our relationships?”

– David L Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change

How Will You Apply the Simultaneity Principle?

Think about how you start your coaching sessions, especially your first time with a new client. What questions do you ask?

In fact, change could start even before you greet the client. If you use them, how do the wording of your client intake form, your coaching ‘contract’, and even your marketing materials and social media presence influence the direction of your client’s attention?

Image by Igor Komarov at pexels.com

Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching: the Simultaneity Principle

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