Another important distinction in coaching questions is whether the question takes the learner’s attention ‘upwards’, towards the big picture, similarities, and the abstract level, or ‘downwards’ to details, differences, and concrete facts.
The distinction is important because of the different kinds of information the two types of question will get you, and because of the effect on the learner’s way of thinking, their attitude, and even their emotional state.
Given that the human mind can only handle about four ‘chunks’ of information at any given time, it makes a difference what level of abstraction these ‘chunks’ are at. At a ‘big chunk’ level, each ‘chunk’ will contain a lot of information but in a summarised, abstracted way.
In order to get to the details of any of the information contained in that chunk, you would have to ‘chunk down’ to a smaller chunk size, where each ‘chunk’ contains more detailed and concrete information about one part of the bigger chunk.
Conversely, if you are considering something at a ‘small chunk’ detailed level, and you want to know how that information fits in to the bigger picture, or what is important about it, you would need to ‘chunk up’ to a higher level.
All of the above is using the language of a ‘hierarchy of ideas’, with the big picture at the top and progressively finer levels of detail below, moving from abstract to more concrete as you move down it. You may prefer to think of it as a picture, where you can ‘zoom in’ to focus on details or ‘zoom out’ to see the whole picture. I’m going to stick with chunking up or down for now.
We all move up or down the levels of abstraction in our thinking, but you will find that some people are more used to thinking at the abstract level, while others like to immerse themselves in details.
Whichever way you consider like to consider moving between abstract and concrete, big picture and details, the best way to help others (or yourself) shift between levels is to use questions.
Why would we want to ask ‘chunking up’ questions?
- To get a better picture of the whole context of a problem, decision or goal.
- To identify the values which supply importance and motivation to a goal or behaviour. Reflecting on our most important values helps us to identify what the right course of action is, increases our sense of self-efficacy, and reduces stress.
- To be able to think more strategically, which is an essential qualification for leadership.
Generally, the higher level of abstraction someone can think at (while still being able to communicate with people operating at more concrete and practical levels), the higher they can rise in an organisation.
If you want to chunk up from a part or component to the whole thing, you could ask “What is this part of?”
To chunk up from a single example to a category, you could ask “What is this an example of?”
To chunk up from an action, process, thing or idea to what is important about it, you could ask “What’s important about this?” or “For what purpose?”
Note that to chunk up higher, you could repeat the question as many times as you need to, using the previous answer as your starting point: “What’s important about <previous question>?”
You could vary the question by asking something like “When you have <previous answer>, what will that get you that’s even more important than that?” or “What is the highest purpose of <previous answer>?” Note how the direction (chunking up) that you want the person’s thinking to take is made explicit in these questions by “even more important” and “highest purpose”.
If you just want someone to zoom out and see the big picture, you could just ask “What’s the big picture?”
And if you are asking a question like “What’s the highest purpose of <previous answer>?” repeatedly, you can soften the question and increase its ‘trance-inducing’ effect by adding ‘And…’ to the beginning of each question: “And… what’s the highest purpose of <previous answer>?” The ‘and’ connects it to all the previous answers in the mind of the listener, helping to make sure that they stay on track.
A couple of other things about abstract, big-chunk thinking:
Higher levels of abstraction make for agreement. It’s easier to agree when both sides keep in mind the big picture and what’s important to them both. Abstractions are also vaguer and can mean different things to different people. Most people would be in favour of ‘better quality of life’, for example – even though what that abstraction means in to them in practice may take very different forms.
The other interesting thing is that the higher up the levels of abstraction you take someone, the more they tend to go into trance. This is because we can form mental images of concrete things, like dogs or motorbikes, or actions like running or making sales calls, but when we talk about abstractions like ‘companionship’, ‘transport’, ‘exercise’ or ‘business’, the only way we can form sensory mental images of them is to go inside ourselves and find our own examples.
We can ask ‘chunking down’ questions to get more specific (for example, to find the cause of a problem), to fill in missing information, to discover what is meant by an abstraction, or to find specific ways that a value could be fulfilled in practice.
To find a specific part or component that is of interest: “Which part?”
To recover information that has been left out: “Which meeting are we talking about?”
To ‘unpack’ an abstraction: “What do you mean by ‘excellent performance’? Could you give me an example?”
To find ways to fulfil a value: “What would be an example of ‘creativity’ in action? How else could you express that value?”
Getting more specific brings a person’s awareness back to noticing through sensory data what is going on around them, and to bring them back out of trance. If used aggressively, without softeners, ‘chunking down’ questions may make the person feel like they are being interrogated: “What precisely do you mean by that? When was this?”
Also, the more you go into detail, the more there is to disagree about. Two people may both love bikes, but if you get them talking about their favourite bike and why it’s so great, then they’ll probably choose different models and have plenty to disagree about.
So chunking up will tend to make a person more agreeable, feeling better about themselves and more motivated (if you are chunking up to values), but possibly less aware of what is happening around them. Chunking down will make a person more alert and focused on the mechanics of how to achieve their goals, but also possibly feeling more pressured, disheartened (if the focus has been too much on obstacles) and more likely to disagree with you.
You can discover more about the Hierarchy of Ideas and ‘chunking’ in the Practical NLP Podcast episode 34
Have you found this post useful in your coaching practice or management style? Do you have any questions? Write a comment to let me know!