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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Denise and Jason develop deepening questions

After getting their lunch at the buffet in the canteen, a salad for Denise, they sat down at a table and started to eat without talking.

After a while, Jason broke the silence. "I’ve been using the questions from the Coaching Kata card for quite a while now. Initially, it felt strange to read from the card, and some wording felt strange too. But now I feel comfortable following the structure when I coach Mary. It seems like both of us have adjusted to the questions, and Mary even thinks ahead when I coach her. In fact, we barely look at the card anymore.

"During my last coaching cycles, however, I had the impression that the five questions were not enough."

"What do you mean exactly?" Denise asked hopefully.

Jason continued. “Some time ago, you told me about the five phases of a coaching cycle, every question of the Coaching Kata opens a phase of the conversation and is like a quality gate. You said as a coach, we should only move on to the next phase if the 'gate question’ is answered precisely enough. I think you called it stand on red - walk on green.

“For example, sometimes, I have the feeling that the answers are imprecise or based on assumptions. I feel that we should not immediately move on but investigate more deeply, but how do I address this as a coach without sounding like I am giving orders?

“Often I then fall back on closed questions like, "Are you sure?" or "Is that really the case? I realize those are leading questions and could even be understood as mistrust. Even just saying what I think we should do next would be better than that. I’m thrilled we have this learning group setting and Mary is on the team. We all know that we are learning and forgive each other's mistakes.

“What I would like to learn is how can I continue coaching in such a situation, probably by asking a question that helps Mary to rethink. That would be so much better. Then, of course, I would need more questions than just the five starter questions of the Coating Kata.

"That's a great insight, and I am glad you recognize your knowledge threshold and are ready to move beyond it," Denise grabbed the opportunity.

"If the improver can't answer a quality gate question precisely, the coach should help the improver to rethink and clarify for themselves. The coach can do this best by asking open deepening questions," Denise continued.

Jason responded, "Okay, ‘open deepening questions.’ That makes so much sense and what seemed to be missing. I have tried to dig deeper by asking more questions. However, I tend to lose the thread of the conversation once we get into the details.“

Denise remembered, “yes once you start to deviate from the card you get in trouble. I had the same experience. I realized that when we start using deepening questions as a coach it is important to remember in which of the five phases of the coaching cycle we currently are. My conclusion was that we should always use the five starter questions of the Coaching Kata because they are like milestones, the framework of a good coaching cycle. If we skip one or mix them up, the conversation quickly becomes chaotic. That is how I came up with the "Rule of thumb." You might recall that from our group discussion.

Jason replied, "Right, I do recall that now. And I agree that I often find myself spinning in circles once I start using deepening questions and end up being suggestive. Wouldn’t it be good to have some reference for good deepening questions? I'm glad you’ve had the same experience. Maybe we could start a list of useful deepening questions. What do you think?“

"Yes, I had a similar thought just the other day when I realized that I was using the same deepening questions over and over. I think we could make a list of them. I'm in," Denise responded.

“Let’s finish lunch, grab a coffee and go to my office and write down some of these questions.”

In her office Denise quickly printed out the card with the Coaching Kata questions on a letter size paper and drew some lines on the right side of it separating the five phases. Then she asked Jason to describe a suitable situation from his coaching cycles.

Jason pondered a moment and finally said, "often it already starts in phase two with the current condition described very generally. Something like, the process is running a lot better already". I agree and praise my improver, and then they excitedly rattle off suggestions for further improvement, like my praise gave them permission to jump ahead to a brainstorm of scattershot solutions."

Denise started laughing. She remembered some of her coaching cycles with Joe and Mark.

"I know this problem. And I think we all tend to get excited when we have ideas for solutions. Occasionally, we have to pull the improver back a step. I’ve started to ask 'what does this mean in data’ in situations like that. It refocuses the improver on a more in-depth understanding of the current condition, and typically leads to more observation and measurement as a next step. It may seem like a step backward, but it usually then allows us to move forward with more focused ideas for experimenting.”

They pencilled the question on the list opposite phase 2. Denise picked up again, “but now we sometimes have the problem that the data displayed for the current condition is not really up to date.”

Jason jumped in, "you could simply ask what the current condition was yesterday, or even today?"

Denise replied, "ah, right, that’s the trick of repeating and adding a time constraint that I learned from Maggie. Great insight. She explained the general concept of repeat and add, “Instead of coming up with an entirely new question, you repeat the same question and add what you would like to clarify. In that case, a time constraint.”

“That’s cool”, Jason replied, “the shorter I choose the timeframe, the more my improver has to come up with current data. I even could ask about the current condition on the last shift or even the last hour“.

Then he continued by explaining another situation he frequently struggled with. "Our processes in sales administration are often not as easy to measure as your processes in production. Therefore, sometimes data is estimated or extrapolated from a few single point measurements. Of course, that’s not what I want because without good data we will soon end up with messy assumptions.

“However, these situations are often hard to identify for me as a coach. Nobody likes to admit not having a clue when asked for data", Jason started laughing. “Especially in sales where numbers are everything, but they are often based on sketchy data. However, when coaching, I often feel the urge to burst out ‘that’s an assumption' or ‘oh come on, that can't be true.' I truly have to bite my tongue then. Maybe I should discuss how to handle these situations with my team.”

Denise pondered. "Well, that could be a good idea. Actually, we have this problem with missing data and facts quite often throughout the company. Just think of our project meetings when we get asked about some specific details regarding one of our projects. Would we actually openly admit that we don't have precise data about this aspect right now?"

Jason started laughing again. "That might be quite a bit of fun, simply admitting in a meeting like that, ' I'm at the threshold of knowledge, I don't know '. Maybe we should give it a try next time".

Denise shook her head. "I don't think that would be a good idea at this point. Or at least that might be the last project we were asked to lead. Most of the time, we therefore try to give at least a vague answer that sounds good.“

Jason laughed even harder. "At my old company, we always called this AC-WC: Act Confident, Without Clue. That seems to be a key competency for managers in many companies.“

Denise added, “by the way, that's one of the thinking patterns we try to change through coaching and practicing the Improvement Kata. We are trying to get them to shift from assumptions and opinions to getting current facts and data first-hand. Go and see first-hand and with your own eyes.

“My rule of thumb is whenever I realize my improver is reaching their threshold of knowledge I directly go to question four, asking about the next step, and add the following introduction: Don’t worry if you don’t know yet. What is your next step to find out?”

“Ah, I like that”, Jason said. “Adding ‘to find out’ is also helpful to make sure the next step is concerned with investigating more deeply at the threshold of knowledge rather than jumping to an arbitrary action.”

They added that variation of question four to their card as well. Then Jason posed a question, “how do you realize you have found the improver's threshold of knowledge?”

“Well”, Denise pondered, “sometimes you can hear it in the words. I think, I believe, I guess, or simply I don’t know. Sometimes it’s more tricky. I’ve realized some signs in body language that are often linked with reaching the threshold of knowledge like shifting shoulders or legs. Sometimes it’s just an eye movement that prompts me to probe for the threshold of knowledge. Especially Mark starts looking away when he’s unsure. Otherwise he has a firm gaze.”

“Cool. That’s so interesting”, Jason said. “However, I guess I need so much more practice with the basic starter questions until I am fluent and can focus my attention on such subtle details.”

Denise admired how quickly Jason processed information and how open he was about his own weaknesses.

After this little detour Denise came back to Jason's original question. “I think the most direct way to respond when you sense that the data presented is lacking proper backing or is based on too few measurements, is to stay calm and simply ask something like “how did you measure this data”. Maybe even add “let’s go and see”. Then it would be much easier to determine if the quality of the information is good enough.”

Jason responded, "that's very good. I'll try that. They completed their list of deepening questions.

Suddenly Denise looked at her watch: "I have to go. I have a meeting coming up".

They said their goodbyes and agreed to continue working on their list of deepening questions next time they met.

As he was leaving, Jason asked, "Would you fancy going for a snack after work some time?" Denise nodded as she grabbed her bag, "sure." As she made her way to the parking lot, she smiled and realized that she was happy about Jason's invitation...kind of like a date.

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