What do you do when Inquiry doesn’t work? by Alan Robertson

We’ve come to take it as axiomatic that coaching should be based on Inquiry. The coach poses thought-provoking questions, enabling the coachee to think again and come up with his own answers. But where do you go, when the coachee won’t engage with this reflective process?

This is a case in two parts. The first presents my thoughts on it now. The second part is what I wrote to tackle this problem at the time, a couple of years ago.

Looking back

Socratic Questioning was not D’s cup of tea.  He was eager to have a coach, or more precisely he had been agitating to get this particular indicator of his executive status.  And he was more than ready to talk. He didn’t hold back. But he wouldn’t stick to the question asked. If he did start to address it, he would very quickly veer away on to other points that he wanted to make. As often as not, he challenged or argued about the original question. He was pent-up with things to say.

Our initial get-to-know-you session was sprawling and shapeless. ‘May I give you some feedback?’ I said, as we ran out of time. I proceeded without, on this occasion, waiting for an answer. ‘You talk too much. And you don’t listen enough. You seem to be oblivious to the effect this has on the person who is trying to talk with you.’  I tried to explain how these tendencies would limit what he could expect to get out of coaching.

But despite my best efforts to steer it, our next session rapidly went in the same direction. ‘D’ was a rolling barrage of indignation and self-justification. It was clear that this case needed a different approach. I put my preference to one side, abandoned Inquiry, and switched to a radically different voice. I went into Challenge.

It would be good to be able to say that I did this because it was D’s own dominant voice, and because I was carefully selecting the mode of expression most likely to resonate for him. I certainly knew it was his dominant voice, but I joined him in using it for the much simpler (and very common) reason that our interaction had already turned into a conversational wrestling match.

So I chose to interrupt. He talked over me and I talked over him.  I pointed it out as soon as he went off issue. I dragged him back to the objectives that the coaching had been set up to address. I accused him of dodging my questions. I told him that he was too stuck in his own thinking. I even told him that I didn’t feel as if he was treating me with much respect as a person. I was abrupt. I was severe. I was blunt.

Of course I can be all these things, but I like to think that it’s generally sparingly, more like a punctuation mark than a slab of text. On this occasion I was giving my coachee a verbal battering, a taste of his own tendency. It was hard, tiring work, and almost certainly more uncomfortable for me than for ‘D’ who had a well-armoured skin, when it came to verbal jousting.  If he’d been surprised by my sudden and then protracted directness, he showed it in the most useful of ways: he started to pause, to focus and to reflect.

By the end of that session we’d had what can only be described as a robust exchange on a variety of points. But were we getting anywhere?  What had ‘D’ taken out of the discussion?  

So I did something else that I don’t ordinarily do: I followed up our meeting by sending him a set of written reflections. I don’t like to do this for several reasons. It’s as far away as you can get from a coachee-led approach. It feels like giving too much weight to my interpretations, especially early in the coaching relationship when my perspective is still provisional and emerging. It risks taking the responsibility for sense-making and action away from the coachee, the one who needs to own it.

But it felt necessary on this occasion, both for his benefit and for mine. And it required another voice which was not Inquiry. It needed Articulation, a summarising and clarifying of what we had discussed, partly as a point of reference but also to provide a fresh platform so that we could move on and not keep going round in circles.

I reproduce (with D’s agreement) what I wrote at that time in the final part of this blog. In retrospect it still feels too one-sided, and like anything set down in black and white, potentially too sure of itself. I had no idea at the time whether it would work. But it served a purpose. While ‘D’ and I never went systematically through it together, he referred back to specific comments that I had made in it from time to time during our subsequent sessions. In that sense it had clearly given him pause for thought. More importantly, it marked a turning point in the quality and productiveness of our work together.

D’s case ended quite well. He wasn’t dramatically transformed by the process, but he declared himself pleased with it and so, for the most part, did his sponsor. I felt we’d achieved less than I’d hoped and more than I’d expected.

Looking back on this case now, I think it highlights three important points about coaching.

  1. While the received wisdom might have it that Inquiry is the basis of good coaching, this presupposes that the coachee will play his part in making Inquiry work. If he won’t, then the process of developing the individual needs – unapologetically – to shift to an altogether different basis. If you can’t explore, then it seems to me you have to turn either to controlling or towards taking a position.
  2. We talk of coaching processes and techniques, and this rather leads us to expect them to have a greater regularity, predictability and efficacy than they actually have. In practice we spend much of our time having to improvise, and having to do it in real time, in the moment. We need a broad repertoire, a light touch and a ready ear for what’s going on, more like jazz musicians than technical experts.
  3. We probably all have habitual patterns in our personal approaches to coaching. It might not feel it at the time, but it probably does us - or at least the development of our own adaptability - good to be shaken by a coachee from time to time.  I was jolted by my encounter with D. During our initial bouts, I felt as if I were regressing into the Industrial Relations Manager that I had been once upon a time. But it was still coaching.

So thank you, ‘D’, even if you were hard going at the time.


Written At the Time

Dear D,

I’ve had a week to reflect on our first coaching session. Let me share my reflections with you.

We signed up to three objectives:-

  • To develop your awareness of your personal impact in interactions with others and your ability to create and maintain positive and productive working relationships with others;
  • To develop the range, repertoire and sensitivity of your communication skills;
  • Assuming the achievement of these fundamental requirements, to strengthen your capability to provide contextually relevant and developmental leadership for your own team.

We then began to pursue these objectives by examining your recent 360 degree feedback report and also your VoicePrint self-perception profile. One provides a portrait of how you are seen by your colleagues, the other gives us insights into how you see yourself. My sense is that both documents, and especially our discussion of them, have given us important clues about what you will have to tackle to achieve your objectives.

You described yourself at one point in our discussion as feeling as if, ‘Everything I do is within a prison cell.’ I’m going to put it to you that this cell is at least partly of your own construction. More importantly, the only person who can remove its barriers is, ultimately, yourself. Here’s my sense of what came out in that first session and how it relates to this proposition.

I observed your reactions to your 360 become progressively stronger and more exasperated, as you read through it. ‘All the things they’ve marked me down for,’ you commented, ‘are things I can’t control or things I’ve raised in the past. I set out visions for my team and they are ignored!’

It’s not unusual to find 360 degree feedback frustrating. Few, if any, of us consciously set out to impede our own progress. Yet unconsciously most of us do. As you verbalised your frustrations, three things in particular struck me about how you may be unconsciously getting in your own way. The first lay in your comments, ‘People don’t want to hear what I have to say’ and ‘You can only speak what you know.’ These remarks both suggest to me that you may be focusing too much on the content of what you want to say and too little on the manner of how you talk.

Secondly, you exclaimed at one point, ‘What do other people who have been promoted have that I don’t have?’ I think this is an important question for you to ponder, and I would suggest that you frame it more broadly. ‘What do other people have (or do) that I don’t have (or do)?’ The reason I say this is because you seem to place a very great, and probably excessive, weight of expectation on yourself alone. We should return to this in our next session.

In the meantime my third observation is related to this. Your frustrations often seem to be to do with your sense of control, or the lack of it. ‘I can’t control the number of people I have, I can’t control the increase in workload I have.’ ‘I don’t have access to the information I need.’ ‘If a third party comes to assess my design or decision, am I going to get burned?’ The issue of being in control is clearly much on your mind. I wonder if you are investing too much of your energy in that direction.

This possibility is certainly reflected in your VoicePrint profile, which is your own estimation of how you use talk. (And remember that we talk to ourselves as well as to others, so this profile can also be an indication of how you tend to think). The centre of gravity in your case is currently located in the three ‘controlling’ voices: Critique, Challenge and Admonish. These are therefore highly likely to colour your other relatively strong voice, which is Advocacy, the position you adopt for or against particular issues.

The upside of the controlling voices, provided they are used in a skilful and timely way, is essentially their contribution to quality and conformity to standards. An effective Challenge interrupts to improve. An effective Critique ensures rigorous, balanced, objective judgement. Effective Admonishment calls attention to specific responsibilities.

You will recall that we discussed the potential downside of over-using these voices. You recognised that they could have a constraining effect: ‘reducing free thinking and the opportunity to back-test your decision.’ But you were not alert to the adverse effect that they can have on working relationships, when perceived by others as attack, personal criticism or punishment.

When you talk, I think you speak to your own concerns. You do not tune in to the needs and concerns of the other person(s) in the conversation. I pointed this out to you when we first met, as I experienced it myself in our introductory meeting. In your profile of voices the two which are most likely to discover others’ needs and concerns, and therefore most likely to engage them – Inquire and Probe – are ones which, relative to most people, you under-use. Consequently the overall pattern in how you talk, and its impact, is too heavily on the ‘already decided’ voices and too light on the ‘exploring with others’ voices.

I understand where you’re coming from, because you told me. ‘I feel I have to explain myself all the time.’ ‘You have to justify your own thinking to take people with you,’ you said.

Actually, that’s not the only way to take people with you. It is one way, but it’s loaded with social and inter-personal risk, because it drags people rather than involving them or treating them as respected partners in the conversation.

You see yourself as ‘a problem solver,’ a ‘voice of reason’ in a world where there are ‘not enough people who understand the nuts and bolts’ as you do. ‘I’m trying to build a function that can work at one hundred miles an hour across any terrain. My frustration is I’m not being allowed to do it.’

You are seriously over-estimating, I suggest, your ability (indeed the ability of any individual in a complex organisation) to make things happen without the involvement, co-operation and support of others. You discount the contribution that others can make. (And if you habitually discount others, they in turn will discount you.) There were two fascinating, but disturbing glimpses of this during our session last week.

The first was when you were reading your 360 degree feedback. You came to the end of the numerical analysis and laid the document aside. It was only when prompted by me that you took the trouble to read the inputs that your colleagues had provided for you in the open-ended Qualitative Questions section.

The second was your response, when I asked you whether you regarded people as a commodity. It was a deliberately provocative question. A socially sensitive person would almost certainly have answered, ‘No.’ You, interestingly, replied, ‘It depends.’ ‘They’re people,’ you said, ‘if they share my values of integrity, hard work, thinking, bettering yourself and encouraging innovation. If not, you simply learn how to get the best out of them.’

Here, I think, are the roots of your tendency to over-use the Challenging, Critiquing, Admonishing and Advocating voices. Here is an inter-personal narrowness and inflexibility. Here may be the basis of an answer to your question, ‘What do other people that have been promoted have that I don’t have?’

I’m not saying that changing this pattern of thinking and behaving will necessarily get you promoted. I am saying that the way in which you use talk, the principal medium of exchange in organisational life, is entirely within your own control. How you currently use it, and the effects that has on your impact and reputation, are important insights that have come out of your first coaching session. You will need to decide how you are going to make use of those insights to achieve your coaching and career objectives.

I look forward to our next session, when perhaps we can focus on the particular people and interactions that you find most problematic.

With best wishes


To connect with Alan Robertson 

Business Psychologist & Executive Coach

Business Psychologist & Executive Coach

Alan Robertson is Director of Business Cognition Ltd, co-creator of VoicePrint and a senior visiting teaching fellow at both Cranfield University and the Cass Business School in London.

Email: alan@businesscognition.co.uk