Where’s the Tension? Coaching Questions for Movement

This week’s guest blogger is Consulting Associate Lecia Grossman, who offers insights she has gleaned in her years as a coach for busy professionals.  

coaching runners

It’s the New Year, and coaching clients are often focused on new goals and aspirations. Many of my clients are thinking about, planning for, or pursuing new jobs. Questions pile up, and the process can become overwhelming with too many options or too narrowly focused with too few options. Clients ask many questions. “What do I really want?” “What’s most important?” “What happens to my work/life balance if I make a move?”

In the past thirteen years of being a coach, I’ve done a pretty good job of helping clients wade through these issues and find some good decisions. What I didn’t realize until recent years is why some questions are more helpful than others, or why some work better in one situation than another.

In human systems dynamics we use a tool called the Landscape Diagram. It comes from the work of Ralph Stacey, and we use it to help understand how systemic constraints of Agreement and Certainty shape patterns. As HSD-based coaches we help clients reach their goals by asking them questions that help them move forward, get unstuck, and learn about themselves along the way. We ask them questions that are more or less open, based on what they need in the moment to move forward. Let’s look at how the Landscape Diagram can guide us in asking coaching questions.


On the Landscape Diagram the “Certainty” axis represents a continuum of close to, or far from, certainty. Certainty is the degree to which one is able to predict the impact of a decision or action. It can also be the degree to which one can describe what is happening because the response is constrained in such a way that uncertainty is minimized or eliminated. The “Agreement” axis represents a continuum of how much or how little agreement there is. When clients are close to agreement, they see things as aligned with their values and their goals. They see their worlds as constrained so that other ideas or thoughts are minimized or eliminated.

When a client is far from certainty and agreement, it can look or feel like chaos, overwhelm, or dreaming. Here thoughts and ideas are random, unfettered, and creative. A client may have low certainty and low agreement on an issue, their topic, or perhaps their goal. They might be stuck looking at too many options, questions, or fears.  This can sound like:

  • I have so many questions about this possible job offer that I’m feeling scattered.
  • There are so many things I like to do, I’m having a hard time figuring out what might be the best fit.
  • Maybe I should be looking at moving to find a better job? Or perhaps I should be considering a different career? Or maybe I’m just not going to be good enough for any of these jobs.

In this situation, it can help to offer questions that provide some constraints, or narrow the field of the client’s thinking. These are often more closed questions. This will help the client gain some certainty and agreement on an aspect of the search, or a clearer picture of what they are experiencing. They can get unstuck and into movement. This might sound like:

  • What are the top three strengths you want to use in your next job?
  • Of all your current questions, which one or two feel most important to discuss today?
  • What do you know for sure about the next step?

Helping the client find some certainty and agreement shifts them out of overwhelm or random brainstorming and into more flexible and coherent mind frame. Or it may help them move closer to certainty and agreement, finding the decision that helps them move forward and approach the next step on their journey.

Close to agreement and certainty can look like locked in, very aligned, or definitive. A client might feel clear about a decision that is aligned with their goals or values, which helps with their decision making. On the other hand, clients can be stuck here when they are locked in to a way of thinking, or can only see an either/or decision mindset. The locked-in, stuck perspective might sound like:

  • “What if this job isn’t the right one? Maybe I should just stay at my current job.”
  • “I won’t be considered for any of these jobs because of my degree.”
  • “I’m only qualified for accounting jobs.”
  • “I need my next job to have a title that shows I'm making advancements in my career. This other job sounds like a great fit, but the title doesn’t show the responsibility.”

None of these questions or ways of thinking are bad, in fact sometimes they are the prefect thoughts. They aren’t helpful, however, when they keep the client stuck. Asking clients about other options, new perspectives, or broadening their horizons, opens their thinking and can move them into a more flexible mindset.  These questions might sound like:

  • What are some other possibilities besides the two you currently are considering, that could be even more exciting or intriguing to you?
  • What skills do you, as an accountant, have? What other types of jobs need these same skills? Where have all your accounting classmates landed? What other options might this open up?
  • What aspects does your dream job have?

The flexible space in the center of the Landscape Diagram is a combination of generative ideas and alignment. This middle space can be creative and emergent, but with some sense of certainty and agreement. From this place a coach might ask more open or more closed questions, based on the client’s needs and what is holding them in their “stuck” place. Is it more alignment and certainty? Is it more ideas and creativity?

No one area on the Landscape is better than another. As an effective coach, you just help the client see where they are and, if they need it, help them shift by asking questions to move them into action.

Would you like to learn more about how to use human systems dynamics in your coaching? Register for the Adaptive Action Coaching Lab starting in April, 2016! Download the brochure and register HERE. 

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