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Who are you? : Repeated Questions and the Soft Challenge

In May 2013 I presented at the Association for Coaching Ireland conference in Belfast. Belfast is a beautiful city with the conference located in the Titanic quarter where the historic ship was built 100 years ago. The conference started with Julie Starr delivering the opening keynote. This was a simple and powerful session with a number of interactive sessions.¬†Julie’s theme was ego, and who we are and what things would be like if we did not need to seek approval from others or need to control things.¬†

During this keynote there were 5 interactive sessions in which I coached the person sitting next to me and in a very short period of time experienced great depth.This depth came from the simple repetitious nature of the exercise.

Julie encouraged the audience to ask the same question 4 or 5 times. For example “why are you here [at this conference]?” and “who are you?” Julie talked about the ‘stories’ we tell ourselves and others which provide cover and deflect probing questions. If we get rid of these ‘stories’ then we achieve a greater openness with ourselves and others. The repetitious nature of the question is designed to cut through the facade of these stories and get some real depth.This was a very deep experience and it struck me that it has relevance to how we challenge others in our coaching.



At the end of my own presentation at the conference the next day, I was asked what was the most challenging thing I had ever said to a coachee? A great question, and I recalled a time when I was debriefing a 360 to a very robust senior engineer, and his stated goal did not match with his words or actions, and so I said “this is ridiculous, it does not make any sense!” This created a breakthrough, as I spoke my truth and held up a mirror to him to show the inconsistency yet it was also a tense and confrontational moment.

However, taking Julie Starr’s approach, it is clear that a coach does not always need to be confrontational or go to high levels of tension in order to challenge effectively. The question “who are you?” was asked in a very supportive way yet I could not get away with answering with a superficial story as the question was asked again and again. Each time I experienced a greater depth of thought and meaning and I found myself thinking and saying things I had not imagined. In this way, the repetition of a question can be a great means of issuing a ‘soft’ challenge to your coachees.

So who am I? I am sure I will be asked what I said in response to this question but I will resist sharing this – that is unless you want to contact me for a co-coaching session and we can use the art of the soft challenge to mutually explore the essence of our personal identity.

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