Exploration vs. Solution?

Aaaaaaaand in one corner of the ring we have “EXPLORATION”, the master of awareness, wearer of the belt of insight, triple champion of the “coaching the who” league!

And in the other corner, the opponent, “SOLUTION”, master of forward movement, champion of accountability and wearer of the double crown of action!

Ok, sorry for the metaphor, but it sometimes does feel like that when people are talking about coaching being about “forward movement, results and actions” or “exploration, identity and insight”. In a recent “Coaching Fundamentals” training, Elke was talking about a feedback she had gotten around “moving to the solution too quickly rather than exploring” which got a really interesting discussion going. To figure out, what we can do as coaches to help strike a useful balance, we went through a little exercise. I volunteered as a client and the participants would each pose a question after I had said something as a client. We then analyzed the questions according to their potential to evoke an “exploration” or a “solution” response in the client. Guess what we found? It’s not so simple after all 🙂 (would that not be a great title for a coaching book?).

We discovered that this might be (again) put into a matrix:

What is not wantedWhat is wanted
ExplorationWhat did you feel when the problem happened?

What was it like when the problem occurred?

Has this problem been around for a long time?

What would you name this problem / what metaphor would you use and why?

Tell me more about what happened?

Was this on a Tuesday or on a Wednesday?

How old is your awful boss?

What do you want instead and what is important about that?

If you get .. what difference would this make to you?

When you are the best version of yourself, what will be different?

Suppose you really took forward what you value about this, who would notice?

What would they be noticing?

If it got a little bit better, what would you start noticing?
SolutionWhat stands in the way of you finding a solution?

What are the obstacles?

Why are you not …?
What has worked in the past?

What is already working well that you do not want to change?

What would you like to experiment with now?
Solution / Exploration matrix

Positive exploration question tend to lead to descriptions – in the best case (ok, in the Solution Focused case), they lead to descriptions of what is wanted, what is important to a person, what they value, intend and want to believe. The exploration is about a concrete description of the situation and interactions that we will see when a better future has been created.

Exploration questions that focus on the facts or on the explanation of the situation as it is (negative past and negative present focused) ask for a description of what is not wanted. In my experience, these questions don’t move the conversation anywhere. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus: “6.4321 The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution.” (I am probably tearing this quote way out of context, but it fits here :-)) The client knows all of these things, we as coaches do not need to know them — so why ask?

Solution questions can come in the guise of “obstacle questions”. By asking “what stands in the way”, we are actually asking the client to create a spatial metaphor which includes an obstacle. We are co-creating a reality with an obstacle in it and constructing a logic of “I have to conquer this … in order to … “. It seems like by doing that, we are making it more difficult for the client and ourselves! Even if the client has already created this story for him or herself, we don’t have to go there. We can simply ask “and if you got over this obstacle, what would it look like?” and move back to exploration.

Positive solution questions invite the client to think about signs of forward movement in the best case. By helping the client identify what progress will look like, he or she will be more able to see progress when it happens and notice what they are doing to make it happen when it happens. Experimentation is encouraged.

This orientation is useful in coaching — especially in the initial stages when we are helping the client find out what is a valuable goal for the session. Instead of running with the first thing the client says, we can use positive exploration questions, listen for what the client wants in his or her description of what they do not want. We can be reminded to stay clear of the facts! Maybe we can go back to the image in the beginning and imagine a knockout for negative exploration and negative solutions!

If you would like to explore topics like this in practice, why not join one of our free coaching meetups and exchanges?

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