Scaling Questions

Coert Visser recently posted a wonderful video about “scaling questions“, an essential tool in solution-focused practice.
I found out that scaling questions are a very useful tool for thinking through many different situations.
Self-evaluations, for example.
A case in point, drawn from my own personal experience.
Last weekend I had to initiate a difficult conversation with a person I needed to confront.
I was not really happy with the results of the conversation: I came home feeling I should have said more and in a different way. I was pretty disappointed with myself.
Instinctively (professional habits have a way to get into your blood), I started coaching myself: I wondered how I felt about the progress on working out that specific situation on a scale from 0 (no action taken) to 10 (situation totally resolved, ideal solution for me).
I found myself rating my progress at a solid 3, 3-and-a-half.
What was there between 0 and 3? Or, framed it differently, why not 0?
Well, to begin with I took action: I went to confront the person; I did establish a positive relationship; I did mention my concerns; and we agreed on a follow up conversation. Not a bad start!! (writing about it now, I almost feel like upgrading my rating to a 4… :).
Just thinking of “scaling” introduced in my self-evaluation shades of grey and glimmers of hope.
Scaling allowed me to overcome the all-or-nothing bias that so often pervades our thinking.

I also find that scaling is a powerful tool to shift perspectives in conflict situations.
Again, drawing from my own personal experience: the moment I perceive that the other party has actually done something, even a little bit, to take into account my requests or my concerns or my point of view… that is the moment when I can exit the confrontation frame of mind, us vs. them, and engage in more constructive ways. I feel seen. I feel validated.

That is why in my conflict management workshops I introduce scaling as a very powerful tool.
The “us vs. them” frame of mind can be represented on a scale as 0: you did nothing for us, you never listen, and so on.
Being able to see even a 1 can change the dynamics in a very powerful way: it makes us realize that the other party has done something; there is an “exception” to work on; the other party has some positive intentions; the other party sees us, even if only in a very blurred way.
But that single step on the scale can become a solid platform for building a negotiated and mutually satisfying solution.

Who knows better?

For a specific work assignment, I am brushing up on my NLP skills; more specifically, I’m reviewing my teaching materials on conversational hypnosis and persuasion strategies, as per a specific request by the client who hired me.

I am struck yet again by how traditional approaches differ from Solution-Focused ones.

Let’s take negotiation skills: a topic that I teach in workshops and in which many clients want to be coached.
The NLP skills used in negotiation are designed to get the other side to say yes to your pre-packaged proposal, as quickly as possible. The other side’s ideas are not treated as an input that could add value to the proposal; they are just a source of information that is used to reframe your message in more persuasive terms.
I teach a Solution-Focused-derived negotiation system. The main goal in the approach I teach is to co-create a shared vision with the other side, giving him or her as many opportunities as possible to think it through and to say no.

Let’s take a look at the helping professions (therapy, counseling, coaching).
Most of the traditional approaches are based on the concept of “overcoming“: overcoming resistance, overcoming the conscious (or the unconscious), overcoming past conditioning, solving the problem. There is always an obstacle, an “enemy”. Traditional approaches differ in their theories of who or what the enemy is.
Solution-Focused approaches, on the other hand, are based on the concept of “exploring“: exploring past successes, finding out what works and what does not work, exploring which options are available. There is no enemy to fight, there simply is a territory to be explored in more detail from different angles – what the client knows is being re-arranged as the solution-focused conversation develops.

It all boils down to a single question: Who knows better?

If the answer is: the practitioner, then we are operating within a traditional framework. The client needs to be educated using psychological techniques and complex communication strategies to overcome his or her resistance. The client needs to learn a new game and new rules, as Wittgenstein would say. Game and rules that are going to be taught by the practitioner.

If the answer is: the client, then we are in operating within an empowering / Solution-Focused framework. The client is not in need of enlightenment or education. The client is the expert. Clients do not need to learn a new game or new rules; they simply got entangled in their own rules. Clients need only to play with their own rules, within their own game, to disentangle themselves.
Clients’ statements are to be taken at face value. And that is what we work with.

Coaching & Tricks

Yet another great podcast from RadioLab that got me thinking.
In an interview with the famous psychologist Walter Mischel, the Marshmallow experiment is re-enacted.

In this well-known experiment, 4 year-old children were left alone in a room, sitting in front of a single marshmallow prominently displayed on a table (in other variations, Oreo cookies were used). They were told that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow until the experimenter returned, they would get two marshmallows.

The goal of Mischel was simple: to demonstrate that 4-year olds can have self-control. That was proven. But the real surprise came further down the road. A correlation was found between the number of seconds a child can delay gratification as a 4-year-old and how they are doing later on in life. For example, years later, kids who as children waited the longest (20 minutes, the duration of the test) and therefore got the second marshmallow scored on average 210 points more on the SAT test than those kids who waited for just one minute before gobbling the marshmallow and therefore did not get the second marshmallow. The results were significant. And as these 250 kids became adults, the monitoring continued; even today, more data gathering continues. The differences between those who as children could delay gratification and those who could not are evident and impact all areas of life, from education level to Body Mass Index.

Here is the interesting twist.
If you see clips of children sitting alone in front of the treat, trying to resist the urge to eat it, you can see that they are all in agony – there is no difference here between children that can delay gratification and those who cannot. In other words, the treat is equally tempting to all–if some children can resist, it is not because they are any less attracted to the treat.

What you see is that the children who were successful just found better strategies (tricks) to distract themselves: shushing oneself, kicking the table, singing songs, counting, turning the chair and facing the wall, pretending the marshmallow was a cloud or a UFO and playing with it. They were able to turn a “hot stimulus” in a “cold stimulus”. The children who succeeded had a better bag of tricks.

And here is the best part: in a follow up experiment, Mischel tested another group of children. He then taught a trick to the children who were less successful in this task: he instructed them to put a frame around the cookie and pretend that what they were seeing was just a picture (a technique very similar to the NLP techniques I teach in my stress management workshops). It worked! All of a sudden, these children were able to delay gratification!!

And that is what happens in life, too.
My clients find themselves stuck, because they are facing a problem for which they have not yet developed a trick; or maybe they have, and they forgot; or maybe it is a situation that requires a little fine tuning of tricks they already have.
So they go for the quick solution: they eat the marshmallow–they do what they can.
Consequences will follow.

My job as a coach, then, is to help clients develop their tricks to solve their problems–
not teaching other people’s tricks, not teaching theories about human behaviors, not giving advice.
Each trick is unique, i.e., works well for a specific individual in a specific situation.
That is why I love coaching: I love to see the tricks my clients come up with!

How do I help clients come up with new tricks?
By asking solution-focused questions!
Is your preferred future to have the 2 marshmallows? What would be different from you? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you deal with that? Imagine a miracle happens and you complete the task successfully, getting you the second marshmallow. How would you know a miracle happened, how would you know that this time you will be successful? What’s the first little sign? What else is different? What are you doing differently?…

As Mischel puts it in the interview: it is highly likely to be like most things in life are turning out to be: yes the wiring makes a difference. Yes the experience makes a difference. And the wiring and the experience are interacting and changing each other.

My job as a coach is to make sure that my clients have the experience that makes a difference!

To listen to the whole podcast go here.
For a great and simple summary of ideas on how experience plays a role in the development of intelligence, even in adulthood, watch this video by Coert Visser.