Why the hat matters: answering questions with another question

We often answered our clients' questions with another question. This was intentional and influenced by our role as a coach, not a consultant. What's the distinction between the two and how exactly does the role influence our approach in answering our clients' questions?

Why the hat matters: answering questions with another question

We often apologize.

It’s not because we’re polite [at least we tried to be], nor is it because we made too many mistakes.

As a context, we often apologize because we intentionally answer questions with another question. 

This frequently happened during client engagements, when they presented their OKR (or its draft) to us. 

“Are 10 Key Results too many?”

“Is this a good Key Result (KR)?”

“Have we set the right Objectives?”

And other questions along those lines.

Our first response is to apologize because we are going to answer their questions with some of our own. For us, an apology is necessary because we understand some of our clients want straight answers right away. They are trying to get it done; one item to be marked as complete on their checklist considering they are busy. (Aren't we all?)

However, it is intentional on our part to approach any discourse and discussion with any clients with careful deliberation. The intentionality is influenced by our role in this context: we’re coaches, not consultants. And, this is not a matter of semantics because these two labels are distinct on their own.

Coach and consultant

If you need a reminder or have trouble differentiating the two, then these two illustrations from Forbes Coaches Council can be useful:

1) Alan Trivedi, from Trivedi Coaching & Consulting Group, explains it like this:

"When you're coaching, you help them explore possibilities for themselves that they might not see.

When you consult, you take those possibilities and provide them with options based on your knowledge and experience."

2) A similar perspective is offered by Marie Pawlak, from Planning101 Group:

"A coach is there to help you find the answers for yourself; they’re your sounding board.

A consultant is an expert who is there to provide the "right" answers to you based on their analysis of the situation."

Based on our experience, we distill it down into a simple distinction: a consultant tells you what to think, whereas a coach teaches you how to think.

How, not what. 

Let’s explore this further.

What to think

Suppose a client asks this question, “Are 35 Key Results too many?”

If we operate as a consultant, then we’d say yes, 35 is too many. We tell them what to think. We are reiterating what we know or what we believe to be true—which is 35 Key Results are simply too many—and we pass it on to them. 

It’s a straightforward answer that can be seen as prescriptive, which can lead to the client drawing the wrong takeaway (“Let’s keep our Key Results under 35”).

How to think

When faced with the same question, as a coach, we’d ask them a series of questions:

  1. What are the stories or aspirations behind these 35 Key Results?
  2. What is the company direction?
  3. Do you have enough resources?
  4. How many teams do you have?
  5. Etc.

It’s an indirect approach—i.e. the answer is not straightforward—because we’re being inquisitive. Our intention is to show them how to think. By asking the right questions, we hope they can see and appreciate the process of breaking down a question and how to connect the dots, so they can form the answer themselves.

This approach lets them experience the learning firsthand. We encourage them to go through the necessary steps to understand the question and the many angles to look at it, so they can form a more conclusive takeaway on their own.  

Another case study

Once a client asked whether this was a good KR or not: “Improvement initiative is put in place to develop our personnel.”

Had we operated as a consultant, we’d have said it was not a good KR—it was vague and unclear what the outcome was—and proceeded to tell them what they should write instead. A direct and prescriptive approach.

We refrained from doing that and instead put our coach’s hat on. We asked these questions to help him come up with the answer:

Us: What did you mean by “improvement?"
Client: We'd like to have trainings to hone soft skills.
Us: What's the outcome of the training?
Client: Less fraud.
PN: How would you measure less fraud?
Client: There’s a dedicated fraud program that is put in place.
PN: Then perhaps that’s your KR.

Visually, the steps would look like this:

This was an AHA moment for our client: he understood what the right KR should be and how to get there. By asking a series of questions, we simply showed him the thinking approach behind KR formulation, one that he could exercise by himself from now on.

Closing thoughts

These two approaches (what to think and how to think) might lead to the same conclusion (“35 Key Results are too many,” “that’s not the right KR,” etc), but only the latter is much more sustainable because there’s a change in the mindset. Think about it this way: one approach is giving you the fish, while the other teaches how to fish.

Which one do you think would bring more value in the long run?