The magic question game

There is a game which is sometimes used during coaching training. One person thinks of a real problem they have, or something they would like to do, but have been putting off. They keep this to themselves. The other players take turns to ask one question each to the problem-holder. The problem-holder doesn’t answer the question, instead giving a rating, 1 to 10, based on how useful they found the question.

After a while, the questioners tune in to the type of questions which get high scores. Pat yourself on the back whenever you score a 9 or 10. Eventually the problem holder will say when they can see the way to solve their dilemma, and this is the end of the game. Skilled players will help people solve their dilemmas in just 10-15 minutes.

Which are the high scoring questions?

Very quickly, you will find closed questions score very low. They will either be entirely pointless (for example, “Is it a big problem?”), or degenerate into a futile guessing game (such as “Is the problem something about your work?”); futile because, remember, the problem-holder can’t give you the answer!

As opposed to closed questions, open questions can’t have a “yes” or “no” answer because they usually begin with why, what, how, when, who or where. These will be rewarded with higher scores.

Not all open questions are going to hit the spot though. “Why is it a problem?”, “Why haven’t you done it?”, or “Who is to blame?”, as examples, will probably give moderate scores, maybe a 3 or 4. They help the problem-holder explore the problem a bit more – but they already know it’s a problem, so the usefulness is limited.

Then, you’ll find some high-hitters, such as: “Who could help you solve this problem?”, or “What is the first step you can take?”. These are solution-focussed open questions. They will promote new thought patterns and the problem-holder is likely to give you a higher score. When you get a high score, you might be able to follow the thread a bit, such as “What could you do to encourage that person to help you?”

With time, you’ll hit on the really good questions. I’ve played this game quite a lot, and – spoiler alert – you can almost guarantee a 9 or 10 with “How will you feel when this problem has been solved?” Why? Because it is an example of a forwards thinking open question. This type of question takes the problem-holder beyond the immediate hurdles in front of them. They will be accessing the sunny uplands in their imaginations, and they will unlock trains of thought which help them to see ways around those various hurdles. 

Try it. Give the problem-holder your full attention. Ask a forwards thinking open question, then wait. Watch the smile slowly creep over the person’s face, see the cogs whirring; they will turn to look at you with a light in their eye that wasn’t there before, and they’ll award “Ten”. Then they might add “Wow! That’s amazing. Thank you!”

What’s happened here?

This is cognitive behavioural coaching using the principle of unconditional positive regard. It works. The questioners have not been solution-providers; it isn’t possible to give advice in this game. They are behaving as “thinking partners”. They are there for the problem-holder and their sole aim is to ask questions which the problem-holder finds useful. These are ones which help unlock new thought avenues and break old patterns of thinking.

The problem-holder experiences challenge and support. Challenge to their original way of thinking, and support because the other players’ sole aim is to ask questions which will be most helpful to them.

Of course, it’s a game. Everyone is relaxed. There is no pressure, and because the problem is never shared, there is absolute confidentiality – the juicy details never leave the problem-holder’s head. How can real problem solving work in the same way? And what on earth has this got to do with being a farm vet?! I will try and explain.

Farm vet: an expert in herd health or a behavioural coach?

What exactly is your role as a farm vet when interacting with your farmer clients? Is it to share your excellent knowledge and understanding in veterinary matters? Or is it to coach your client to take the “right” decisions and actions? Well, probably both. This balance needs an exceptional level of skill and flexibility.

We all have our own world views. These are complex, based on our own previous experiences, learning and upbringing, as well as the views of our trusted peers, family and friends, which tend to influence us (think the echo-chamber of social media). If you try to force your own world view on your client, be ready for disappointment. Hopefully, you will be one of their trusted and resected peers, so you can capitalise on this and share your view when asked. If you aren’t asked, you can seek permission: “Is it OK if I tell you about something I know about this?”. However, uninvited opinions and lectures, including your own solutions, will antagonise.

Differing world views can be frustrating for the humble farm vet who simply wants the farmer to do the “right thing”! This is where it is useful to have some coaching skills up your sleeve.

Unconditional positive regard

The concept of unconditional positive regard was developed by psychologist Carl Rogers. It means demonstrating a basic acceptance and support of a person, regardless of what the person says or does. It encompasses a person-centred approach and the central hypothesis of this is that the individual has within themselves the ability to alter their own attitudes and are able to take responsibility for providing their own solutions to their problems. 

The game described earlier works because the problem-holder is able to think through their dilemma by themselves.

But there is more to it than that. The game also works because the participants are not threatening each others’ self esteem. The environment is very “safe” and non-judgmental (it is impossible to judge if you don’t know either the problem or the answers to the questions).

The principle of unconditional positive regard runs through the core of cognitive behavioural coaching, of which motivational interviewing is an example.

Putting it into practice

Consider a dairy farmer and lameness in their herd. Your world view may include that there are too many lame cows and that this is a problem – for the cows’ welfare, for their fertility and for the farm’s profitability, for example. The farmer’s world view might be that, firstly, they aren’t aware of the number of lame cows in the same way that you are. And then they may not recognise it as a problem in the same way that you do. They might have alternative reasons for needing to reduce lameness (“because the supermarket contract says I’ve got to have less than 10%”), or ways by which to go about this task (“Can’t you just say we have under 10% lame? That will sort the problem.”)

Let us imagine that rather than try and persuade the farmer towards your own world view by way of your logic and reasoned argument, you take the opportunity to practice some coaching skills instead. In simple terms, that means to ask some questions, then listen.

You might try some motivational interviewing. The process includes helping people to explore and resolve ambivalence to a problem. Be careful here, because “ambivalence” is not the same as “doesn’t care about”. Ambivalence is that we tend to hold in our minds pros and cons for every situation or action. Take ale, for example. I have ambivalence towards ale – and that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t care about beer. My ambivalence is that, on the one hand, I enjoy a beer and I like socialising with friends whilst doing so. On the other hand, I don’t like feeling tired and hungover the next day if I drink too much.

For the farmer and his lame cows, the ambivalence “pros and cons” might be expressed by change talk and sustain talk. Change talk might include:

  • I don’t like to see lame cows – they depress me.
  • I’d prefer not to have to pretend there are fewer lame cows than actual, simply to satisfy my supermarket contract.
  • I don’t like cows going lame – they are difficult to treat and that costs me money.

All of these are internal motivations to reduce lameness.

Sustain talk might include:

  • I don’t have as many lame cows as people make out I have.
  • The supermarket is poking its nose in my business – it should butt out.
  • Those supposed lame cows still produce lots of milk, and I am making plenty of money as a good farmer with a great business, thank you very much.

All of these are internal motivations to accept the current level of lameness.

How to proceed? You want the farmer, not you, to voice the change talk. Take this imaginary conversation:

Farmer: I don’t have as many lame cows as people make out I have (sustain talk)

You could respond: But lame cows cost you money (change talk)

You have fallen into the righting reflex trap. The righting reflex is natural – but damaging – and means that when you hear one side of the argument, you will feel compelled to express the other side. The effect, when it is you who voices the change talk, is that the farmer balances this with sustain talk:

Farmer: Those supposed lame cows still produce lots of milk, and I am making plenty of money as a good farmer with a great business, thank you very much (sustain talk)

Before you know it, you are in a game of ping-pong where you voice all the change talk and the farmer voices all the sustain talk – reinforcing their resistance to change.

Far better, then, to roll with resistance. Hold your counsel, reflect what the farmer has just said in order to honour his difficulty, to show respect and to demonstrate you are listening. Then ask an open question:

Farmer: I don’t have as many lame cows as people make out I have (sustain talk)

You respond: I see it isn’t pleasant for you when people say you have too many lame cows. What bothers you about lame cows? (Validating farmer’s concern followed by an open question)

Farmer: I don’t like to see lame cows – they depress me (change talk)

Notice, a simple open question has been met with change talk by the farmer. Now, follow up with:

Vet: Lame cows are sure depressing! They cost a lot of money too. Would you like me to discuss more about this with you? (Validating farmer’s response, expanding slightly, and then asking permission to give further information)

Farmer: They cost me a lot to treat, I know that! How else do they cost me?

…and so on. If you get into the groove, you can help the farmer develop discrepancies themselves whenever you hear change talk. Such as:

Farmer: I don’t like cows going lame

Vet: I wonder how you’d feel if you had fewer lame cows?

This is a forwards thinking open question. Don’t waste these! Use them when the dynamic feels good and when you have demonstrated you are really listening. Then you will see the cogs moving, the slow smile creep across your client’s face, and – maybe – when they turn to face you, you notice a light in their eye that wasn’t there before.

Finally, use some questions to support the farmer’s self-sufficiency:

Vet: You did great last month – booking the foot trimmer to blitz treat the herd for digital dermatitis was a fantastic success! What would you like to do next?

Play the game

The game described at the start is exceptionally simple. I would suggest you start simple too when trying out cognitive behavioural coaching. Try not to over-think it.

Be there for your client – really there, not just physically; be in the moment; relax; have respect. Think: “This person is capable of solving their own problems, and I‘d like to help them.”

Ask open questions. Come from a place of curiosity: if they have a different world view to your own, seek to understand why they think that way.

Then listen. The power of change and persuasion comes from being heard.

Enjoy being a “thinking partner” and remember to spend more time listening than talking. It really is that simple!

Further reading:

  • Atkinson O (2010). Communication in farm animal practice 1. Farmer-vet relationships, In Practice 32(3): 114-117.
  • Atkinson O (2010). Communication in farm animal practice 2. Effecting change, In Practice 32(4): 163-165. 
  • Miller WR and Rollnick S, 2013. Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd Edition. The Guildford Press
  • Neenan M and Palmer S, editors, (2012). Cognitive Behavioural Coaching in Practice: An Evidenced Based Approach. Routledge, East Sussex, UK
  • Passmore et al., (2010). Excellence in Coaching: The industry guide. London: Kogan Page.
  • Whitmore J, (1992). Coaching for Performance. 5th Edn, 2017, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London