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The One Question To Ask When Your Client Has Exhausted All Avenues - Dan Crompton


I love surprises. Some people prefer predictability and consistency, but I thrive on not knowing what's going to happen next. In coaching, the best surprise comes when you ask questions with genuine interest and no hidden agenda, to see what will happen. Both you and the client can be surprised by what comes out as the answer, and it can take the coaching session - and the client's life - in a totally new direction.

"But I've tried everything."

A recent client has had good success in his career at a globally-recognised organisation. He is bright, ambitious and extraordinarily well connected. But he wanted a new challenge in his life and was uninspired by his current role. He needed a change.

But that's easier said than done. He had spent the last 12 months actively looking for his next career move. It had to be a big role in a big company, to make the move worthwhile for him. As a well-connected person in his field, he had spoken to some of his industry contacts, met with recruitment agents, was receiving daily vacancy emails and was watching some key companies very closely for new job posts.

He felt he had tried everything.

The killer question

At the point where even I started to worry we would get stumped in our coaching session, I asked him a question. I had no motive behind it other than to see what he would come up with, and the answer surprised us both.

"If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you do?"

Without even blinking, he said, "I would be an actor!" We both paused, looking equally shocked at what had come out of his mouth. It was one of those good surprises that neither of us could have anticipated, and that I certainly couldn't have foreseen in my questioning.

Unpicking the answer

But just because it was his immediate answer, that doesn't mean he should give up his career tomorrow and become an actor. Further questioning revealed what it was about acting that gave him energy and passion. He explored ways to find that through evening acting groups and other outlets, and he was able to confirm that the original career move was his sole ambition.

So I rephrased the question:

"So going back to your current job search, what would you do in that area if you knew you couldn't fail?"

This then opened up some brave options that my client had resisted exploring in the past. We started with big, scary options that filled him with dread. He brainstormed options that he would never think of trying. When he thought we'd finished developing options, I asked him to make the existing ideas even bigger:

"If that brave idea you just mentioned is a 10/10 in terms of scariness, imagine it is now only a 5/10. In this new world, what would be the next 10/10 scary idea?"

This opened up even bigger options for the client to review, after which he pulled back all the options to settle on actions that felt more suited to him.

He left the session buzzing, and itching to get cracking on his new actions. He has now secured a brilliant position with a global brand.

Why it works

Asking your client what they would do if they couldn't fail is hugely effective for a number of reasons:

  • It unlocks options that haven't been tried before by stretching your client's imagination of what is possible.
  • Fear of failure is one of the most common reasons clients haven't taken action on a particular challenge, and this question makes them imagine that fear has gone.
  • It opens the opportunity to uncover - and challenge - limiting beliefs and doubts that are holding your client back.
  • The question can be used at different stages of a coaching relationship. If you're following the GROW model, it can be used to make a Goal super-stretched and exciting, can be used to discover new Options, and can help identify limiting beliefs of the Reality stage.

Give it a go next time your client feels they've tried everything else. You - and they - will be surprised by the results.

Dan Crompton