The SF Question Tree
One way you can overcome the “I don’t know” response
Sep 8, 2020
Recently I was running a training course on Solution Focus Mentoring with a group consisting mainly of police officers. I asked one of them what his best hope was for mentoring, and he told me. I next asked him what he would notice was different about his mentee if he achieved that hope. He thought and said, “I don’t know”. Do you recognise that answer?
People new to Solution Focus often find it tricky to respond to this answer. “What question should I ask?” they query. “Is there a list of questions I can remember?” Yes, there are ; and when you prepare for an event, you might use them as a prompt to prepare questions. However, as someone who constantly forgets where he put his wallet or keys, I struggle to think how I would remember them ‘in the moment’. There are two other factors too.
With experience, I have learned that the best way to generate questions to ask teams and individuals within those teams is to listen very carefully to what they are saying. At some point, a relevant question surfaces in my mind, often at the last second, because if I have listened well, it is almost guaranteed to follow what they have just said or said a little earlier. If I try to recall a question, it distracts me from listening, leading to sub-optimal questions.
Give them space to think
Also, when you listen carefully, you can establish if your question has “landed”. Sometimes people will answer quickly; other times, there may be a long pause. Do not rush to ask another question; give them space to think. It might be that they can’t answer it; alternatively, your question may be so great, they need different thinking to answer it. Even when you listen carefully and give them the space to think, you will still sometimes receive the “I don’t know” response, as I did. So what did I do? I changed the perspective. I asked, “OK, what might the mentees mother or favourite person notice is different about them.” He was then able to answer. Not instantly, but with some thought. And how did I know to change the perspective? Read on.
[E.g. ‘1001 solution focused questions’ by Fredrika Bannink. My book ‘Jump Now” also has many questions you might ask. Both available on Amazon.]
The Solution Focus Question Tree
In response to hearing people ask for lists of Solution Focus Questions, I pondered how we might help new and possibly experienced SF practitioners create questions quickly. The result was this, the SF Question Tree, which you can use as an aide-memoire to prompt questions.
It is helpful as it makes you aware of some uses to which experienced practitioners put questions and the different perspectives from which they might ask them. I now only have to recall two words, “Uses” and “Perspectives”, to enable me to generate questions in the moment.
The Branches - Example Questions
On the branches to the left of the trunk are some of the uses for which you can use SF questions (it is not exhaustive). You can create helpful patterns of questions based on these uses.
On the branches to the right are questions to help change perspective and encourage new insights (again, not an exhaustive list).
For each question, you have a use, e.g. to have the police officer think what benefits the mentee might obtain from the mentoring; and you ask the question from different perspectives (e.g. I used a parent (Family) or favourite person (Affinity – Close)
In the following questions, the words in bold relate to the Uses and Perspectives branches and sub-branches on the tree. As you read through, I suggest you look to match the bold words in the sentences to the word category in the tree; this can improve your understanding. E.g. In “What would your cat tell you is better?”:
‘Cat’ aligns to Perspective. The relevant branches are Relationship – Animate – Animals.
‘Better’ aligns to Use. The relevant branches are Outcome – Benefits.
As a leader, you use questions to encourage teams to look forward, beyond the current issues they face, to a better future than what they currently see. Examples • “What’s your best hope for this programme?” (e.g. “Increase the number of patients seen”)
- “What benefits will that bring to the patients? To the programme team? To the organisation?”
- “What would doctors notice is different in their treatment?”
- “What would your cat tell you is better?” • “Imagine the programme has been hugely successful; you have achieved your desired future”
- “What do senior leaders notice is different when they walk through the door on Day 1 after the programme launch?”
- “What are the key suppliers doing differently? What else?”
- “What have the medical staff noticed about the product? What else?”
As a leader, you also encourage teams to focus away from obstacles to progress and focus on what can help them make progress.
• “Move forward to six months after the launch, and the product has been successful. Now look back at those six months”
- “What did the team do that makes suppliers very pleased?”
- “How did the patients react?”
- “What would the media say about your progress?”
[It may seem a ridiculous question to use an animal to evoke a response. It does work, though only if they have told you they have a cat! As well, asking from the perspective of an inanimate object, e.g. “What would the ball notice is different?” may well work with a football or rugby player as there is a close affinity with it.]
• “Imagine the future you have described is “10” on a scale of ‘1’ – ‘10’, where ‘10’ is best. At what number would you rate the programme team’s progress so far?” [E.g. “Six”]
- “What is happening that moves you up to six on the scale already? What else?”
- “Where might your patients rate you? Six as well?” • “What might move them to seven on the scale? • “What option attracts you to make progress? What would be better for the medical teams if you took that option?”
• “You say that there is not enough budget to do this work.”
- “Where have you seen other organisations achieve this on little or no money? How did they do this?” “How might we replicate their achievement here?”
- Where have you faced a budget situation like this before? What did you do then to get through?”
As a leader, you encourage people in teams to surface capabilities and resources within themselves and others that might provide the means to make progress.
• “Our survey results show that our scientists here are 20% less engaged overall than our European operation. Which areas are more engaged than the average? What is that leader doing differently?” • “We have a freeze on headcount, and you are one technician short.”
- “How do you keep the team so positive?”
- “What might the team do within its control that will enable you to make progress with the resources you have?” • “The team has suffered from losing three experienced people.”
- “How have you coped with that?”
- “What clues would tell senior leaders that this team is resilient, despite the current situation?”
- “In what other parts of the organisation have you seen them cope with this situation? What might give you the confidence you can do that?” • “What gives you the energy to continue your work despite the downturn in the economy?” • “Imagine a reconnaissance pilot is flying over this building right now with x-ray cameras. What clues to progress might she detect?”
I trust you notice in the questions that: • There is a use for each question • You can lead people to broaden and deepen their thinking by asking questions from different perspectives. • You can be creative in your questioning. Creative questions can stimulate more radical thinking. • View the tree as a stimulus, not a guideline.
Remember, you have been asking questions all your life. When you receive an “I don’t know” response, relax, consider Uses and Perspectives and enjoy being creative in your questioning.