The Power of "What" Thinking

As coaches we are taught to ask good questions and to ask questions that get people to think. So, before you read on – what do you think were the things that led to me selecting the headline of this article?

Now, reflect on the sort of thoughts you had. If you ask someone a “what” question it normally allows the recipient to draw up a list of optional answers. The mind tends to expand as you continue with the process of considering a list of possible options.

This is a far more commonly asked, and more powerful “what” question. “What are the key things that you want to achieve in the next 12 months?”.

The key to getting maximum benefit from asking “what” questions is what you follow up to the initial question with an appropriate set of subsequent questions.

I recommend the following set of questions –

“So, what are the options you are considering? Are there any other significant options you have not considered?” Then finally, read the list back and ask – “Is there anything else we have missed off this list? “.

These are all mind – expanding questions, getting the recipient to think deeper and deeper and to consider all relevant options in an open and positive manner. This is effectively facilitation of a “brain storm”. The list you have built is a long list of goals or targets.

Once this list has been established and noted the next step is to form some level of connection to the goals. The next questions you ask are designed to test the relevance and connection. Typical wording would be – “Of this list, which are the ones that you feel should be focussed upon as a priority? “

This is turning a long list into a short list. As the recipient answers this, they are consciously balancing importance and priority and sub-consciously testing their attachment to the list and selecting the ones with greater relevance, significance or importance.

Once this short list has been determined the next phase of this process is to ask “What are the non-negotiables attached to the goals selected?”. The response to this question, goal by goal will lead to you helping the recipient to consider what MUST happen to mean the goal has been achieved. The responses can lead to achieving the clarity behind what may have been a general directional goal or a goal that had not been fully thought through. This element is achieving the Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time framed filter that is associated to all successful goal setting. This helps the recipient to contextualise and confirm the appropriateness of the goals set.

You should, whether running this with a direct report or colleague, or if you are doing this through self-talk with yourself only introduce the following question at this stage – after the “What” section of questions have been all asked and answered.

The next question is “How?” – how do we achieve this goa? Depending on how well prepared the recipient is to achieve this goal, this may lead to a period of learning to be carried out to increase likelihood of success or may lead to the answers you would expect form a “How” question – the build of a Plan.

One key thing to point out is that “How” must be kept out of the discussion, or thought process, until all elements of the “What” section is complete. This is because thinking how prematurely (without clarity and attachment to the what) tends to lead to some sort of constrained thinking. How will lead to thinking “Can I do this?” or “This nds difficult” and can lead to Goal dilution.

It is the right question to ask once the Goal has been set, stress checked and clarified and non-negotiables, the dreaded “red lines” set. These are what stop constrained thinking when you do engage in How?

Interestingly, Simon Sinek taught us all to “Start with Why?” – then fit your how I do it and What I sell to the thinking process and this makes absolute sense to marketing and bringing a business together with it’s market sector. However, in goal setting I believe starting with “What” is the appropriate process. You do tend to ask “Why” when converting a long-list to a short-list of goals but this is partially subliminal.

I am going to end this article with a thanks to Lucas Vigilante, an Action Coach based in South Essex who helped me to understand this principle of the Power of “What”. This topic is the subject for my educational slot at my Growth Club today and will have been used to ensure attendees did not constrain their thinking when setting their goals. I hope that by reading this you will find the setting of non-negotiables of use to you and help you to accelerate your progress towards better results in your business.

If you would like to discuss this further with me please contact me on or call on  07511 969690.