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Circular questions: application and benefits in the coaching field

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Circular questions: application and benefits in the coaching field

Entrenched opinions rarely lead to success. Nevertheless, it can happen to any of us that we literally get lost. In this case, circular questions can remedy the situation by encouraging us to change our perspective. Below, you'll learn how to use circular questions and the benefits of the method.

What are circular questions?

The technique of circular questioning has its origins in modern psychology. It is considered an integral part of systemic therapy. Unlike most other methods, however, the circular questioning technique does not serve to elicit information, but to create new perspectives. The interviewee thus succeeds in viewing the disputed issue from the perspective of other people.

Have you ever felt blocked because you were sure that your (professional) environment perceives you in a negative way? With the help of the circular questioning technique, such misconceptions can be clarified. Circular questions make interpersonal relationships transparent. Insecurities, blockages and entrenched convictions dissolve.

A revealing scientific elaboration on the circular questioning technique can be found in the following article.

The success of the method stands and falls with the competence of the therapist or coach. He or she must be able to successfully stimulate the change of perspective through targeted questions. Circular questions only make sense if all conflict parties are present. The special feature of this technique is that people do not talk to each other, but about each other: "What do you think, does the other person think?"

General example of circular questions

There are three people in a room. We call them:

  • X
  • Y
  • Z

Let's assume that Z is upset about a decision X has made. In a conventional coaching situation, the coach would now address Z directly and ask about the reasons for her annoyance. In the circular questioning technique, the coach instead turns to X: "Why do you think Z is upset about your behavior?"

The interviewee thus makes a conjecture about what might have triggered the anger. The angry party himself initially listens to the conjectures without taking a position. In this way, the perspective of both parties is broadened: X reflects on her behaviour and Z receives information about what the other party suspects as the trigger for her displeasure. If there are misconceptions, they can be clarified.

But now there is a third person present: Y. The coach will also ask this person: "What do you think X's anger triggers in Z?" Thus, a third, outside perspective is added.

circular questions examples

How to develop circular questions step by step

In summary, the circular questioning method consists of three steps:

  1. form a hypothesis
  2. Formulate circular question
  3. Listening attentively

The hypothesis forms the basis of the circular question. Let us assume that a contractor assumes that his client does not sufficiently consider the interests of his stakeholders. Based on this assumption, a circular question is now formulated: "What do you think your clients expect from the project?" The client thus abandons his insightful view.

In order for the circular questions to achieve the desired success, it is now necessary to attentive listening of all parties involved is important.

When do circular questions come into play?

Circular questions, also known as triadic questions, are mostly used in a professional context:

  • at workshops, seminars and further education
  • in specific training
  • in negotiations with business partners and customers
  • in the context of employee appraisals

In the private context, the technique is rather less common, although the suggestion of a change of perspective can be helpful in any life situation. However, there is usually a lack of an experienced moderator (coach) in the private context. Without neutral moderation, there is a danger that tempers will get too hot (e.g. by interrupting each other).

Goals of circular questioning

The main goal of circular questioning, as explained several times before, is to Change of perspective. This change of perspective in turn results in the following advantages:

  • All participants receive extended information about the respective topic.
  • Exploration of meaningful options for action in existing conflict situations.
  • Communication offers become transparent and comprehensible for all participants.
  • Reflection and change of ingrained behavioural patterns.
  • Clarification and improvement of relationship constellations.
  • Customer wishes are implemented more effectively.
  • Improvement of the working atmosphere.

What are the advantages of circular questions?

Circular questions have above all the advantage that the technique can be carried out spontaneously without any preparation effort. In the context of a workshop, aids such as flipcharts are sometimes used, but this is not absolutely necessary. Basically, the circular questioning technique does not require any additional materials. This saves time and money.

Circular questions also offer the unique opportunity to find out whether one's own assumptions about a particular issue correspond to reality. There is hardly any comparable method that gives you such a deep insight into the views of your colleagues, customers or business partners. The knowledge gained can be used to professional advantage.

Interpersonal relationships also improve through circular questioning. An essential part of the technique is to put yourself in other people's shoes. Through mutual understanding, new constructive approaches to solutions emerge, from which all parties benefit.

Does the circular questioning technique also have limitations and disadvantages?

No coaching method comes without drawbacks. This also applies to circular questions. Whether the technique leads to success depends not least on the willingness of those involved. If they are critical of the technique from the start, no satisfactory solution can be found.

Some people feel irritated by circular questions. Speculating about what another person might be thinking is not something everyone considers useful. The person you are asking others about in their presence may also not feel taken seriously. Depending on your mentality, this technique can cause tremendous inner discomfort.

It is therefore advisable to clarify in advance whether all participants can and want to engage in the circular questions. If this is not the case, it is necessary to choose another method to broaden the perspective.

The most important 10 circular questioning techniques from the coaching field

Circular questions are often used in coaching. Let's take a closer look at the 10 most common questioning techniques:

1. systemic circular questions

The coach's questions focus on the existence of reciprocal conditions:

"What do you think your behavior will trigger with your supervisor?"

2. perspective questions

The coach interviews different people about a situation, looking at the impact of the problem in the past, present and future:

"How was the situation handled when the problem had not yet occurred?"
"What do you think customers think about the problem?"
"How do you think the issue will play out over the next year?"

3. triadic circular questions

The coach asks his client what a third person thinks about the communication of two other people involved:

"What does your supervisor think about the way two of your colleagues talk about the department?"

4. questions of difference

As the name suggests, in this circular questioning technique the coach asks about existing differences. This serves to gain information and helps to achieve a differentiated view:

"What does colleague A do differently than colleague B?"
"What is the difference between the current state of affairs and the desired goal?"

5. questions about people and facts

To be able to work effectively with his clients, the coach needs to get an overview of the relevant network:

"Who do you think is involved in the targeting process?"
"In your opinion, are the ideas of Type X and Person Y feasible?"
"What facts might hinder or accelerate success?"

6. improvement issues

When there is a problem, the attention of everyone involved is usually focused exclusively on that problem. This creates a kind of pessimistic tunnel vision. In the worst case, resources for problem solving are simply overlooked. Circular improvement questions can also broaden the perspective here:

"What do you think the others want you to do to solve the problem?"
"What resources do you think are needed to solve the problem?"
"Which of the parties involved do you think would be most likely to help solve the problem?"

7. aggravation issues

This circular questioning technique may seem a little strange at first, but it has a very specific purpose. By asking aggravating questions, i.e. by painting worst-case scenarios, each participant is made aware of his or her active role in perpetuating the problem:

"How could you make your own Dissatisfaction continue to fuel?"
"In what ways might other people contribute to making you feel worse?"

8. compliance issues

In order to ultimately reach a common solution, the coaching process asks which parties agree with each other:

"Do you think Mr. X has a similar view of the facts?"
"Mr Y thinks there should be more coffee breaks. Mrs Z has a different view. In your opinion, what is Mr. X's assessment of this issue?"

9. observation questions

With this type of circular questioning technique, the client is deliberately asked to assess what is happening from an observational position:

"As an outsider, what would you think about the facts of the case?"

10. percentage questions

Percentage questions can help to specify the ideas of the individual participants. Here, quantitative facts can be determined in particular:

"By what percentage would you need to increase your engagement to be more successful?"
"What percentage of the workforce would need to rethink their priorities?"
"What percentage of the time do you think it's safe for your supervisor to implement the measures you've announced?"

circular questions exercise

Example of circular questions from coaching practice

In order to illustrate the theory of circular questions, we have come up with a practical example in which some of the questioning techniques presented above are applied. The participants in the interview are a manager, a Team leader and, of course, the coach. Can you recognize the different techniques?

Coach: "What reason do you think your supervisor contacted me for?"

Team Leader: "He's unhappy with my work performance."

Coach: "Why do you suppose that is, in his opinion?"

Team Leader: "I used to work more efficiently. Today everything takes longer and I forget some things."

Coach: "What ideas do you think your boss has about how you can regain your former performance potential?"

Team Leader: "I need to focus better."

Coach to supervisor: "How can you tell that Mr. Z is able to concentrate right now?"

Supervisor: "He makes fewer mistakes."

Coach to Team Leader: "What do you think your supervisor suspects is the cause of your lack of concentration?"

Team Leader: "He thinks that overwhelmed I've been a lot happier since we merged two departments, which means I have twice as many employees to supervise."

Coach: "What do you think would have to change for you to be more focused again, despite the internal restructuring?"

Team Leader: "I would have to do more tasks delegate allowed."

Coach: "What would be different if your supervisor complied with this request?"

Employees: "With the workload lessening, I can get back to my essential tasks."

Learn more coaching methods in the Greator Business Coach training

Asking circular questions is just one of many effective coaching tools. If you want to pursue a career as a coach, you should of course be familiar with all the methods. But even if you "only" want to pave your own way to a happier and more fulfilled life, knowledge of the different coaching tools is essential. Coaching methods very helpful.

In our Greator Business Coach Training we familiarize you with all the basic coaching tools. In the first part of the training, the focus is on working through your own life issues. We support your learning process every week with high-quality coaching videos, workbooks and meditations. This self-awareness will help you to support your future clients even better.

You are still hesitant because you are completely busy in your professional or family life? That is not an obstacle at all: our Business Coach Training takes place online. This guarantees you maximum flexibility in terms of time and location. At the end of the training you will write an exam, after which you can call yourself a certified Greator Business Coach.

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Reviewed by Dr. med. Stefan Frädrich

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