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The Clearness Process: A Coaching Tool

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[This coaching tool is a variant on one offered in Coachbook: A Guide to Organizational Coaching Strategies & Practices—written by William Bergquist and Agnes Mura. Click the link in our Sponsor section under the Bookstore Category to purchase the book.]

The Clearness Process

The clearness process, as a coaching tool, offers a gentle way in which a professional coach can encourage increasingly deeper reflection on the part of their client, without violating the basic premise of this peer-based approach that one need not be an expert or authority to be helpful to another person in an organization. All one has to do is be an active listener and provide a balance between challenge and support. The clearness process encourages active listening and provides both challenge (the questionnaire process) and support (offering help to a client who faces a difficult problem). Following are some questions that can be used in conjunction with this clearness process.

The Clearness Coaching Questions

Domain of Intentions: The Desired State

How would you know if you have been successful in this endeavor?
What would make you happy?
Who else has an investment in this project and what do they want to happen?
What would happen if you did not achieve this goal?
What would happen if you did achieve this goal?
What scares you most about not achieving this goal?
What scares you most about achieving this goal?

Domain of Information: The Current State

What are the most salient facts with regard to the circumstance in which you now find yourself?
What are the “facts” about which you are most uncertain at the present time? How could you check on the validity of these facts?
What are alternative ways in which you could interpret the meaning or implications of the facts that you do believe to be valid?

Defining the Problem: Gap between Current and Desired State

How do you know that there is a problem here?
To what extent do other people see this as a problem? If they don’t, why don’t they?
How long has this problem existed? How big is it? Is there any pattern with regard to its increase or decrease in magnitude?
What are the primary cause(s) of the problem? What is different when the problem does and does not exist? What remains the same whether or not the problem exists?
Who benefits from the continuing existence of the problem? In what ways do you benefit (even indirectly) from the continuing existence of this problem? What will you miss if and when this problem is resolved?

Domain of Ideas: Reducing Gap between Current and Desired State

When has a similar problem been successfully resolved? What can be learned from this previous success that applies to the present problem?
What appropriate ideas have been proposed about resolution of this problem? What are the elements (“seeds”) of these proposed ideas that are insightful, intriguing, inspiring?
What “outlandish” ideas have been proposed about resolution of this problem? What are the elements (“seeds”) of these proposed ideas that are insightful, intriguing, inspiring, appropriate?
How might you test out one or more of the proposed ideas before full scale implementation? What can you learn from these pilot tests?

Background

In the Quaker tradition, an assumption is made that consensus exists in any group when it convenes and that the process of finding consensus is one of uncovering this underlying agreement rather than somehow creating a consensus among constituencies who are inherently in a state of disagreement.  Similarly, the Quaker tradition suggests that individuals hold the answers to the problems that they face and need only uncover these answers. They don’t need assistance because of an absence of a solution to the problems they face; rather they need assistance in gaining greater clarity regarding the nature of this problem and the solution(s) they already possess that will solve this problem. As Ralph Waldo Emerson—the great American essayist—asked when greeting an old friend or acquaintance he had not seen for a while: “What’s become clear for you since we last met?” In the deeply-embedded American tradition of blending optimism, pragmatism and individualism, Emerson believed strongly that each individual possesses the capacity to solve his or her own problem, provided there is clarity.

The clearness process, like the consensus process, engages a community of people who are committed to a specific set of norms about how they will relate to one another. Specially, in the case of the clearness process, a person who faces a problem convenes a group of people to do nothing more than (and nothing less than) asking probing questions regarding the problem over a two to three hour period. Members of this clearness committee are not to give advice nor are they to ask leading questions that subtly (or not so subtly) imply a specific definition of the problem or a specific solution.

Though the clearness process has most often been used in small groups, it is equally appropriate for use in the professional coaching process. First, the clearness process’ assumption that the person with the problem also holds the solution to this problem is in keeping with the executive coaching focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Second, the clearness process is a wonderful way in which to encourage reflection on the part of the executive colleague. The problem remains with the client, rather than being transferred to either a consultant or counselor who begins with the assumption that their client or patient can’t him or herself come up with an appropriate solution.

Instructions for Use

A coach first explains the purpose and conditions of the clearness process, emphasizing the basic assumption that a clear sense of the problem and viable solutions to the problem reside with the executive client. Their role as coach is to help their client discover this inherent sense of the problem and solutions. A coach then asks their client to describe the problem as they now see it, as well as identify any solutions that already come to mind. The reflective coach should remain relatively inactive during this initial problem description, asking questions only to help him/her (the coach) better understand the situation. Finally, the reflective coach begins to ask questions that help their client clarify the nature of the problem they face. In keeping with the analysis we offered above a set of questions that usually touch on one of three domains: (1) the desired state (the client’s intentions), (2) the current state (the client’s perceptions of the present state of affairs) and (3) the nature of the gap between the current and desired states (the client’s definition of the problem).

The clearness process will then tend to shift toward the uncovering of solutions. This uncovering may occur while the problem is being described and explored—or it may even precede the exploration of the problem. It is not for the coach to control the flow of the clearness process. Rather the reflective coach continues asking questions that move with rather than impede the client’s own “natural” way of exploring the problem. We offer a sample of questions above that can be helpful in this regard. These questions all encourage a fresh look at solutions to the problem and encourage one’s client to probe deeper into his or her own ideas regarding potential solutions. Executives often limit themselves in considering nontraditional ideas, in part because they have been “right” so often in their life that it is hard to risk being “wrong.” The coach provides a safe and supportive environment in which to articulate and explore these “wrong” and crazy ideas and in which to consider parameters of the problem and solution (time, resources, authority) which have always been on “the back burner” for this harried executive.

More generally, the clearness process provides a safe setting—a sanctuary—in which a coaching client can reflect with another executive regarding the nature of a problem and its solutions. It is safe not only because the coach is accepting and supportive, but also because the coach is not intruding his or her own ideas. When we impose our ideas as colleagues, then the recipient of these ideas must acknowledge them, find something good about them (so that our feelings aren’t hurt), and—if we have been particularly helpful (in terms of giving our client considerable time and attention)—plan some way in which to make use of these ideas (even if it means that the solution is unsuccessful). All of this distracts our client from the real task at hand which is to find a solution to his or her problem, not to the newly created problem (making us feel good about our assistance). The clearness process is simple, straightforward and often very helpful in a genuine way for an executive client who has requested our assistance. It is a valuable tool for the professional coach.

 

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