I start every coaching session with the question: what do you want to work on today? This week, a client laughed like this was a bad joke, then said: knowing how to come back from a bad day.
If you ever said the same to me, our conversation would go something like this:
Me – Hmmm. Well, what do you mean by a bad day?
You – ANGRY, HURT, EXASPERATED RESPONSE
Me – That sounds really frustrating. What do you mean by come back?
You – MORE FRUSTRATION, SOME IF-ONLYS, THEN DESCRIBING IDEAL OUTCOMES
Me – Right. What could you do about that?
You – TENTATIVE IDEAS COMING FORWARD, CHOOSING BETWEEN THIS OR THAT, SMALL LIGHTBULBS
Me – OK, so what do you choose?
You – FINAL BIT OF DITHERING BETWEEN IDEAS, THEN CLEAR CHOICE CHOSEN
Meaning by the end of the session, you would be bouncing back, have a joyous heart forever, and live happily ever after. 🙊
That’s not true, of course. Unfortunately having a bad day is not a one-time thing, and doing our big work is more like panning for gold every day rather than digging up a treasure chest once.
When we’re looking for the gold in all our experiences like this, the questions are basically the same every time:
☝️ What’s happening?
✌️ What’s the impact of that?
🖖 What do you choose to do?
In coaching land, we call this the reflective practice: What, So What, Now What? (Rolfe et al, 2001)
Outside coaching land, the advice is usually something along the lines of Just get back in the saddle! You’ll feel better once you’ve ploughed on through! Show ‘em they’re wrong!
Trying to bounce back to your big work after a bad day through sheer force of will is like throwing the gold back in the river so you can keep… looking for gold. The gold is in the experiences you are having day in day out, even on the bad days – but it takes work to uncover it.
The What, So What, Now What framework is so super simple it has a gazillion uses. It works when you’re:
- struggling to get started
- inexplicably emotional
- in a distractable mood and want to find focus
- avoiding a task
- generally confused or unclear about a situation
- journalling before bed
- transitioning from one activity to the next
- …. and running a team meeting.
This last one is different to the others, and helps us see the bigger potential of these simple questions. They are so portable, you can easily use them with other people too.
In fact, when I’m coaching CxOs and VPs on how best to lead their teams, this is one of the first tools I show them. Of course, they are already highly experienced people managers! But the next level of development for them is often to stop diving in and fixing everything. Asking What, So What, Now What instead of offering advice means they let go of being the indispensable saviour and start building a collaborative team. Everyone benefits from panning the stream in that scenario. ✅
So my big question for you today is an invitation to a game: Can you build conversations with colleagues, friends and family around What, So What, Now What?
And notice, what gold do you discover as a result?
🎈 Fast Flow: The Core Questions for Reflection 🎈
A great panning-for-gold conversation follows the framework of What, So What, Now What? Here are some example questions for each stage:
- What happened?
- What led me to this?
- How am I feeling?
- What’s the impact of that?
- What does that mean for my big work?
- Am I telling myself things that are/aren’t true?
- What are the options for next steps?
- What feels right to do now?
- What do I choose?
We can use these questions whenever we want to orient ourselves, get some perspective, and choose next steps. They’re really effective at building connection and trust with other people too.