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    Finding the Skeleton Keys: An interview with Alan Kay

    Finding the Skeleton Keys: An interview with Alan Kay

    Alan KayThe Betternxt blog will be conducting an ongoing interview series with Solution Focus experts from around the Globe. This week we sat down with Alan Kay to talk Skeleton Keys — why Solution Focus coaches depend on them, why Alan uses them, and why they work.

    What is a ‘Skeleton Key’ in Solution Focus?

    I think Steve de Shazer coined the phrase to help people understand the notion that in Solution Focus we are helping the individual find the answers for themselves. Our job is to open the lock in order for them to open the door to that solution and discover what will work best for themselves.

    The SF coach is often presented with a complex, sometimes seemingly intractable problem and may be faced with feeling pressure to find some answers for their client. The good SF coach knows not to go there because the client may like the ideas offered, but will almost certainly not take ownership of the path to the solution. We use the skeleton key because only the client will know what’s best for them.

    Why do Skeleton Keys work well in Solution Focus coaching?

    Skeleton keys seem to work by giving the coach the confidence that their questions are part of, or are in support of, the client’s process for change. The coach can provide the necessary combination of levers that open the lock and thereby the door.

    Are there common Skeleton Key Questions in Solution Focus Coaching?

    I think that all good SF questions are the beginnings of turning the internal levers of the lock.

    Do Skeleton Key questions ever fail?

    There are no bad SF questions, but some may be less optimal. Though occasionally you find your questions make a difference right away, not every SF question yields a useful answer from and for the client. If not, an essential skill of the coach is to be patient. I presume that those who pick locks using skeleton keys sometimes find that they have to use several different types of skeleton keys. So, if the questions that the coach is using don’t seem to be moving the client along, the coach would just try another angle. As my first trainer in the SF way said, ‘…when you have a brownout with a client, just throw out any SF-like question while you think of a better  question. You sometimes find that a casual question actually works’. This is because the less we over-think our questions, the better it is for the client. The line is, ‘The harder I work, the less it works for the client’.

    Are Skeleton Keys and Better Questions the same thing?

    Yes. Think of the lock as having a bunch of internal levers that you can’t see because they are hidden inside. Better questions are the parts of the skeleton key that start to move the levers inside the client’s mind, revealing their desire, or lack of desire, for change.

    What are your favourite ‘better questions’ in your professional coaching?

    1) How can I be useful to you today?

    Or, suppose we have a good session:

    What would have worked for you or what would have been better? [I think this one is going to seem awkward.

    2) What pleases you most in your work? What else?

    3) What are you working on where you’d like to see something different/better happen?

    4) At the start you said it would be useful if x and y occurred. How do you now see this session has been useful to you?

    There’s many more! I love them all.

    How do you find Skeleton Keys work in a group session? Do the keys work on everyone in the session?

    A group sometimes takes more patience, especially if they have very diverse perspectives and needs. Even more patience is required if they are frustrated or angry. To deal with it all I will often create a pre-session exercise and/or ask for a pre-planning team to meet before the main session in order to send some questions over in advance.

    I find that my pre-exercise approach helps speed up engagement on the day of the formal session. Also, over the years I have evolved my own philosophy/practice — I recognize that you cannot expect everybody to respond in the same way or at the same pace to your better questions. This means finding the skeleton key that works for the majority, but not everybody… yet! I’ve also seen clients so resistant to change that they are unable to move forward in the group sessions simply because they have yet to process the new way of thinking, but later start to catch up. And after they catch up they still may not fully realize that they have made any progress!

    Are Skeleton Key questions more effective in any particular scenario? For example, Individual vs. Group Coaching?

    The rule is simple, every individual and every group is different. The same group can be different a week later when you return for a follow-up. Hence, assume nothing and be helpful to the client(s) by maintaining your ‘not-knowing’ stance. And, by always aligning with them by asking how you can be most useful to them. The questions are then developed around what works for them and the variables/differences can be lessened.


    About Alan Kay:

    Alan-jpeg-e1364235604705Alan is a solutions based consultant specializing in organizational and personal change. His clients cover a broad range of sectors including financial services, industrial, consumer goods, NFP, social service, media and education. He works with individuals and groups in Canada, the US, the UK and Europe. Clients make use of his Solution Focus applications – planning, stakeholder consultations, training etc. Alan’s body of work has been featured in a variety of books and journals. Alan gets great joy from Board work — including ABC Life Literacy Canada and the AMA. Alan teaches executive development students at Schulich School of Business and is a peer-reviewed member of SFCT. Be sure to check out Alan’s book, Fry a Monkey, Create a Solution.

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    Richard Toker

    Betternxt Academy