Many of us have broad developmental goals, but how many of us have a really clear idea of how to identify and measure our progress on these goals? Or where to best focus our attention when attempting to achieve them? This blog introduces two related questioning techniques that can help people further identify, understand, and build on their goals to identify concrete indications of success and progress. These are the “miracle question” and “exception question” techniques.
The “miracle question” technique helps identify specific concrete behaviours that can become the focus of change/development work. It normally asks an individual to imagine that they have gone to sleep and sometime during the night a miracle has happened, the change/development they desire has occurred. The question now becomes, how would they discover this miracle had occurred once they awoke? What would be different? What would they notice? What else?
“Exception questions” look to identify circumstances in which the desired future is already occurring. These are based on the idea that there are always times when examples of successful behaviour are already experienced. Exception questions seek to encourage an individual to describe the circumstances in which this occurs, or what was done differently. On this basis the individual becomes better able to consciously repeat what has previously worked and can identify the behaviour that links into their goal.
Let me provide you with a personal example of how these questions can facilitate development. When attempting to provide one of my brothers with “advice” I would often become overly directive and emotional. I understood that my response was based on how much I love him, but I also understood my emotion caused a distraction and the directive nature of my advice was reducing his buy-in. When it came to asking myself the miracle question I was able to identify that if I was calmly dealing with my brother, engaging in active listening, and non-directively exploring options, then a miracle had occurred! Furthermore, through considering exceptions I was able to identify that this “miracle” experience is exactly what occurs when I am dealing with clients. I was also able to identify what made dealing with clients so different (e.g., a solutions focus and not feeling a need to protect them from the world!). These realisations have enabled me to switch my thinking into client mode when dealing with my brother on previously emotive subjects. I still occasionally slip into a protective mindset. However, my conscious awareness of what a productive interaction looks like in this context, means it now happens less often and for shorter periods.
My example illustrates how the miracle and exception questions can be used within an informal coaching context. Yet these questions can be scaled to fit broader organisational development. As with most things, the skill of using these questions well is belied by their apparent simplicity. A good way to really get a feel for them is to experiment with them yourself. Think of your preferred future. How would you know if the miracle occurred? What are the circumstances in your life that already closely resemble this preferred future? I’d be interested to hear how you get on.