TOM #5: How to get clarity

Posted on: May 8, 2022

Given May is National Mental Health Month in the U.S., it feels purposeful to focus on clarity in today’s issue. Clarity mitigates stress, dissolves overwhelm, and eases anxiety. 

Clarity is one of the most powerful interventions in your leadership toolbox. 

Today I’ll share two of my favorite coaching frameworks to help you get clarify your desired outcome(s) and identify what you’re actually solving your business and in any aspect of your life you choose to explore.

Part 1 introduces the Outcome Frame and the PRO Model. (5min read)

Part 2 offers additional information about the Outcome Frame to assist you in getting more value out of using it. (5min read)

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to consider how this info relates to you and your situation.

Let's begin by connecting today's content with your current situation.

When I was in flight school, we were put into a steel, room-sized chamber and exposed to low oxygen conditions so that we could experience our own early symptoms of hypoxia. A little over three years later while my crew was flying over northern Iraq, my forearms and hands started tingling in the way they only had in that chamber. I immediately asked the flight station to check our cabin altitude. Sure enough, we were on our way to hypoxia!

🤔 What lets you know that you’re lacking clarity? What are your early warning indicators?

On the chance it helps you identify yours, here is a list of a few symptoms of insufficient clarity that my clients and I have experienced:

  • Stalling to make decisions or take action
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Worrying about more things and more often than usual
  • Deteriorating self-confidence or ambition
  • Low mood and low motivation
  • Social withdrawal, avoiding meetups or events with colleagues and friends
  • Chronic procrastination on things that are important to you
  • Unrestful sleep or trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Stagnating or declining KPIs
  • Denial of emerging problems or deferring inquiry into them
  • Resentment toward your business, your team, and/or yourself
  • Working for hours, but not making meaningful progress

Part 1: Coaching Frameworks for Finding Clarity

The pandemic reminded us that the only certainty is uncertainty and that there’s more outside of our control than within it. Both the pace and magnitude of change have increased, and the tools we relied on as business owners to predict and plan for the future no longer work. It’s no wonder that a recent American Psychological Association study revealed that 63% of Americans said they’re stressed by uncertainty about what the next few months will bring, and 49% said that planning for their future feels impossible!

While we can’t change what happens around us, we can change how it affects us.

For most of us, when we are feeling limited by our circumstances–whether it’s a mild inconvenience or complete shutdown of our operations–we tend to focus our attention on the limitation. 

We tend to focus on the problem. And that’s a problem.

In coaching, we focus our attention on the client’s desired outcomes. Doing so creates the conditions for change that enable the client to achieve or create those outcomes.

Today I’m sharing two frameworks that allow me to help my clients get clear and take bold action.

The Outcome Frame

For most of our lives, we have been rewarded for solving problems. As business owners, our livelihoods rely on us solving the right problems.

The Outcome Frame is a series of five questions that elicit clarity about what you actually want. Sourced from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), the Outcome Frame is a powerful tool for identifying the right problems. When we are clear on what we actually want, we can discern which problems are worth addressing and the factors that influence them.

The word “outcome” is important here. Outcomes are not the same as goals. Outcomes include how achieving a goal makes you feel and what achieving a goal makes possible. 

Goals are the “what”. Outcomes are the “why”.

We are generally more inclined to talk about our problems than our desires. (The English language reflects this propensity–there are very few words that express wants.) 

By intentionally focusing on desired outcomes, we redress this imbalance and build the capacity to more readily clarify what we would like. 

This is a useful thing to do.

Having a clear understanding of your desired outcome creates a motivational pull toward it.

The process of developing a desired outcome is often all that is needed to create a significant shift in your perception of a situation or in what’s possible. You may find there’s no need to explore problems at all! 

You might be tempted to skip some of the questions, but I urge you to use each one. (Part 2 offers more info about how to get the most out of using the Outcome Frame.)

If you were to focus your attention on what you don’t want, you’d waste resources “solving” the wrong problem and have no understanding of what you actually do want.

The PRO Model

What we can envision is often constrained by what we are currently experiencing. 

It can be hard to want anything more than relief when you're struggling with a piercing headache. 

When you ask someone (or yourself) “What would you like?”, it’s common to receive an answer that refers to the problem they’re most focused on – even if the problem is gone, e.g. “I would like to be headache-free.” Other answers often include a proposed remedy to the problem: “I want an aspirin.” 

I have found that listening through the framework of the PRO Model enables me to distinguish a person’s perception of their current situation and the meaning they’re making about it.

The PRO Model comes from Clean Language, a simple and elegant modality in which both the coach and the client focus their full attention on the information provided by the client. The coach does not introduce any content of their own. As my teacher Marian Way describes in her book Clean Approaches for Coaches, “Everything a clean coach does–every word, every gesture–has the purpose of inviting the client to attend to aspects of [their] experience and to notice, consider, and reconsider what they would like to have happen.” 

Perhaps an example will help illustrate what Marian means. For instance, “How did you like it?” is not a “clean” question, but “How was it?” is. The word “like” imposes on the other person’s interpretation of their experience.

The PRO Model is simply a filter through which you can discern if the person’s attention is on the problem (P), a remedy they’re considering (R), or their actual desired outcome (O).

Practice and Experiment!

I encourage you to listen to normal conversations with this framework in mind. At your dinner table. During a podcast interview. While sharing coffee with a friend. When speaking with one of your direct reports. Inside your own mind. 

Notice what the speaker is putting their attention on: problem, remedy, or outcome.

 When you’re the interviewer, how might you use open-ended questions to shift the other person’s attention to their desired outcome?

If you focus on what you don’t want, you perpetuate it.

When your attention is on a problem, it’s really on the symptoms of an underlying problem. 

Alleviating symptoms will not actually solve the problem. AND, it may be that neither alleviating the symptoms nor solving the underlying problem will move you toward your desired outcome! As a consequence, you’re simply perpetuating the conditions you don’t want.

Consequently, I encourage you to be more discerning about when you use problem-focused questions with yourself and your team. I’ve listed a few below to help you understand what I mean by problem-focused questions. And to help you notice if and how your typical way of exploring unwanted situations is focused on who’s at fault or what’s wrong. 

  • What’s wrong?
  • Why is this happening?
  • How does this interfere with your life?
  • What does this stop you from doing?
  • Who or what needs to change?
  • Why is this happening to you?
  • Why have you failed?
  • Whose fault is it?

These questions remind me of parent-teacher conferences and cop shows where the aim is to narrow in on a concrete and isolated issue and solve it neatly and easily. Such information gathering questions offer expedience and convenience, but they don’t necessarily help identify clear desired outcomes or the things that actually need to change in order to achieve them.

Business is a multi-variable world that’s already hard enough. Use problem-focused questions sparingly, and preferably only after you’ve worked through an Outcome Frame and asked yourself what will having the answer to this question do for me? (It may be that you’re scratching an itch that has nothing to do with moving you/your business/the other person toward an identified desired outcome.)

Self-Coaching Questions

  • What have you learned so far?
  • What, if anything, would you like to try?

Part 2: Mining Insights with the Outcome Frame

Whether you use the Outcome Frame questions as journal prompts on your own or in conversation with someone on your team, you may find that this additional information helps you get more va.

1. The Desired State Question

“What would you like?” is the Desired State Question. Useful answers to this question are:

  • Stated in positive terms. For example, if you were to answer “I don’t want to feel bad,” I might redirect your attention by saying, “It’s useful to know so clearly what we don’t want, and I am wondering, how do you want to feel?”
  • Things that you can control or initiate. You have no control over the behavior of others, but you have complete control over (having complete choice about) your own behavior and response to situations. You cannot make the other person treat you respectfully, but how is it that you would like to respond to her? What is it that you want to be able to do or experience when interacting with her?
  • Achievable. Dream big, eclipse current limitations…and reach for things that are reachable.
  • Specific and sensory-based descriptions. What will you be doing, thinking, seeing, hearing, and feeling when you have your desired outcome?
  • Reasonable in scope or size. If you want to be satisfied in your business, in what area of it would you like to be satisfied first?

2. The Meta-Outcome Question

“What will having that do for you?” is called the “Meta-Outcome” question. Like all of the Outcome Frame questions, the syntax of this one might be slightly different than Sister Mary might have wanted in grammar class. But the syntax is designed to effectively elicit information that is outside of your conscious awareness. 

If you prefer to experiment, try it both with the word “will” and the word “would”.

If you want to get results without testing, I suggest sticking with the script and using “will”.

This question elicits the Remedies that someone has mapped as necessary for achieving their desired outcome, as well as their deeper motivations. Channel your endlessly curious inner kindergartner, and ask this question at least 3 times!

When you uncover the unconscious drivers behind what you (or someone else) want(s), you unlock entirely new possibilities. You may realize there are so many other ways of getting what you want, which is immensely useful in identifying the right problem to solve and the dozens of ways you can solve it!

Here’s a simple example of how probing with the meta-outcome question can reveal inner/invisible drivers:

  • What will having that do for you?
    • “I want to shift the practice to cash-based from insurance-based services.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “I can pay my staff more and we can deliver better outcomes for patients.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “My staff and I will be happier.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “We will take even better care of our patients and have more energy for life outside of work.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “It’ll feel like my business and I are on the same team.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “I’ll feel like this was all worth it.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “I’ll feel successful.”
  • And what will having that do for you?
    • “I’ll know that I’m good enough.”
  • So what you would like is to know that you’re good enough?”
    • “Yes.”

Note: Beginning the question with “and” is intentional and helpful in maintaining the other person’s attention on their desired state and the matrix of beliefs and needs that are interrelated. (This tidbit is a gift from Clean Language.)

The Meta-Outcome Question is useful anytime you’re faced with making a decision (no matter how big or small) or wanting to better understand what you really want. When do you want to wake up tomorrow? Do you want to hire another person? Do you want to host the family Thanksgiving this year? Do you want to change accountants? 

This probing helps excavate the FEELING that’s actually driving you (rather than the thinking you believe to be directing your choices). 

3. The Evidence Procedure Question

“How will you know when you have it?” is the question that stumps me most of the time. I am still learning so much about how things work in my inner software!

You get much more accurate information in response to this question by using it as written. The word “will” directs your brain to imagine the future as if what you want has occurred. If you were to use the word “would”, you’re more likely to get an intellectualized response, which isn’t as useful in opening your neurolinguistic system to possibilities.

You may need to ask it a few times to arrive at useful, complete answers. These are internal indicators, kinda like my tingling hands and forearms. What will you be feeling? What will you have your attention on? What could a person observe about you that is indicative of you having what you want, e.g. How will you be carrying yourself? With whom or how will you engage with others? Where will you be or what will you be doing? “How else will you know when you have what you want? What other things will indicate that you have it?”

4. Where, when, and with whom do you want it?

This question didn’t get much love in the naming department. But it’s a helpful one nonetheless. 

It’s important to differentiate where you do want it and where you do not want your desired outcome. If you want to have unshakeable confidence, it might be useful to identify if there are contexts within which you would rather not have it. This question allows you to get specific about what you want in a constructive way. You might be surprised by what you learn, even when you go into the question believing the answers to be self-evident.

5. The Ecology Question

“How will your desired outcome affect the important people and other aspects of your life?” is the Ecology Question. I introduced this question in an earlier issue about change. Oftentimes, we are unconsciously committed to things staying the way that they are, and this question helps elicit competing commitments or unwanted consequences of your desired outcome. It helps unveil the ways in which you might cause trouble for yourself or the people and things that are important to you by pursuing what you want.

If you follow me on LinkedIn, you might be more familiar with the alternative verbiage for this question: “What might you lose that you value when you have this outcome?”

I simply love this question! It is one of the most effective tools for uncovering blindspots and helping my clients get out of their own way.

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