As coaches, we aim to help our clients make the changes they seek. And yet they often fail to make, or maintain, the changes. There’s a reason: we approach change as a behavioral shift rather than a core transformation of the internal system. Change is a systems problem not a new behavior choice.

Let me explain. Whatever difficulty we have that needs resolution has been created and maintained by the largely unconscious mystery of what’s going on inside us – the idiosyncratic rules, roles, beliefs, history, relationships, etc. that make us unique – and shows up as our behaviors. I call this internal conglomeration of rules and beliefs a system. Our company and teams, relationships and families, are systemic. Without systems, all would be chaos.


The defining element of systems is that everything within them (usually unconscious) buys in to the same unique rules which in turn sharply define the choices we make and behaviors we exhibit. As I discuss in my book Dirty Little Secrets the system is sacrosanct, regardless of its validity. Even if something is problematic it’s seen as part of the system and accepted just as it is. It’s the reason why we don’t lose that extra 10 pounds, or why clients don’t carry out the actions they us paid to acquire, or why buyers don’t buy. The system maintains the same behaviors so long as it maintains the same rules, regardless of whether or not it seems effective or rational to an outsider.

People contact us to help them change. But herein lies the paradox: our unconscious system is loath to admit flaws as it means the demise of the system. So while the person may consciously seek change, the internal system (the status quo) that created the problematic behavior wants balance (homeostasis). When we offer the system ‘rational’ reasons to change, we threaten the system; our information is seen as biased rationale trying to convince the system it’s wrong. Indeed, the system is so vigilant that it ejects and resists anything that threatens it regardless of the need, the problem, or the solution. So our glorious, well-considered information, our pitches and ideas and suggestions, merely causes resistance.

Knowing there is a problem, wanting to make a change, or implementing a necessary change initiative aren’t enough to avert resistance: everything internal that touches the problem and solution must agree to the change before adoption. For change to occur, the system must

  1. create a route to adoption that avoids disruption and congruently makes room for something new,
  2. recognize and enlist all relevant elements to buy-in to the change,
  3. develop new behaviors to represent the change (i.e. when the system changes, behaviors automatically change to articulate it).

It’s a dilemma for us as change agents when the route to change is unconscious and we are outside the system. But sometimes we get lucky and clients show up who have managed the systemic change already and buyers show up having gotten their internal buy-in. Unfortunately these situations are infrequent; we end up succeeding with the low-hanging fruit.

Most current coaching (and sales) techniques focus on discovering the root of a problem and then offering solutions. But this approach is problematic:

  • The coach, seller, consultant asks biased questions, limiting the scope of discovery to what’s conscious, and receiving biased answers that may or may not get to the core unconscious issues that fight to maintain the status quo;
  • Offering information causes resistance because the new is challenging the old without systemic buy-in and congruent internal change.


It’s quite possible to facilitate core change, create new behaviors, and avoid resistance by teaching the system to unlock its unconscious elements and enable change – but not with conventional models which either pull biased, incomplete data or offer ‘suspicious’ information.

I have developed a new form of question called a Facilitative Question that helps the system navigate through the relevant aspects of the status quo to enlist the systemic elements of change, and does not use, share, or gather information. Once the system knows how, when, and where to use or share information congruently, conventional questions, probing, and recommendations come into play (the last 10% of the change activity).

Facilitative Questions have a different goal than conventional questions and employ a different type of listening (listening for systems rather than listening for needs or problems, using decision sequencing to direct the unconscious, etc.). They actually enable clients to recognize and manage the full set of unconscious elements that need to buy-in to change. So instead of gathering data or pushing ideas into the existing system, Facilitative Questions actually teach the system itself to recognize the elements that are impeding excellence and to create a route to change without disruption and with buy-in. It’s the skill behind ethical consulting, coaching, and sales. I’ve been teaching how to formulate these since 1988.


Normal question: Why do you wear your hair like that? This question, obviously biased by the questioner’s need for information so she can claim a problem or place a solution, leads to a defensive response.

Facilitative Question: How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle? This question teaches the person’s system how to discover the internal criteria for creating the status quo and to recognize what criteria would need to be addressed to change should it find the system lacking.

Normal question: Why is it easier for you to manage your time at home than it is a work? This question creates defense, and helps clients notice only the conscious answers.

Facilitative Question: What has stopped you until now from taking the strategies that work at home and applying them to your work issue? This question might be the first in a series that teaches the system how to recognize the root of the problem. Continued Facilitative Questions (they are used in a specific sequence) will teach the status quo to unlock its own answers and find its own root to excellence and possibly new behavior choices.

The questions use specific words in specific order to help the system recognize appropriate internal elements (in the first question, ‘how’ ‘if’ ‘time’ ‘reconsider’ ‘hairstyle’ for example) and the criteria that would need to be met for the system to be ready and willing to change.

Coaches lose 50% of their client base regularly because the information offered ‘doesn’t work’ or faces resistance causing temporary behavior changes (permanent change comes from the systemic, belief level). Sellers lose 93% of their prospects because they are placing solutions where buyers have some sort of systemic work-around and don’t know how to change at that time.

If you are seeking to facilitate real change, let’s discuss ways to help you learn to formulate Facilitative Questions and teach your clients how to generate lasting change or teach your buyers how to buy. Or if you are a client or team seeking real change, let’s talk to see if my coaching style serves you. I’d love to help you learn how to truly serve your clients.

Read two free chapters of book on systemic change (the generic model in a sales context) Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it