I Don’t Know What to Ask My Client – Tips for a Successful Interview


A Coaching Model to Help Us Interview Our Clients

Awhile back I spoke about a Danish colleague who presented at the International Association of Facilitators Conference in the USA. (See “Space: The Final Frontier of Facilitation”) His name is Jens Lillebaek. He is an IAF certified professional facilitator (CPF©), a coach and a chief advisor in Grontmij, Denmark. Just as a refresher I will go over his 4 part model and I will also share some of the resources he recommends. The reason I love his coaching model for interviewing facilitation clients is that I often find myself perplexed about how to really get to the root issue of a client’s need. Jen’s model, I think will be helpful to all of us facilitators, trainers (and coaches of course) to ensure we have really good information to design our workshops.

One thing I’ve noticed over the last 12-15 years is that more and more coaches are showing an interest in learning facilitation skills. But in fact I think facilitators have so much to learn from coaches. It’s exciting to me to be bringing these two professions together and seeing what we have to offer to each other. In fact, one woman I assessed in the IAF certification process many years ago was/is a coach who really wanted to take her skills into the facilitation world. In our next newsletter we’ll be featuring her story! She is Lilian Wang from Hong Kong. In our time of working together, I have learned a lot from her and her excellent ways of applying coaching ideas to facilitation.

But back to “what is this model that Jen is teaching us?”. Here’s a little graphic of his model.

Coaching Model to Understand Context


What is Key in the Model?

Jens says Part 1 and Part 2 are critical to do well before moving to Part 3 and 4. He talks about first do the deconstruction steps and then do the reconstruction steps. Where “the magic” happens is in the 3rd step of the model. He advises us to do these interviews on a 1 to 1 basis and take 45-60 minutes per person. The crucial thing to do is respect and separate the steps – not to mix any of the questions of the next steps. The 3rd step produces great insights but only if the work has been properly done in the first two steps. He says, “The worst thing a coach can do is to ask the reconstruction questions too soon, before the deconstruction process is complete and offering of new positions have been properly done.”

Let’s add more detail to those 4 steps again:

Step 1 is about the past and the client’s perspective. It is about why and what. Typical questions are: You asked for X, what is X for you? Why are you calling for this workshop now? What have you done so far? What has worked? Not worked? What is important for me as the facilitator to understand? How invested are you in this intervention?

Step 2 is also about the past and is based on others’ perspectives. It is also about the why and what. Here are typical questions you would ask in Step 2. Who are the key people involved? How would each of them describe the situation if I was talking to them? In the past, what would each one of them say about what was done that was really successful?

Step 3 is about the future and again encouraging the client to consider others’ perspectives. It focuses on the “what” of success. Typical interview questions include: Assuming it went well, what would be a positive outcome for your group? What would your group like to have achieved at the workshop? What would your group like to have experienced at the workshop? What would concrete successful results look like when the workshop was over for your group?

Step 4 is also about the future and now finally considers the client’s perspective on future outcomes. A sample of questions include: Assuming it was positive for you, what would the outcome of this event be? How would you achieve it? How would you move forward? Assuming we had a very good session, who would you really have liked to remember to include? Who else, especially those whose positions or behaviours challenge you, might you consider including?)

Other Tips

Jens cautions us to not move too quickly to steps 3 and 4. Spend at least 30 minutes asking each client interviewee about the past and factoring in others’ perspectives. He also says in Step 4 to be sure to have them think about including people with “challenging behaviors” based on the client’s perspective.

Other best practices that Jens shared with us really have to do with making sure you have access to the client so that you can establish a very positive client relationship. He says the keys to his success are:

1) being allowed to interview the right people on their own

2) having permission to coach any of the individuals on their own

3) having enough time to get the workshop design approved in a step-by-step manner

4) having permission to suggest changes to the setting, the time, layout of the room and number and length of the presentations.

5) being allowed to draft invitations, suggest food choices for snacks and meals and finalize the agenda design.

6) ensuring that expectations of the client are kept realistic during the planning process.

What Does Facilitation Have to Do With Coaching?

I am still exploring this but my sense is, based on Jens work and other coaches I’ve worked with, that both coaches and facilitators have a systematic way of asking questions. We strive to not add our own input and let the client come up with his or her own insights. Where this particular model adds to our facilitation skills is that there is a heavy emphasis on helping the client group “get into other people’s shoes”.  It fosters spending a significant amount of time “coaching” or directing the person to think about the past and the future in terms of what the other people might be thinking before directing them to share their own opinions about the future.

Why is This Important?

Being systematic about how you best help a client share their thinking is a key competency for facilitators. In fact, the two international facilitator programs i am certified in (i.e., 1) IAF Certified Professional Facilitator program and 2) ICA Certified ToP Facilitator program) require evidence of competency in “creating collaborative client relationships”. Establishing trust with your client will make all the difference in how the intervention goes. If you establish a collaborative client relationship and help them see you as their ally, it will go better for them, you, and the group you are facilitating. They need to know you want to ensure their success and the success of their team and organization.

Your Next Step

Consider trying out this facilitative coaching interview model. You might also want to systematize how you do your client interviews and incorporate some or all of these tips. Try one or both of our most popular instant PDF download modules noted below.


Jen’s resources note that at the basis of his model is the work of Canadian psychiatrist and family counselor, Karl Tomm and his colleagues at a family counseling center in Calgary. 

He also recommends you read:

Tomm, K. (1988). Interventive interviewing: Part III. Intending to ask lineal, circular, reflexive and strategic questions. Family Process, 27, 1–15

He says several Danish social scientists have been inspired by Karl Tomm and the team around him. 

Kristian Dahl and Andreas Granhof Juhl (2009). “Den professionelle proceskonsulent”, page 37.

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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