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Challenging Your Client with Ownership Questions by Tony Stoltzfus

Oct 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Content

Dave was a youth pastor from a local church whom I’d been coaching for several months. One day he began to share his frustrations with Mike, one of the adults on his leadership team. Mike had been a member of the team before Dave was hired, and his ideas of what youth ministry ought to be were aligned more with the previous youth pastor’s approach than they were to Dave’s. As Dave settled into his role and began to carry out the mandate he’d been hired to accomplish, Mike got more and more upset.

 The week before our appointment things came to a head. Dave discovered that Mike had showed up at the previous elders’ meeting, presented a one-sided view of what was happening with the youth and tried to get Dave fired. Unfortunately, his tactic boomeranged when the senior pastor sided with Dave. Even more upset, Mike came to the youth group and dropped a bomb. He angrily repeated his frustrations with Dave, and told the youth he was leaving the church because he felt that what Dave was doing was controlling and unbiblical. Dave came to our coaching appointment outraged about how he’d been treated, alarmed about the effect of Mike’s outburst on the youth, and pretty convinced that he was completely in the right. Hadn’t the senior pastor sided with him?

I saw something different—an opportunity for growth. On other occasions when things had gone wrong, I’d witnessed Dave’s tendency to blame others and justify his own actions. This seemed like a great teachable moment.

      “Dave,” I inquired, “There are always two sides to a conflict. Can you identify anything you might have done that contributed to the breakdown?”

      “Well…” he replied, “I suppose I got frustrated at him when he was acting up. He’s just not very self-aware. He’d get all emotional about some peripheral issue, and instead of talking to me first he’d dump it all out in the group meetings in inappropriate ways. A couple of times the kids were getting upset and I had to cut him off to save the meeting. I don’t know—maybe I could have anticipated more when he was upset and tried to take him aside. But frankly, the senior pastor agreed that this is his issue, not mine.”

      “If you were going to keep something like this from happening again, what would you do?”

      “A lot of it comes down to the fact that he wasn’t part of my team. The last youth pastor brought him on, not me. If I were doing this over I’d make sure that I had my team in place and not someone else’s. When you’ve got the wrong people things always go wrong.”

      “Let me rephrase that question a little. What could change about you, so that if God put you in the same situation again with a person just like Mike, that things wouldn’t break down?”

      “Even if I changed, only like 5% of the issue is me. The person who needs to deal with God in this situation is Mike. I mean, the senior pastor backed me, the elders backed me—I’m the one that is in the right here and he’s the one that screwed things up.”

      “OK, let’s assume for a minute that Mike is 95% of the problem. Let me challenge you on that last 5%. You could say you are in the right and this is Mike’s problem, and leave it at that, and you’d be perfectly justified in doing so. Or you could take this as an opportunity and say, “God, I want everything you have for me—don’t hold anything back! Even if I’m only one percent responsible, I want to change it. Which way do you want to handle this?”

Types of Ownership Questions

In this story the coach is asking Dave ownership questions. Ownership questions challenge the client to take responsibility and change the situation. There are three types of ownership questions:

  • The challenge to take responsibility: “What have you done that has contributed to the problem?”
  • The challenge to be proactive: “What could you do to make things better?”
  • The challenge to deal with God: “What does God want to form in your character through this situation?”

In the story, the coach asked all three types of ownership questions. The first, “Can you identify anything you might have done that contributed to the breakdown?” is a challenge to take responsibility for what happened. The second question, “If you were going to keep something like this from happening again, what would you do?” asks Dave to be proactive. What can he do to ensure better results in the future? The final question challenges him to deal with God. Even if only a tiny fraction of this is your problem, God can still use that part to refine you. A coach believes that every problem, conflict or circumstance in life holds the potential for character growth, if only we engage it in terms of God’s purposes. “All things work together for good…” (Rom. 8:28) means that God can use anything to refine us and make us more like Christ.

One of the dynamics that makes coaching so effective at change is that it encourages people to take ownership for their circumstances and their future. The only sure way to produce change in our situation is to take responsibility for it and do something pro-active. As long as we are blaming others or waiting for the organization to change or the boss to retire or the denomination to fix things, very little happens.

Daniel or Couch Potato?

A great example of ownership in Scripture is in the book of Daniel. Daniel was not personally responsible for the sins that led the Jewish people into exile. But when he perceived what had happened, he took responsibility for them and repented; he became proactive and fasted and prayed for God’s answer; and he allowed God to deal with his own character. Daniel could have waited for the people to repent, for the priests to come up with a solution or for the princes to deal with God. If he had, he wouldn’t be in the Bible. Daniel took ownership of his situation, and when he did God’s power was unleashed and a radical, nation-changing transformation took place.

Christians today face the same choice: whether to be passive or to act like Daniel. Passivity can be wrapped up in spiritual lingo that makes it sound really great to do nothing:

  • “I’m just waiting for God to open a door.”
  • “If God wants me to go, He’ll give me an opportunity.” 
  • “I’m still seeking God for what He wants me to do.”
  • “If I’m supposed to do that God will make it clear.”

By all means, pray! By all means, seek God! But as the saying goes, God can direct a moving object. When you’re sitting still, it’s much harder for Him to intervene. Often what happens is, we’re afraid of making a mistake, so we don’t want to move until it is so abundantly clear that God has spoken that our course of action is risk-free. That’s being afraid to take responsibility for our lives. God is waiting to move until, like Daniel, we take ownership and step up to the plate. Even though God could do everything for us without our help, He’s chosen to work in partnership with us for the sake of our relationship with Him. Too often, we’re sitting around waiting for God to do something for us, and meanwhile, God isn’t doing it because His objective is to do it with us.

God wants to partner with us. And because He’s given us free will, He needs our assent to use us in His program. He’s not going to run over us or do everything for us. We need to take ownership of our destiny and co-labor with Him to accomplish it. Ownership questions are a key way coaches help people move from a passive mode to an aggressive posture of responsibility.

Uses of Ownership Questions

While ownership questions are often used in conflict situations, they are also commonly used when asking for action steps:

  • “What do you want to do about that?”
  • “What step do you want to take?”
  • “How do you want to go about that?”
  • “What do you think the answer is?”

 When coaches ask for a step, they are requesting that clients take ownership, be proactive and solve their own problems. Coaches also use ownership questions to help clients move from a “doing” into a “being” (or transformational) mode:         

  • “What does that response say about who you are and what you believe?”
  • “What do you think God wants to do through this situation?”
  • “Assume for a moment that your circumstances have been custom designed by God for your growth. If that’s true, what is He trying to do in you?”

 Finally, ownership questions are a great tool for helping a client progress from blaming or venting to solving the problem:

  • “Let’s say that Doris never gets it—that she never changes. So unless you do something, nothing is going to get any better. What would you do?”
  • “Visualize the best possible outcome for this situation—what it would look like if everything turned out great. What could you do to give yourself the best possible chance of seeing that outcome?”
  • “Can I make an observation? So far I’ve heard you talk about what needs to change about Jerry, but I haven’t heard what needs to change about you. Could you talk about that a little?”

 Whenever the focus needs to shift to taking responsibility, being proactive or engaging God’s purposes, use an ownership question.  

Tony Stoltzfus is a master coach, author and coach trainer.  More of his writings on the disciplines, skills and heart of a Christian coach can be found In Leadership Coaching

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