Chapter 4 - Rapport building

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Getting to know a coachee: Clutterbuck’s 13 questions

Psychometrics and other forms of diagnostic, such as 360-degree feedback, can be very helpful in getting to know a coachee and ‘what makes them tick’. But they take time, often require lengthy analysis and can become somewhat mechanical processes that miss the richness and complexity of ‘who is this person and how do they connect with the world around them?’

By far the fastest way to get to know someone is through an initial dialogue, in which empathetic curiosity plays a strong role.  Ideally, we want to gain a multi-perspective, holistic insight that encompasses values, aspirations, culture and both current and historical context. The dialogue serves a dual purpose, creating awareness for both the coach-mentor and the coachee.

The following 13 questions and their subsidiary questions provide a framework on which to build this kind of exploratory conversation.

  • How did you become you?
  • Who do you admire? (What does this say about you?)
  • What do you most care about? (How does this influence the choices you make?)
  • What are your core values? (How do you put them into practice?)
  • What do you fear most? (How do those fears affect your behaviour?)
  • What does success mean for you? (What is your purpose in life?)
  • What’s the difference between your public and private selves?
  • Where do you find your energy and how do you focus it?
  • What do you still have to accomplish in your life? (What is your future story? Who do you want to become?)
  • How does what you want to achieve in the short term fit with your long-term aspirations?
  • What creates interference for you, preventing you from focusing on what’s important to you? (How do you manage interference?)
  • What resources do you have/ could you create to support your aspirations?
  • How do you think coaching/mentoring can help? (What are your expectations of me and of yourself?)

Of course, other questions and topics will emerge from the dynamics of the dialogue. However, these 13 questions are enough to establish the insights and rapport essential for beginning a journey of deep learning and transformational change.

What do you feel passionate about?

One of the most direct ways to gain an insight into someone else’s values is to exchange information on what you both feel passionate about. Although people often hesitate initially at being asked about such matters, they usually soon respond with enthusiasm, revealing aspects of their personality and interests that might otherwise be hidden. Themes might cover both work and non-work issues, but they all emphasise positive and enthusiastic elements of the individual’s persona. The effective coach can often use these insights as anchors for other issues about which the coachee feels less enthusiastic.

Ask the coachee ‘What do you feel passionate about?’ As you listen, attempt to draw what you hear. Write words only as a last resort, or to complete an image. After three minutes, reverse roles, without sharing the picture. When you have both had a turn, share the pictures and talk through them.

Then discuss:

  • How much rapport did you find you had?
  • What did you see in the picture that surprised you?
  • What did you see that particularly resonated with you?
  • What did you learn about yourself?

Conversation ladder

As the name suggests, this approach provides a structure, on which to build a ‘getting to know you’ conversation.

  • The coach asks a set of questions about topics of central concern to people, which they will enjoy talking about. For example, they may want to give an account of:
    • Their name and its significance to them.
    • Family of origin.
    • Home and current family.
    • Education.
    • Work.
    • Successes.
    • Difficulties.
    • Interests.
    • Strongest values.
    • Dreams/aspirations.
  • Retain in memory the sequence, using vivid imagery to do it. For example, these may be retention imagery related to the sequence of questions above:
    • A brass nameplate on a purple door.
    • Inside, a woman changing a nappy on the person you are getting to know.
    • Zooming out to the house again.
    • A student slouching to school.
    • The same scholar sitting behind a huge desk.
    • Through the window a snow-covered peak with a tiny figure planting a flag in the top of it.
    • An avalanche undermining the figure’s position.
    • And a beautiful garden clinging to the slopes.
    • As the figure looks at the garden they fly off the mountain and sail towards a pass between two peaks.
  • Whatever images you choose, the images are just to remind you to explore a range of areas.

Circles of disclosure

This technique has particular relevance for people, who are less open about some aspects of their lives, which may be relevant either to working on their issues, or understanding themselves, or both.

    • The coach explains that no part of our life is completely separate from others. Our experiences at work influence our behaviour at home – for example how tired or irritable we are in the evening, and vice versa.
    • Starting on ‘safe ground’, the coach helps the coachee identify a number of dimensions of work, which are relevant.
  • Examples: doing routine tasks on one’s own, working as part of the team, attending cross-team meetings. Circle the dimensions and label each – for example, ‘Performance’ or ‘Personal Achievement’. The edge of the circle is ‘Border of Disclosure’ or the boundary between private and public.
    • The visual image takes the discussion from the emotional to the intellectual, which is usually much less threatening. As the coachee becomes comfortable with discussing, for example, how much openness is appropriate for a situation with which they feel comfortable, they can gradually be helped to identify other circles.
    • This opens up a number of relatively safe routes into more personal topics.

Creating the physical environment for rapport

It’s obvious that some meeting environments are more conducive to reflective dialogue than others. But coaches are often caught out if they do not discuss openly with the coachee where they should meet. In one case, the mentors deliberately chose to meet with shop floor supervisors in a ‘neutral’ office – not their own, because that would be seen as their space; not the supervisor’s because that might seem threatening, because it was too noisy and too prone to interruption. It was only after some months that one of the mentors asked if meeting in the office of another manager, who was out for the day, was OK. ‘No,’ was the reply. The supervisor was acutely aware that he was not dressed appropriately for an office environment and was concerned he would leave oil stains on the carpet or the easy chairs. The meetings shifted to an anteroom in the staff restaurant.

Some questions to help establish the environment to meet in:

  • How shut off from the world do we want to be?
  • How important is daylight?
  • Do we need space to spread papers?
  • What’s the right balance between being relaxed and business-like?
  • Where do you normally feel most at ease?
  • What kind of environment makes you feel uncomfortable? Threatened?
  • Do you prefer to work across a table, or without anything between us?
  • How comfortable do you feel with direct eye contact?
  • How much of a distraction would be: Corridor noise outside the room? Visible activity outside the room? Other people being able to look in?
  • Would a very small room/very big room be off-putting for you?
  • Do you feel comfortable about being alone in a room with me? (Especially important in cross-gender relationships, or coaching between an adult and a child.)
  • Do you prefer a lot of light, so you can make notes, or softer lighting, so you can think?
  • How can you create private space in a public place?

Establishing rapport: Best and worst environments

In getting someone to think about what they want, it often helps to start with what they don’t want. This simple approach uses this principle to explore the kind of environment which will be most conducive for a coaching conversation for this coaching pair.

  • Take two sheets of paper (A3) and ask the coachee to draw the worst possible environment for their meetings on one and the best on the other. The more humour that can go into the exercise the better.
  • Consider how, together, you may avoid the characteristics of the negative picture and create as many positive characteristics in the positive picture.
  • Having established what is required, work together to determine where the optimum space, time, etc. is to meet.


This approach allows coach and coachee to experience profound levels of connectedness between them and with the environment around them, thereby often encouraging intuitive insight.

  • After a period of meditation, the coach and coachee should sit opposite each other and close their eyes.
  • Both should visualise, in great detail, an occasion when they felt truly connected to another person; in ‘flow’ with them.
  • The focus should be on the physical sensations experienced when in ‘flow’.
  • Both should open their eyes and make gazing eye contact with each other. The gaze should be held, in silence, for about five minutes (or more if wanted).