The Art and Science of the ADD Question

Don’t ask, DO tell

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

nicubunu_Broken_heartMy heart breaks when a client whose brain-style is NOT neurotypical tells me about past coaching relationships that haven’t worked out.  

I wish I could tell you that it is rare for me to hear about that sad reality, but that would not be truthful.

As I have continued to say since 1994, the truth of the matter is that coaches who don’t truly understand how to work with the ADD/EFD brain-style – even those who are well known for being highly effective with other types of clients – tend to do more harm than good with clients who have Attentional Spectrum challenges.

While I have empathy for any coach who wonders why they couldn’t be effective with any particular client, my heart shatters when I hear from clients with executive function struggles whose coaches don’t seem to wonder about their own contribution to their client’s struggles.

White cake with white icing (and a cherry on top!)ADD Coaching is not simply ADD icing on a “vanilla” cake!  

No matter how comprehensive your “vanilla” coach training, to coach ADD/EFDers (or ANY client with one of what I refer to as one of the Alphabet Disorders) you simply must Rewrite your Coaching Manual™ with an understanding of how the brain “normally” works, what’s going on when it works differently, and what’s needed to work with clients for whom that is the case.

Line drawing of a person throwing a piece of paper and a huge question mark into a trash can.What you will discover when you do is that there are standard coaching basics that won’t work AT ALL with the neurodiverse.

Never.  Nada!  No way, no how!

No matter what you’ve learned – or how well your vanilla skills work with how many bazillions of non-ADD/EFD clients . . .
you simply MUST throw them out when your client has ADD/EFD/TBI/PTSD – or any OTHER Attentional-spectrum, neuro-diverse component to their make-up.

One of the BIGGEST differences . . .

. . . is in the use of questions as a coaching technique.

I certainly understand why this technique is used with non-ADD/EFDers.  I was a senior trainer on CoachU’s faculty for seven years, responsible for training “vanilla”* coaches in the use of the questioning technique and others.

I maintain, however, that one of the BIGGEST differences between ADD Coaching and “vanilla”* coaching is HOW and WHEN we employ WHAT KIND of questions.

Vanilla* Coaches are trained to move coaching forward through the use of a series of
“Powerful Questions,” a core competency for non-ADD Coaches that does seem to work
powerfully with a great many neurotypical clients.

The best of those coaches follow procedures similar to the one in the CTI guidelines:
“The simpler and more direct, the better, when it comes to making questions powerful.
A . . . complex question forces clients to sort out the essence of the question
before they can respond, and they may get lost trying to figure it out.”
[Co-Active Coaching, second edition, p. 79 – Whitworth et. al]

Here’s the problemBecause of the nature of Executive Functioning Deficits, ANY question can throw someone whose brain is NOT neurotypical into a situation where they must “sort out the essence of the question before they can respond.”

While EFDers may not always “get lost” trying to figure it all out,
those questions are not 
helping them “figure it out.”

BOTTOM LINE: “Powerful questioning” that expands focus and suggests alternative ideas to consider – the definition that many coaches reference as they are learning to question “powerfully” – is simply NOT powerful with a client whose brain already provides more ideas than anyone could process (much less actuate) in a single lifetime.
*”vanilla” = unflavored by ADD or any of the attentional struggles

Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, Creative Commons on Wikipedia

Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, Creative Commons on Wikipedia

Don’t Distract Me – I’m trying to think!

Your ADD/EFD client’s brain is struggling to allow them to remain focused, on track, and socially appropriate in the face of an onslaught of stimuli a non-EFDer’s brain “backgrounds” automatically. [CLICK HERE to read Juggling Invisible Balls for more about this idea]

So guess what? For this kind of client, those “powerful” questions are powerful distractions!

The nature of the ADD/EFD brain wiring means that EFD clients will be pulled off track by your question itself and every single thought their creative brain comes up with in response to your question in the nano-second after you close your mouth.

  • Ask enough “powerful questions” in a session and you’ll shut your client right down – the exact opposite of the intent of this competency.
  • Some ADD/EFDers, like myself, may be able to bounce back quickly enough that only the highly EFD-literate will see direct evidence of what I just described —  but don’t kid yourself, MOST of those questions aren’t HELPful!

Two BIG Coaching Differences where Questions are concerned:

ADD/EFD clients need FOCUS to be able to accomplish their goals just as much as a person in a wheelchair needs an access ramp to get into a building.  So that means TWO big differences right off the bat.

Comprehensively-trained Brain-Based ADD Coaches learn to:

1.  Employ questions as a coaching technique far less often than “vanilla” coaches,

2.  Limit questions to a small and distinct number of arenas:

  • For information (fact gathering) – How old are you?  How long will you be away? What medications have you tried? We aren’t leading anywhere with these questions, we’re not making a case, we are asking simply because we want to know the answer.
  • For clarification: when we didn’t hear what the client said, didn’t understand what the client said, can’t remember what the client said, or didn’t have enough information to relate the clients words to the topic at hand;
  • As a Sherlocking tool to gather information to put the pieces of a puzzle together – in as focused a manner as possible: a decision tree vs. a mind map. (i.e., “More like this, or closer to that?” vs.“Can you say more about that?”)
    [ADD Coaching Hint:  You betcha!]
  • As a focuser: Hansel-and-Gretel bread crumbs to lead them right back to the path whenever they lose sight of it – and even then a declarative statement is often a better strategy. (i.e., “You left off at the part where your supervisor told your boss that you had done an excellent job” vs. “How did you boss respond?”).

Bottom Line: ADD/EFD-ers really don’t need a coach’s help to “think outside the box.”

  • Most of these clients LIVE outside the box
  • Many of these clients may well  know there is such a thing as
    “a box,” but they wouldn’t have the first clue as to what it looks
    like, and have NO desire to investigate!

ADD clients don’t need suggestions for what ELSE they might do, think about, or consider.

To mix a metaphor, they need help finding their way through a tangled plate of spaghetti
to find and follow ONE strand they can use as an anchor for accomplishment.

If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link  <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Articles about what ADD/EFD clients need from their coaches:

Check out my article on Brain-based coaching on Dr. Charles Parker’s CorePsych blog
Coaching, out where the ADHD rubber meets the road of reality


About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

And what do YOU think? I'm interested.

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