The Ranking Question in Coaching & Why it is Flawed

Many coaches use questions of the type, "so, from nought to ten, how motivated are you". This Ranking Question can be a helpful tool for both coach and coachee but it can be a flawed device - sometimes it is severely limiting. Here we identify its weakness and a methodology for improved use.

The Ranking Question was developed to provide a rough measure of coachee state and to provide a focus for 'gap management' where the desired state and present state differ. For example, it is very often used to quantify the level of:

  • commitment
  • motivation
  • perfection in revisiting a previous (psychological) state
  • exquisiteness in taking on a perceptual position
  • reality in reaching a future-desired state
  • ability in creating an anchored state
In its most simplistic use, a coach may ask, "so, nought to ten, how exquisitely do you now feel that you in the University Great Hall in 2009?" and the answer, "ten" or "totally" might reasonably be accepted by the coach as adequate enough to move on. Many coaches in group settings will accept an eight or nine as being good enough to draw a line. The more able the coach, then the more associated information is being gathered to enhance their understanding of the coachee's answer. Body language and auditory qualities in the voice provide clues for example. And, how authentically to they appear to be? Whenever the coach has doubt, this is checked with the coachee by posing another question and checking it out with them.

Some years ago I was observing a coaching session in which the coachee responded to the Ranking Question with the answer "seven", The ensuing few minutes led to a number of dead-ends because the coach had not realized that seven happened to be the coachee's maximum on a scale of zero to ten; they never scored anything higher than seven in any context. Subsequently, in a similar situation, I tend to ask another question such as:

And what is the highest level you can imagine achieving?

The answers people give vary enormously but so far all have fallen between six and ten[2] with the majority between eight and nine. I now feel that a better question than the Ranking Question might be:

If there was a scale or numbers that measured a very low motivation to the highest you can imagine, what would that scale be and where are you now on that scale?

It is rather too complicated and it would run contrary to your objective if you were attempting to preserve 'state' in your coachee. Their state would likely be broken because of the sheer amount of processing needed by them to interpret the question, ponder upon that interpretation and then compose an answer! So, after all, it may be best advised to stick with the familiar Ranking Question and use the additional question if needs must.

Gap Management and Commitment to Goals

When the Ranking Question is used for an early assessment of the coachee's likelihood of reaching a goal you may still find a gap between their current level and the highest level of commitment that they can imagine. Naturally the coach wants to resource the coachee and close the gap. Typical NLP methods include time-lines or Sensory Journeys, Away-Froms and Towards, state anchoring, metaphoric transformations and so on. Personally I do not stick to the Ranking Question over time, the crunch question is often a blunt but effective instrument:

So, will you have achieved that by 2pm this Thursday or not?

Clearly it is not just the answer or body language that provide certainty but the speed and energy of the response that provides confidence.

[1] It is very common to find such recalibrations of the 0-10 scale however I often discover that an individual coachee has different maxima in different contexts.

[2] I have now used this several hundred times over about three or more years.


Dr Angus McLeod is author of ‘Me, Myself, My Team’ (Crown House, 2000 & 2006) and ‘Performance Coaching’ (Crown House, 2003) and many articles on coaching in the international press. His first book with John Wiley is about personal leadership and is called ‘Self-coaching Leadership (Wiley, 2007). He has written 'Performance Coaching Toolkit' under with McGraw-Hill under the Open University imprint. Dr McLeod is Visiting Professor of Coaching at Birmingham City...

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