• Katie Best

The power of a miracle question

Updated: Feb 26

It’s not unusual to find yourself leading someone who is fed up. At some point, if you’ve been leading for a while, you’re likely to have come across team members who seem disenchanted with the direction that their career is taking. Or who’ve returned to work after parental leave to discover that their work-life balance isn’t what it once was, what with childcare responsibilities and client expectations. Or seem to be in conflict with every other team member, or have upset a client, or have just had a really bad month and everything seems to be getting them down. You, and they, can see it might be time for them to make a change. But what change? How can you work out what’s important to them? Do they even know themselves? How can you motivate them?

If you have a person like this in your team, then there is a fantastic tool that may help you, and them, to re-establish their goals and track a path towards them. If you use coaching approaches as part of your leadership work, then this technique will be a good one to add to your toolkit. (And if you don’t use coaching approaches, you should consider them for their significant benefits for your staff, you team functioning, and you as their leader).

The tool I’m advocating is called The Miracle Question. It’s a psychotherapeutic (counselling) tool that has its origins in Solutions-Focused Brief Therapy, and the work of Dr Linda Metcalf. However, its application to team and leadership coaching is significant. It’s used very regularly in executive coaching to help clients to identify and set their goals. In my own coaching work, I regularly use it to help clients who are stuck in the mess of their current situation to look forward and work out what they want to do next.

And you can use it on yourself, or your team members, when you think there’s a need to set some fresh and inspirational goals which will drive forward your working life and possibly your home life, too.

The miracle question is this:

‘Suppose tonight, while you sleep, a miracle occurs. When you wake tomorrow, what would you notice that would tell you that your life had suddenly got better?’

You can ask this to a team member as part of an individual coaching session – or you can ask it to yourself if you are looking to gain insight into your desires for the future. Picturing yourself on the other side of a problem gives a great deal of insight into what is important to you. Assuming you’re working with a team member, you’ll want to give them a moment to get the image clear in their mind, and then you’ll want to help them to continue to visualise their perfect day. To do this, you can ask these further questions:

  • What are you noticing around you?

  • What can you see?

  • What can you hear?

  • How do you feel?

  • Where will you go next on this day?

And, ultimately:

  • How will you be different as a result?

Through this visualisation, your team member becomes clearer on what they want. They can visualise what success would look like. They can verbalise it to you. And either with you, or alone, they can now work out how to take steps to achieve it.

As a leader working with team members, The Miracle Question can be extremely powerful. When I’m helping leaders to build their coaching skills, I recommend The Miracle Question as a way to understand what someone really wants. It helps them to see the world through their team member’s eyes, rather than relying on all their personal assumptions about what should be important to the team member. It also helps a boss to understand how to motivate a member of their team.

In addition, it can allow them, and you, to escape the minutiae of the problems and frustrations that are occupying their minds at that moment, instead helping them to explore what a better future looks like and how to take steps towards it.

Of course, you may not want to use The Miracle Question in its open-ended form. The above question may find you focusing on their home life or on areas they don’t feel comfortable in sharing with you. If you, or they, would rather restrict the scope of your conversation to work topics, you could place limits around the scope of what you’re asking:

‘Suppose this afternoon, you are standing in the kitchen making a drink and a miracle occurs. When you return to your desk, what would you notice that would tell you that your working life had suddenly got better?’ (note that this wording would be appropriate for someone in an office, or working from home)

By limiting the scope of the question in this way, you are likely to be able to encourage a more focused look at work-related issues. As such, you could be even more laser-focused:

‘Suppose I had a magic wand and could make you overcome your creative block. When you return to your office after this meeting, what would you notice that would tell you that your creativity had radically improved?’

You can play around with the Miracle Question to make it fit your context. As you’re not using it in a therapeutic setting but rather a workplace coaching setting, it’s yours to experiment with.

One problem you may run into when using the Miracle Question, but which is easy to get around, is when the person identifies something that is unachievable. This could be limitless money, a ten-day week, or not having quit university when they were 20. Whilst they can’t make these happen, you can help them to explore what these mean to them. Is the limitless money about having more freedom, or being able to support their extended family, or not feeling so hemmed in a tiny home office? What is the desire to have more time driven by? What would a completed degree bring them? How can they achieve the same ends now? It is about exploring what lies beneath the wish and how it can be made into a realistic goal that still inspires them to want to change what is going on around them.

And you don’t have to limit its use to your team members. You can try this coaching technique on yourself, on your peers, and even on your family to see the world through their eyes and help them take steps towards what’s important to them.

If you are interested in learning more about how coaching could help you or your team, please be in touch.

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