Use The Cartesian Questions to Unblock Your Client and Make Better Decisions PLUS Tool to Help!

Client Pondering ideas holding lightbulb and brain for Cartesian Questions

I have loved "The Cartesian Questions" (aka The Cartesian Co-ordinates) ever since I first came across them on my NLP Practitioner Training. And what prompted me to write about the Cartesian Questions was a powerful coaching experience I had with them last week...

In this article we look at what are the Cartesian Questions, when to use them, an example of using them during a coaching session, and lastly a 4 Step process to use them yourself! Finally, you'll see an image and link to our version of the Cartesian Questions as a Coaching Tool.

First, what are The Cartesian Questions?

The Cartesian Questions Tool is a set of 4 questions that help your clients gain new perspectives and understanding of what inspires and blocks them in making a decision—or seeking a particular goal.

When to use this tool:

Use these questions to help a client:

  • Find new solutions and resources—especially when they're stuck.
  • Get a deeper idea of what motivates them, what values are in play—and what really matters.
  • Identify secondary gains (the benefits of the client staying just as they are!).
  • Identifying limiting beliefs and other areas where we self-sabotage.

In technical coaching terms, the Cartesian Questions help you explore the ecology of a client's goal or decision, delving beyond the conscious and into the subconscious mind to explore underlying thoughts and beliefs related to their goal.

Great for business too: The Cartesian Questions are ideal to help with critical thinking and considering all possible options around a business decision or goal!

A Very Personal Cartesian Questions Example

The best way to understand how powerful these questions can be is to share an example. During a coaching session with my coach recently she asked me, "What if your inner critic took a vacation?".

The idea felt incredibly liberating—and scary at the same time! And that's how we got to the place of further exploring the idea of my inner critic taking a vacation USING the Cartesian Questions.

Now, many of you know I used to experience anxiety which is caused in large part by an abusive inner critic. So, you'll see below, that my responses to the questions may give you some idea of how powerful these questions can be.

Question 1: What WOULD happen if you DID make that change?

"What WOULD happen if my inner critic DID go on vacation?"

  • I would feel wonderful! I might have fun!!! I might get to play! I might get TONS done - because I would be enjoying myself! I would see more of my friends! I would feel light. I would be HAPPY!! Relief! Joy! This is who I want to be!!! My kind, wise self would be in charge!
  • I WOULD HAVE FUN DOING MY WORK! I love my job but I never get to enjoy it because I'm always so busy trying to do more, beating myself up, haranguing myself, trying to cover up my feelings of worthlessness.
  • I might also be more spontaneous & free. Doing what I WANT to do work-wise (ie. What I feel like in the moment), rather than driving and pushing and beating myself up with SHOULDs.
  • Added later, after reflection: I might fall apart, mess up, fail.

Question 2: What WOULD happen if you DIDN'T make that change?

"What WOULD happen if my inner critic DIDN'T go on vacation?"

  • Well, it's going to be an unpleasant month. I'm going to feel driven, like I HAVE to do stuff.
  • It's not going to be fun. I'll be guided by my shoulds, needs & musts instead of enjoying my work.
  • Because I have a stronger connection to my kind, wise self it won't be as bad as in the past - but I would be jumping in and out from inner critic to kind wise self to inner critic to kind wise self. I'll be stepping between the two all the time.
  • I'll have to really focus on being my kind, wise self and taking care of my needs (instead of reacting to my fear and anxiety). But it will be easier in some ways - what I'm used to.

Question 3: What WOULDN'T happen if you DID make that change?

"What WOULDN'T happen if my inner critic DID go on vacation?"

  • Well (without my inner critic driving me), I might not get stuff done! I might fail! I might not do the things I have committed to do. (eg. finish the worry sleep tool, survey for September).
  • I wouldn't beat myself up!!! I wouldn't feel guilty when I do have fun! I would enjoy my work!!!

Question 4: What WOULDN'T happen if you DIDN'T make that change? (AKA: The mind-blowing question!)

"What WOULDN'T happen if my inner critic DIDN'T go on vacation?"

  • I wouldn't have fun.
  • I wouldn't know what it would be like with my inner critic gone.
  • I will also be very afraid... I'm scared! Woah! (Although I am laughing inside as I think about this - isn't that interesting!!!) Isn't it amazing that fun and fear can co-exist!

The two BIG things that came up for me were 1) That I LOVE my work but that my inner critic turns it from this amazing career into fear, shoulds and drudgery and 2) That fear and fun can co-exist! (OK, so I've been on a rollercoaster - but here I'm talking about in daily life!). The first realisation I already knew - I've journalled about it before - but it sank down to a whole new level of my being. And the second major realisation brought light and playfulness to this (rather scary) idea of sending my inner critic on vacation... (After all, without my critic, keeping me under control, being professional, working hard - I might fall apart!). Powerful stuff huh?

Values Identified using the Cartesian Questions: Friendship, Play, Fun, Achievement, Kindness, Wisdom, Spontaneity.

Get The Cartesian Questions Coaching Tool here >>

4 Steps to Use the Cartesian Questions with Your Clients

STEP 1) Set up your client

The Cartesian Questions Tool

Click here to see the tool!

To avoid irritating your clients with similar sounding questions, frame up these Cartesian Questions first. Let clients know it's a process!

Try something like

  • I'm going to ask you 4 questions and they may seem a bit strange or repetitive, but bear with me. I'll also ask you to dig deeper into the answers by asking you 'What else?' several times.

Also, because people often come up with answers between coaching sessions, you may also like to say something like: "You may find that one question sticks, or it may be days or even weeks for the effect of these questions to 'kick in', so don't worry if you don't have an answer right away."

STEP 2) Understand the process

  • When you ask the questions, simply substitute the client's goal where the question mentions 'that change'—just as is shown in italics in the example above.
  • Remember, we don't necessarily need our clients to give a verbal answer—just full consideration of the question. So allow plenty of thinking time, especially for question 4.
  • After each response wait a while and then ask, "And what else?"

STEP 3) Now, ask these 4 Cartesian Questions, in this order

  1. What WOULD happen if you DID make that change?
    HOW IT HELPS THE CLIENT: Visualise their goal fulfilment—increasing motivation.
  2. What WOULD happen if you DIDN'T make that change?
    HOW IT HELPS THE CLIENT: Identify the pain of staying as they are—which can be a powerful motivator.
  3. What WOULDN'T happen if you DID make that change?
    HOW IT HELPS THE CLIENT: Understand what they lose if they achieve their goal (this could be a useful loss—or a painful one!).
  4. What WOULDN'T happen if you DIDN'T make that change?
    HOW IT HELPS THE CLIENT: Identify hidden perspectives and feelings. This question befuddles our left or conscious mind and can provide fresh perspectives through intuitive leaps.

STEP 4) Wrap-up

Finally, wrap-up by asking what your client learned about themselves, and what they will take away from their answers:

  • What surprised you?
  • What is really helpful?
  • What would you like to ponder on more?
  • How do your responses impact your decision/motivation towards your goal?
  • What values (things that are really important to you) can you see reflected in your responses?

In Summary

Use these Cartesian Co-ordinate Questions to help your clients expand their understanding—to explore the consequences and how they feel about a decision or goal more fully.

Frame up the questions first, and allow plenty of time for the client to really think about and feel into the questions. And be sure to ask a few questions afterwards to capture the learning!

See The Cartesian Co-ordinates Tool here:

Get a coaching exercise with instructions and a second page of review questions.

Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

Image of Client holding lightbulb and brain by krakenimages via Kraken Images


  1. Alka

    Dear Emma-Louise:

    Really appreciate you sharing this tool, very interesting one! Keep up the great work.

  2. Anita

    Love, love, love this!

    Thank you soo much for sharing - It provides greater depth than asking "and what will this get for you".

    A xo

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Geraldine, that's great to hear 🙂 Thank-you so much for taking the time to comment - keep enjoying the Megapack! Warmly, Emma-Louise

  3. Jumana

    great explanation about using this 4 questions and very interesting ,thank you for sharing

  4. Adrian Cahill

    Excellent and I love your resources. What really blows clients away here is if they go into a 'know nothing' state, a transderivital search, or simply get totally confused, then in the confusion, they want to grab a firm hold on what DOES make sense, so you put forward, 'whats different now?' or 'what are you noticing now?' if it's positive, then ground it, if not, do more cartesian co-ordinates, once it's good, ground it, then while it's grounded, collapsing the original state or problem state anchor. Im looking to do this process again in 30min hence revising. 🙂

    • mturcott

      Thank you Adrian! We're so glad you find this article on Cartesian Questions helpful!

  5. Abena

    I've used this a few times with people and find it really interesting in how it forces deeper thinking. Today, I came back to it again to try to make a really tricky decision. As I was answering, I inserted 'benefits' before 'would/would not' i.e. 'What benefits would happen if...' This made it easier to track my thinking but does this take away from the exercise in any way. Thoughts?

    • Emma-Louise

      This is a great adaptation of the Cartesian Questions Abena!
      On reflection thought I do wonder if we don't then get the DISbenefits of any of the options? (other than indirectly)
      So, as long as you're aware of that and you get what you need from the exercise then great!
      Warmly, Emma-Louise


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