Masterful Brainstorming: The Power of "What Else?" | 'Heart to Heart' with Julie Johnson MCC

Coachee pondering ideas

In this "Heart to Heart with Julie" column, Julie Johnson MCC shares sample coaching conversations and situations to help you grow along with her learnings, ideas and practical tips to help us all become better coaches. These are real coaching experiences that illustrate common issues coaches face.

We encourage you to share your thoughts, learnings and own experiences in the comments below!

These articles were first posted on Julie's blog, The Coaching Cube, and have been updated for inclusion here.

Imagine that you're coaching someone, and you've both agreed it's time to focus on generating possible solutions. So you ask your coachee: "How can you achieve this goal?" And without any hesitation, you receive an answer. What do you do next? Well, in this article we look at the power of "What else?", and what NOT to do when brainstorming next steps with a client.

A Coachee with a Goal to Improve a Skill:

A few years ago I was coaching someone who wanted to get better at giving strategic presentations, especially to senior management.

In this session we'd already explored what had gone well (and less well) in the past, what has an impact on performance, the advantages to achieving the goal and the disadvantages of not achieving it. So by this point, his motivation was solidly in place. With both of us keen to get to solutions, here's how the rest of the session went.

The Coaching Conversation:

  • I asked, "What can you do to improve your presentations skills when presenting to senior management?"
  • My coachee quickly replied, "I can take a course."
  • I was tempted to explore possible courses, and whether there was a budget for a course available etc. etc.
    • But I simply made note and asked, "What else?"
  • He quickly replied, "I can get a presentation coach."
  • I thought about exploring the qualities of the ideal presentation coach, but didn't.
    • Instead I inquired, "And what else can you do?"
  • There was a slight pause, and then he answered, "Well, I could go on YouTube and check out the techniques of some of my favorite speakers. [Pause] And TedTalks. Mmm. I'd like that."
  • I noted once more and then said,
    • "What other things might you do?"
  • There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window. Then he said, "David. He's quite good. I'd love to have coffee with him and pick his brain. [Pause] And I really need to watch him more consciously when he presents next time, and figure out what it is he is doing exactly that works so well."
  • "Mmmm." I said, noting these new ideas. "And what else would work for you?"
  • This pause was even longer, and I waited.
  • Finally he said, "Well, a couple of my team members have attended some senior management meetings, and they've seen me in action. I bet they would be happy to give me candid feedback and suggestions."
  • Tempted to ask who he might speak with, and what questions he might ask, I just said, "OK. Anything else?"
  • After a very, very long silence, he said, "Well frankly, if I am really serious about this, I should practice my next presentation several times before I actually have to give it. [Pause] I could even film myself. Yes! Yes! It would be so useful to observe myself in action! Then, when I finally like what I see, I will have the confidence to do a repeat performance when it really matters!"
  • Then when he was out of ideas we reviewed each option he had generated, and he moved eagerly on to action planning.

Here's my take:

My general guideline in these situations is: the longer the silence, the newer the idea.

While some of those post-question silences were pretty long, I don't even think my coachee noticed them. He was very busy creating.

His first ideas were probably not new, because his answers came immediately after the question was posed. But because I kept asking (essentially) the same question, "What Else?" over and over again, his mind kept creating.

And the pauses between question and answer got longer and longer...

So, there are two things to avoid once you have carefully crafted this creative moment:

  • Don't grab one idea and analyze it in detail—leave that for later once all the ideas are on the table.
  • Remember: the longer the silence after your question, the harder your coachee is probably thinking—and therefore creating.
  • So, if your question is followed by silence, you're probably 'on a roll'. And this is the best confirmation that your question is a good one!

Now it's your turn:

  • What have you taken away from this sample coaching conversation?
  • What will you do differently going forwards?

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

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Julie Johnson

Contributing Author:

Julie Johnson MCC, MIM is an Executive Coach, Coach Supervisor and Author. Her purpose is to help motivated people be at their best. She's passionate about spreading quality coaching conversations farther and wider, impacting the lives of people she'll never meet. Julie helps leaders develop an authentic Coaching Leadership Style so they grow next-generation leaders - and scale their own leadership. She also loves creating synergies by connecting 'the right people' with each other. Meet Julie in this short video here and learn more about her on her website here. You can also sign up for her monthly blog The Coaching Cube.

Learn more about Julie & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coachee pondering ideas by fizkes via Shutterstock


  1. Carmen Wagner

    Enjoyed reading it. I agree that it’s very tempting to start solving problems during brainstorming/what else sessions. This is a great reminder for sticking to the task, being really present and letting the coachee signal when he/she has run out of ideas. Thanks for sharing

    • Michela Phillips

      So glad you enjoyed the article, Carmen 🙂
      - Kindly, Michela

    • Julie Johnson

      LOVE what you say Carmen. It is indeed so tempting to want to move forward, and yet sometimes we can 'milk' all of the great ideas from our coachees, first!

  2. Taoufik Ferhat

    Can’t agree more about what have been pointed out in this coaching session ! Combining questioning and silence are key factor of successful coaching.

    • Michela Phillips

      It's so powerful when used in a coaching session 🙂
      - Kindly, Michela

    • Julie Johnson

      Yes, and in that silence, if we sneak a peak at our coachee, we'll see that they are WORKIN' HARD! 😀 Thanks for sharing, Taoufik!

  3. Easter Johnson

    Don't be so quick to delve into the coachee's response. I simply as what else? Asking what else is a simple question of curiosity and it evokes self-awareness.

  4. Lars van Tuin

    Beautiful, Julie! I really enjoyed it and it reminded me of Nancy Kline's method, Time to think. So powerful. Thank you for sharing your stories and insights so generously


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