Skill 16: The Difference Question

by Susanne Burgstaller

The Difference Question is a vital companion to the Best Hopes question, which Solution Focused practitioners like to ask at the beginning of a conversation or meeting. It helps to define the destination towards which the conversation is heading, and often reframes the way a client thinks about an issue she brings to the table.

Let us take a real-life example from a coaching conversation:

COACH: What is your best hope from this conversation?
CLIENT: I would have found a way to write and publish a book.
COACH: What difference would this make for your life?
CLIENT: It would make me more visible to potential customers.
COACH: And what difference would that make?
CLIENT: I would be able to charge higher fees.
COACH: And what difference would that make?
CLIENT: I would have more time for myself and a better work-life balance.

Having asked the difference question three times, we have arrived at a completely different best hope than at the beginning, giving both coach and client more and different options. The Difference Question is opening up for us different potential layers of this conversation. As a solution focused coach we would typically continue to work with the last and broadest answer, having checked back with our client if this was OK.

This should not let us forget, however, what (mis)direction we might have taken if we had stopped with the first or the second answer.

Depending on what question both conversation partners ultimately choose to address they might get totally different solutions. Apart from the original question of „How to find a way to write and publish a book?“, they might have worked on any of the following questions:

  • How might I become more visible to potential customers?
  • How might I be able to charge higher fees?
  • How might I have more time for myself and a better work-life balance?

All this potential solution-space has opened up and is ready for exploration with three simple repetitions of the Difference Question.

In many instances I have found that the reason some clients are stuck is the fact that they are addressing the „wrong“ issue. They are treating what is only one of many possible paths to their preferred future as the „one and only“.

If our client actually hates writing (she did!), but believes that a book is the only way to find a better work-life balance, then it is no wonder that she feels stuck. Therefore it is essential to help clients bring to light the „actual“ issue, or the issue that is most useful to tackle at this point. Working with a much broader or multi-layered „best hope“ gives our client many more options.

The Difference Question leads the search for solutions to a different level. Each time the coach asks, more options arise. Going up one level opens more possibilities and produces broader, more generative questions.

The client may choose any of the options that resonates most with her. For this to work both coach and client need to be flexible enough to let go of the original issue, no matter how attached they might have become to it. This procedure might not solve the original question our client came with, but it might replace it with a more pertinent one, or one that can actually be found a solution to.

As said before the Difference Question produces a reframing of the original issue: Sometimes it makes it broader, sometimes narrower, sometimes it changes it to another area of life. Thus it usually produces better questions, and as a consequence better solutions.

At what stage do we know that we are addressing the „right“ question?

Let us take another example: Let us image our client had given the following answer to the first Difference Question:

CLIENT: „It would make me really happy to write! I love writing and I have so many ideas which I want to share with the world. So I would love to find a way to start writing.“

Is that a „contract“ we could have worked with:  „finding a way to start writing“? – Certainly.

Please note that the client´s „best hope“ in this case has changed again after the Difference Question: it has become both smaller and broader at the same time. It is now about „starting to write“, rather than publishing a book. It is about a beginning, an activity, and the option is open whether she might be starting to write a book, a blog, a script, or something else.

The conversation might then be about all her resources regarding her writing, such as her organisational skills, her materials, how she has managed to find or make the time for writing in the past, her previous experiences with writing, the best time of day for writing for her, or the support she has or might get in the process.

In Design Thinking, our „best hopes“- statements are called „problem statements“, „how-could-we“-statements or „points of view“ (POV). The purpose is similar: to define what a person actually needs. This might differ from her own original beliefs or from what others think she needs. It is important to start with what people actually need, with a genuine problem or opportunity, not with a (narrow and mistaken) solution. If you start at the wrong point you might shut down the discovery process prematurely, or lead the client into an unnecessary round of activities, desparately trying to solve the „wrong“ problem.

Now let us reconstruct a slightly different conversation which I had with an up-and-coming entrepreneur recently:

COACH: What is your best hope from our conversation?
CLIENT: I would know whether and how I should to re-design my website.
COACH: What difference would that make for you?
CLIENT: I would feel more comfortable because some people have said that it is a little out of date. And as a tech company we need to show that we are at the leading edge of technology in every respect.
COACH: Aha. And what difference would feeling more comfortable that you can show your being at the leading edge of technology make to you?
CLIENT: I would feel more confident in offering our services to new potential customers.
COACH: What difference would that make?
CLIENT: I would feel more certain that we have a sustainable business model.
COACH: And what difference would that make?
CLIENT: Well, I think that is the key question.

Let us go through the different layers of this conversation and explore the options the Difference Question has opened up for us, apart from „re-designing the website“:

  • Showing that they are at the leading edge of technology
  • Offering services to new potential customers
  • Having a sustainable business model

Considering that this young man only had a limited amount of time to spare, it was essential that we found the right focus for our business coaching. We spent the time tweaking the business model, which he found most useful. All the other things were of secondary importance and could easily be tackled afterwards. (The website was very fancy indeed and needed no overhaul!)

My tip: Don´t be afraid to ask the Difference Question several times. And then ask it one more time, just to make sure. Your client will tell you when it is enough and he or she has found the „right“ issue to address.

The Difference Questions comes in different shades of colour and rephrasing it may aid understanding. Different formulations could be:

  • How might this be good for you / your customers?
  • What would it do for you if...?
  • If this worked, what might be different for you / your life then?

So: How might trying out the Difference Question be good for you? ;-)

Brown, Tim (2009): Change by Design. HarperCollins (New York).
Iveson, Chris, George, Evan and Harvey Ratner (2012): Brief Coaching. A Solution Focused Approach. Routledge (London).
Roth, Bernhard (2015): The Achievement Habit. HarperCollins (New York).