Box of Crayons Blog


Ruth Ann Harnisch’s One Best Question

Today Ruth Ann Harnisch — philanthropist, activist, author, executive producer and coach — shares her one best question. It’s a dynamic way to cut to the heart of an issue and gain insight into the truth of a situation.


  • Ruth Ann Harnisch on Twitter
  • The Harnisch Foundation on Twitter
  • The Harnisch Foundation on the Web

Full Transcript

Michael: I’m Michael Bungay Stanier. You’re listening to The Coaching Habit podcast, where I get to talk to writers, teachers, thinkers, groovy people, coaches, as well, getting into the heart of what makes coaching powerful, what makes coaching powerful in their lives, how they’ve helped other people in their other lives, as well.

I’m speaking today to Ruth Ann Harnisch, a woman of many talents, has had great impact in the coaching world. She is a philanthropist, she is an activist, she’s an author, she’s an executive producer of movies, she’s an initiator of good things in this world, and she’s also just an active coach. She’s been on the ICF board, she’s been on the IAC board, all good coaching jargon. She’s the founder of the TED Fellows coaching program, which I was lucky enough to be part of, and much more. But because this is a short little interview, I’m gonna jump right into this conversation. Ruth Ann, welcome.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Hi, I’m so glad to be with you, Michael.

Michael: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. We’ve known each other in one way or another since, I think, probably at least 15 years, I think. It’s pretty cool to keep talking and keep learning from you. The question in this little section is, what’s your one best coaching question? What’s the question as a coach that you use, you love, that knocks your socks off? Where would you take us?

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Do I have to stay with just one? If I could only have just one, I think it would be, “What do you hope is true at the end of this conversation that is not true right now?” People will often tell you exactly what they want you to deliver in that session.

Michael: Right. What is it about the phrasing of that question that gives it its power? That piece around “true at the end that’s not true now,” what impact do you think that has on people’s brains?

Ruth Ann Harnisch: I think it forces them to think, “Well, what is true now? What don’t I like? What do I want? What’s missing?” It’s a very succinct way of inviting them to just bottom line it. What’s missing here? What’s wrong with this picture? Why did I come to you?

Michael: You know, one of the questions that I use and love, which is related, I think, is I just simply go, “So what do you know to be true here?” One of the things that’s wonderful about that is it has that same bottom lining effect, but it also separates out judgment and made-up stuff and wishes from the data and the facts and the reality of the situation. There’s nothing wrong with judgment or fantasies or whatever they might be, but when they get mixed in with the truth of it, it can get a little confusing and just teasing the two apart can be really powerful. You’re like, “Okay, now I’m seeing reality. If that’s reality, now where do we go from there?”

Ruth Ann Harnisch: So true. To speak of truth. If I might add one more tiny to that, ask somebody to do it to you in a direct message on Twitter in advance and it will force such a distillation of thought.

Michael: Yeah. I’ll tell you the other thing I love about this, Ruth Ann, is one of my frustrations with coaching is the meandering start where you’re like, “Okay, we’ve got, let’s say, half an hour for a conversation or 45 minutes for a conversation in a traditional coaching setup,” and as a coach, I’ve just had too many times where I’ve like, “Okay, I’m 20 minutes into this. I’m halfway through and we’re still feeling like we’re doing the warm-up.”

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Well, for some people, that’s their process, though.

Michael: Right.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: They’re not ready to talk to you until they’ve gotten rid of that dump, whatever it is, that they have to do before they’re ready to get down to work. But I am direct and time is valuable to me. I wanna get to it. But I have learned to be a little patient with people who are not as comfortable with “the truth” as you and I, and they need to do a little dance before they are ready to look at what might be true.

Michael: Yeah. You know, there’s that quote from Einstein. I’m probably gonna misquote him, but it’s something like, “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I often think with coaching, things should go as fast as possible, but no faster.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Perfect.

Michael: Part of the art is leaning in and keeping the pressure on so the pace continues, but not rushing it so it goes to fast, in which case people, as you say, it’s their process and you’re breaking that. Or so slowly that you get a little bit mired in the miscellany rather than helping to get to the heart of what this conversation could be about.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: If you don’t mind me being the conscience of the coaching profession for a moment-

Michael: Please.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Please don’t let your client blah blah just so that the meter’s running.

Michael: Oh, yeah. I’m just gonna say hallelujah, sister, and leave it at that. Exactly. You do everybody a disservice when you allow blah blah conversation to happen in the name of coaching. That doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help coaching, it doesn’t help the person you’re trying to serve.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Well, I think some people think it helps them as in, “Well, I’ll have another session next week because we didn’t cover what was needed this week,” and it’s like an investment in their future income to let a person blah blah. That’s what I’m saying. When the meter is running and you’re hearing like it’s Dial-a-Psychic at so much per minute and that you don’t even care what they’re saying ’cause you’re getting paid, that is the thing I am cautioning against.

Michael: Yeah, I love that. It’s a business model, not a service to a client.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Michael: Ruth Ann, for people who wanna find out more about the awesome stuff you’re up to in this world, where will they find you?

Ruth Ann Harnisch: We’re on the web at The HF, for the Harnisch Foundation, at and I’m on Twitter @RuthAnnHarnisch. Look for me there.

Michael: Perfect. Ruth Ann, thank you so much.

Ruth Ann Harnisch: My pleasure, Michael.

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