Author Profile Picture

Peter Freeth



Read more from Peter Freeth

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

The Most Dangerous Coaching Question


The entire self-help industry is based on a simple question: "What do you want?"

With this one question, coaches and life transformation gurus conjure up your wildest dreams, innermost desires and best laid plans.

And what you don't realise is that this one question is precisely what prevents you from achieving those dreams.

In fact, the self-help industry is designed to create one result: Addiction.

Here's why.

The question "What do you want?" contains a presupposition, something which must already be true for the speaker in order for the question to be understood. Whilst all statements contain presuppositions, the important one here is 'want'. To want something presupposes that you do not have it.

'Want' is also an 'unspecified verb', meaning that it is an action with something missing. The missing part is 'to have', so if we expanded a 'want' statement to be fully grammatically correct, the result would be "I want to have..."

Have is not an action, it is a statement of possession. However, the word 'have' shows up in language in the same place as a verb, and it is therefore an unspecified verb, and also a 'lost performative' meaning that the direct action has been lost, muddled up and hidden.

Here's an example: "My boss criticises me". Criticising is not an action, it is not a performative verb. It is a judgement on a series of experiences, edited together in a generalisation, like the trailer for a movie. Similarly, we could summarise the movie Star Wars into the statement "Boy becomes hero". It's true, but it's missing a few details. Maybe sometimes your boss does give you feedback which you don't like, and at other times that's not the case, and at other times you are not interacting with your boss at all. Your assertion is a misleading generalisation which omits the action that you are commenting on.

If I use 'have' in present tense, I might say, "I have a pen". That doesn't tell you anything about how I got the pen. Did I buy it? Steal it? Borrow it? 'Have' is a snapshot in time, and your brain will create a story to explain that snapshot. My mother developed dementia later in life and would create stories to explain unfamiliar items around her. When I bought her a clock, she said, "Oh, where did that clock come from? Oh yes, the neighbour brought it in for me". Five minutes later, my sister had brought it. Five minutes later, another story. None of them were true, from my point of view, but all of them were true for her, at least for a moment. Our brains create stories to explain the world that we see around us, like a prequel for a movie to explain the backstory to a character.

When you use 'have' in place of a verb in future tense, you miss out the steps that you'll take to get you to where you intend to be. Anything in the future is imaginary, yet we act as if it's real. We say, "This time next year I will have a new job". And what are you doing, today, right now, this minute to get a new job? Nothing.

The question "What do you want?" provokes the response "I want to have..." which means that you don't have it now, and you have no idea how to get it. You're not focusing on the first, direct action that you can take, you're focusing on the end result. You're picturing the cake, but you don't have any of the ingredients. And you don't know how to bake a cake. When I say that you have no idea how to get it, that’s based on a very simple observation. If you knew how to bake a cake, and you had the ingredients to hand, you wouldn’t want a cake, you would be baking a cake.

'Want' literally means 'lack', as in this ancient rhyme and proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Focusing on what you want without considering how you'll get it amplifies your sense of dissatisfaction with where you are right now, with what you have in your life right now.

With that amplified sense of dissatisfaction, where do you go? Straight back to your guru for some more daydreaming.

We're so used to thinking in terms of goals, objectives and targets that we have largely forgotten that goals are impossible to achieve, because by the time we start taking action, the landscape has changed and the goal has changed.

Research shows that the only reliable way of making changes in your life is to DO something. NOW.

Move. Get going. Start. Begin.

Goals exist only for a far more important reason - to set a direction of travel. Focus on that instead, and see where it takes you.

As a coach, perhaps a more useful question is therefore, “Where are you going?”

One Response

  1. I read your book ‘Genius at
    I read your book ‘Genius at Work’ recently coincidentally and i found it very useful.

    I absolutely agree regards the ‘what do you want’ question. Getting to the bottom of that question really helps in training design and saves a tonne of time later down the road.

Author Profile Picture
Peter Freeth


Read more from Peter Freeth

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!