Peeling the Onion: #6 of 28 Big Ideas from the World of Coaching

Updated: Oct 15



Photo by Jeancliclac @123rf.com.

This article is seventh in a multi-part series that adapts and excerpts my entire book, The Coach Within: 28 Big Ideas for Engaging the Power of Your Own Wisdom, Creativity, and Choices* (Everything Goes Media, 2017).

6. Peeling the Onion

“A grownup is a child with layers on.”

— Woody Harrelson


“If you go deeper and deeper into your own heart, you’ll be living in a world with less fear, isolation, and loneliness.”

— Sharon Salzberg


A nice way to follow up the lesson of high-impact, open-ended questions is the concept of “peeling the onion.” With this coaching staple, a coach takes the conversation with a client deeper, one layer at a time, based on the answer to the last powerful question. A coach doesn’t anticipate, guess, or guide the direction of the interaction. She asks the next question in the moment in direct response to your last reply. And continues doing so until there’s a shift (that’s the next lesson, big idea 7).

For all coaching purposes, the lesson is to engage with the most salient information of the moment. You don’t have to know where the thread, your thinking, someone else’s emotions — anything — is going in advance, and you don’t have to circle back to, remember, or keep track of any points the client (you) were hung up on ten minutes ago or more.

On the one hand, peeling the onion is a fantastic technique for getting to the heart of the matter, for digging down until one reaches the critical thing or an “aha” of some sort. What I also love about it is that it’s another demonstration of a recurring theme in coaching: starting where you are and going from there. That is always real and always enough. But that is also a different lesson for later in the book.

Let’s look at how peeling the onion in a conversation with oneself can play out with effective results in different ways, simply by asking one relevant question at a time, and proceeding from there.


Consider something that’s been weighing heavily on you but you’ve been having trouble sorting out. Your experience of this thing may be so clouded by fear, avoidance, overload, sadness, or anger that you can’t make a decision, think it through properly, or find peace.

You need a coaching session with yourself!

Example (shortened and simplified for demonstration):

Help! My father’s condition is getting worse and soon he won’t be able to care for himself. Whew. You said it. You may not know anything else now but that’s what’s been on your mind, distracting you for the last couple of weeks. [Sometimes you can just start with a basic validation of the honesty, the naming of the thing.]

I’m so overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. What is it that you think you should be doing? [Peel back a layer by inquiring about the “doing.” Use a what question and not a why question.]

I don’t even know where to begin, that’s why I’m so overwhelmed! How will you know what to do? [Go yet deeper by exploring, getting beyond the not knowing with a how inquiry.]

I don’t really know what my dad wants to do or what he might expect of me. Ah, so the overwhelm and not knowing might be connected to not knowing your father’s expectations in this situation? What’s the best way to find out? [Each new question directly responds to the latest information that presents itself.]

Wow, I just realized that we’ve never had a conversation about that… [At this point, an “aha” has been hit and you can shift your focus to an action step. OK, Self, when will I have that conversation with Dad and what points should I cover?]

If you’ve peeled the onion with yourself and reached a point where you’ve noticed something important and can act on it, that’s terrific! And sufficient for now. It might not address everything related to your concern but you’ve made progress. If there’s still more, let that come up on its own in another session.

Let’s look at this same scenario again, with different layers to be peeled back:

Help! My father’s condition is getting worse and soon he won’t be able to care for himself. There, you said it. You’ve been avoiding it because it makes you sad but it’s not going away. [Sitting a moment with the acknowledgment can lead to a next reveal.]

Uh, oh, this means I’m going to have to talk to my brother and sister. You sound apprehensive. What about your siblings and this situation puts you in that mood? [“Siblings” was the first thing that came up, so coach yourself from there.]

Well, I think that my dad can live on his own longer with all of us helping out with errands, housekeeping, and things like that. But we all live at least an hour away and have such different schedules and our own obligations. [The tone is now less about the apprehension and more about logistics, so pursue that with your next examination.]


So, your dad may not need intensive help at this point, just some assistance with housework and errands. How do you see that working out with your siblings? I actually don’t know how involved they can or can’t be. Or me either for that matter. I don’t know exactly what my dad needs or how much time that will take. I guess I’ll email everyone and suggest we discuss it when we all go out for my sister’s birthday in a couple weeks.

When you’re using peeling the onion on yourself, if you’ve struck on an awareness that brings clarity or a task that gives you movement, recognize the breakthrough. You got there not by overturning every detail obsessively, but by focusing on the most pertinent thing one layer at a time. You will start noticing when you’ve gone off on a tangent or have pursued the wrong path. It’s all good info. When you realize it, use another appropriate question to get back on track and uncover something useful.

Your Coaching To-Do’s

⎕ Practice: In your conversations with others today, listen for the most germane point in the most recent thing said and pursue that thing only with a follow-up question. What does this do for the depth and significance of your exchange? What might this approach add to your relationships over time? Note what it’s like to hit the mark with your follow-up versus when you miss it.

⎕ Silence/Writing/Walking: If you have one of those murky, uncomfortable things bearing down on you or shrouding your judgment, also spend time today in one of your preferred modes, stripping down to the insight you need one applicable question at a time. Take as much time as you need, as many questions as it takes. Sit with each round of answers, feel them, breathe into them, and ask yourself…what’s next here?

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