Professional Coaching is a positive, goal and results-oriented profession that helps you achieve your biggest dreams. Relationship Coaching Institute provides advanced specialty relationship coach training to help singles and couples have successful relationships.
However, as a professional coach, what motivates people to get your help is often a big, huge problem they’re experiencing, such as whether to stay in a relationship, dealing with mental health issues such as depression, health challenges, financial difficulties, legal problems, etc.
Even if you’re qualified, comfortable with, and enjoy helping people solve big problems, directly addressing a problem is NOT coaching.
Four Primary Steps of Coaching
To clarify the role of problem solving in coaching, let’s review the four primary steps of coaching:
Step 1: Visioning: “What do you want?” The big picture, long term Vision of the client’s desired future.
Step 2: Goal Planning: “What needs to happen to get what you want?” Identifying the steps needed to accomplish the big picture Vision.
Step 3: Action Planning: “How can you get what you want?” Strategizing how to accomplish each goal.
Step 4: Implementation: “What will you do today and this week to get what you want?” Implementation and follow up to execute the actions and accomplish the goals.
This is coaching in a nutshell.
Zoom Out to Coach Goals Instead of Zooming In on Problems
Our client’s agenda might be to help them solve a big problem. New and unskilled coaches who are excited to help their client take the bait and dive into problem solving, but this is not effective coaching and usually ends up going nowhere, or results in (what I call) “One Session Wonders” where the client got the answer they were seeking in their initial consultation and don’t see a need for future coaching.
So what do we do? Simple, we “Zoom Out” by helping them re-frame their problem into a goal, then connect it to their big picture Vision of what they want for their desired future, then “Zoom In” to plan action steps and strategies for achieving their goal, and get into action.
It’s amazing how often the “problem” disappears when you zoom out, even if it wasn’t directly addressed. In doing so we’ve elevated our client beyond the immediate obstacle to a longer term, bigger result than simply solving a problem.
Where Does Problem Solving Fit in Coaching?
So, where does problem solving fit in coaching our clients?
Visioning? No, if a client struggles with defining their big picture Vision we have lots of exercises and strategies to help.
Goal planning? No, it’s easy enough to help the client identify the steps needed to accomplish their Vision. At this point we’ll assume that anticipated problems are solvable.
Action planning? No, there are many ways to accomplish anything and there is no single right and best way. How to do something is easy to figure out or easy to research and find options and strategies for doing so. More on that below.
Implementation? Yes, as the client gets into action to implement their plan they will experience challenges, both internal and external. More on that below.
Top Five Problems with Problem Solving
Before we explore how to help our clients solve problems, let’s address the ways that problem solving creates problems for the coach:
1. Skipping Required Steps: If you help someone with a problem and skip Visioning, Goal Planning, and Action Planning, you are NOT coaching.
2. The Rabbit Hole: If you jump into problem solving there is no end as there is rarely one easy solution. Solving problems in itself has challenges and creates more problems. Also known as “Pandora’s Box.”
3. Ownership/Responsibility: While you might be an expert and know how the client can/should solve their problem, if you simply tell them how, you are being a consultant and not a coach, and the client can’t/won’t own their journey and are much less likely to take full responsibility if they rely on you telling them what they should do. The most common response when offering advice to a client is “Yes, but…” If you hear this from a client, you are giving advice and suggestions to try to solve their problem for them and are way off track in coaching them.
4. Liability: If the problem is serious and your attempts to help them solve it backfire with serious consequences, you risk being sued for malpractice by an unhappy client.
5. Perspective: Focusing on the problem is a negative perspective that causes it to grow and become more and more challenging and even multiply into more problems. If you focus on a positive perspective of what’s needed to move forward towards your goal, you’ll always find a way despite the problem.
“I can’t because…” stops you.
“How can I…” empowers you and helps you find creative ways forward.
Problem Solving in Relationship Coach Training
In RCI’s relationship coach training you are encouraged to practice your coaching skills in two ways:
People to Practice With: This is either practicing specific training exercises (which is skill building for the trainee and not “coaching”) or having ad hoc coaching conversations to support a friend, acquaintance or family member using your coaching skills rather than whatever you would normally do.
Practice Clients: This is a real coaching relationship, typically limited to 3-4 sessions at no charge and it is clear to the “client” that you are in training and practicing with them.
The most common problem in RCI’s relationship coach trainings, and the real purpose for writing this article, is that more often than not, in both of the above scenarios, clients will identify a problem they want help with, and trainees will forget their training, skip the first three primary steps of coaching, and focus on problem solving.
I know this because as part of their relationship coach training they submit reports on their coaching activities. I review every report of every trainee and I see this pattern over and over. And more often than not, they stress out and get stuck when trying to help their client solve problems and myself and the other trainers and mentors spend a lot of time and effort supporting them to fix the situation. This article is really for them!
Two Types of Problems
Let’s categorize problems two ways:
1. External Problems: These are events and facts, some are out of your control and some you can do something about. Sometimes what seems to be a “fact” is actually an assumption (made up in your head) or a fear (something that hasn’t happened yet).
What You Need to Know: While there are many things out of our control, there are enough things we can control that we can figure out how to move forward despite the things we can’t control. If this weren’t true, human beings would still live in caves and today’s technology wouldn’t exist.
Example: Your single client has an external problem because they don’t like online dating but they don’t know what else to do. As you help them explore their options, online dating ends up rising to the top as their most efficient, effective option and they can choose to put aside their fears and assumptions about online dating to focus on how to date online effectively. What was previously be a big obstacle and undesired option transforms into an effective solution simply by shifting perspective on it.
In this case the “problem” is the result of fear, lack of creativity, lack of effective strategies, and/or unsuccessful experiences, not that online dating doesn’t work or other assumptions they may have causing them to dismiss an effective strategy.
2. Internal Problems: These are fears, assumptions and emotional reactions that we allow to hold us back. Yes, we are literally “creating” the problem by “allowing” it to be a problem. If we wait until we feel comfortable to do something, we’ll stay stuck!
What You Need to Know: Internal factors only have power if they operate unconsciously. We have power and control simply by being aware of the fear/assumption/emotional reaction and making a conscious choice about how to respond. Most “feelings” are normal and common in the human experience, and since you can choose to act and move forward while experiencing shyness, awkwardness, fear, low self esteem, low self confidence, etc., and while they may be uncomfortable and undesired, they don’t need to be “problems” to solve before moving forward.
Example: Your single client has an internal problem because they are introverted, shy and feel awkward about dating. As you help them develop creative strategies for dating and support them to engage people even when they’re feeling awkward and shy, they become more comfortable, confident and successful as they move forward. The “problems” of being introverted and shy (fear, discomfort, awkwardness, etc) can be solved and disappear by developing and practicing strategies for engaging people. To be clear, they might not always be “comfortable,” but their shyness doesn’t have to be a “problem” holding them back.
In this case the “problem” is not that the client is introverted and feels shy. You can spend years of therapy helping your client feel better, or just help them implement strategies to have positive experiences that they can learn from and build their self confidence.
Top Seven Ways to Solve Problems in Coaching
So, exactly how can we approach problems in coaching our clients?
1. Convert Problems into Goals: A simple, easy, powerful, approach to doing so is “What’s your desired outcome?” followed by planning for how to achieve that outcome, including actions, strategies, mindsets, support needed, etc. So instead of focusing on the negative, stressful problem, you are empowering your client to take charge of their situation, which is the opposite of being a victim, which is how many people feel when a problem happens that is out of their control.
Client lost their job? BIG problem. Just ask “What’s your desired outcome from being laid off from your job?” and presto, you have a positive goal.
2. Ignore the Problem: It’s tempting to see a problem as an obstacle and want to solve it, but if you assume the problem doesn’t have to be an obstacle, sometimes you can simply ignore it and it will become solved with forward movement.
3. Positive Thinking: This is replacing “I can’t because…” with “How can I?” As in the two examples above, being creative and choosing to move forward positively towards your goal will overcome most “problems.”
4. Stay in the Question: Goal achievement is a marathon over time, not a sprint that has to happen today. Sometimes in coaching, staying in the question is your most important problem solving strategy and the solutions or strategies that bubble up later are better and more brilliant than making an immediate choice out of impatience.
5. Brainstorming: Help your client generate creative ideas and strategies. Brainstorming means you are BOTH throwing out ideas without attachment, the coach should elicit ideas from the client and not dominate the brainstorm, and what’s more important than any one idea (including yours) is to help the client be creative and identify options they aren’t aware of.
6. Polling: Have the client share their goal and problem with others and ask for input and ideas. Everybody usually has an opinion of what you should do, informed and uninformed, but this is a good reality check and it’s always helpful to learn what others have done that worked for them (i.e. “informed” opinions).
7. Research: The collective wisdom and knowledge of everything in the world and the solution to every problem is available in the palm of your hand or the click of a button.
Polling and Research can be part of “Staying in the Question” and will generate more ideas and strategies than is possible to brainstorm on your own, and more importantly, stimulates creativity that might result in a unique strategy perfect for your client’s situation that you wouldn’t have thought of in a million years. If you assume a solution is possible you can find it, even if you don’t know what it is at the moment.
Some Relevant Inspirational Quotes
- Where there’s a will, there’s a way. — George Herbert (paraphrased)
- When one door closes, another will open. –Alexander Graham Bell
- You don’t know what you don’t know. –Socrates (paraphrased)
- Energy flows where attention grows. –Tony Robbins
- Whatever the mind can conceive it can achieve. –W. Clement Stone
- When you don’t like two options, find the third (and there’s always a third option).–David Steele (paraphrasing Hedy Schleifer)
- What you see depends upon where you’re standing and where you’re looking. –David Steele
- Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right. –Henry Ford
- To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. –Anatole France
- It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. What matters is where you’re going, and how you’ll get there. –David Steele
- A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes. –Gandhi
- Nothing is, unless our thinking makes it so. –Shakespeare
- If you can dream it, you can do it. — Walt Disney
The Bottom Line
Shift your approach from “I have to help my client solve this problem.” to “How can I help my client move forward?”
I sincerely hope that this article will encourage and remind you to focus on goals, not problems, in your own life and with your clients.