Should We Get to the Root of a Problem? - International Coaching Federation
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Should We Get to the Root of a Problem?

Posted by Joseph Grech, ACC | June 12, 2018 | Comments (4)

Clients often come to coaching to experience a change in themselves. They can sometimes identify areas that they label as “problems” and engage in a coaching program to bring some resolution. This raises a key question for the coach: How much of the present “problem” do we need to explore with the client as a prerequisite to support them moving forward? In other words, must we as coaches get to the root of the “problem” to truly allow someone to shift perspective and potentially take action?

In my experience, coaching clients expect a degree of exploration of their present situation. This reflective process allows them to understand what is currently happening in their world and leads them to identify or address(perhaps through Socratic questioning) the root cause of a problematic area. Undeniably, part of the coach’s role is to actively listen to the client, which will help build trust and intimacy in the relationship. With that said, it is also vital for the coach to remain vigilant to the fact that while the client is unraveling the present “problem,” they might get stuck in an unproductive, ruminating cycle.

As an example, think of your own coaching practice. Have you ever been in a situation where discussing a problem area took over a big part of the coaching session? Perhaps, reflect on your line of inquiry and the questions used. Did they truly support your client, or did the person seem to get more entangled in their problem rather than reach a solution? As a coach-trainer, I find that this sometimes happens. A new coach focuses, to a great extent, on the client identifying and resolving a problem rather than on supporting them in developing a compelling future.

There is certainly a logical appeal to thinking that in order for somebody to progress, they have to understand the cause of their problem. However, by approaching a coaching conversation from a problem-talk mindset, we run the danger of the client (and us) getting further enmeshed in their story. We might fall in the trap of asking questions to extricate trivial detail including why a problem has established itself and perhaps what has gone wrong. Inevitably, this type of talk can lead to negativity and apprehension within the client, making it difficult for them to make the jump from exploring the problem to developing a vision and a future goal.

While a client might experience a positive feeling of cathartic release, exploring the intricacies of the problem might not permit certain people to move forward. Most clients are aware of the issues they are facing and, typically, a discussion purely focusing on problems does not allow for greater insight. Therefore, if the questions that are asked by the coach are truly challenging and focus on exploring a future state, we support clients in creating new ideas. This process will also provide them with compelling reasons to drive change.

Utilizing this solutions-based style, we can support our clients better by helping them create a future vision, and then work back to identify discrepancies between this desired state and their current reality. Through this we instill a greater level of ownership and accountability, which will once again intensify their motivation for change.

This is not to say that we should never ask questions that support the identification of a root problem. This questioning, for example, is particularly important if you are working within a cognitive behavioral coaching context. Under this approach, it is key for the client to understand activating situations in order to address these appropriately. Another example is when clients want to tap into how they have resolved previous challenges to replicate the successful behavior.

For the coach to work within this paradigm, it requires the practitioner to develop in a number of ways. First and foremost, a masterful coach needs to be able to identify when the client is using problem-talk in their narrative that is not leading to progress. Secondly, they need to be cognizant of their line of inquiry to ensure that questions about problems are asked to serve the client rather than to satisfy the coach’s curiosity.

Finally, and perhaps the more crucial development area, the practitioner should let go of their need to understand a problem as a precursor to supporting a client. Accepting this notion that we must work with a client without being privy to the intricacies of their situation can be daunting at first and requires a level of courage. However, by doing so, the coach can progress to become a more advanced practitioner while supporting their clients to make truly transformational changes.


©Smarter Learning Ltd.

joseph grech

Joseph Grech, ACC

Joseph Grech, ACC, is an Executive, Career and Life Coach who works with corporate and personal clients internationally. He firmly believes in cultivating the potential of people, and his approach of supporting individuals in a holistic manner underpins his consultancy Smarter Learning Ltd. As a coach, he works alongside leaders, empowering them to gain confidence, grow in times of change and harness their potential. Joseph is also passionate about developing the coaching profession and is a coach-trainer for ICF-accredited programs as well CIPD and ILM qualifications.  Learn more about Joseph at

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (4)

  1. Ariana Amorim says:

    Thank you Joseph. Many good points presented here!

  2. Renato Zane says:

    Really good article, Joseph. It’s interesting how we as coaches can inadvertedly find ourselves stuck in empathy and in probing as we try to understand our clients. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Good reminder. Having the presence of mind to step out of the tangle and focus on next steps sometimes does take courage, but it’s helpful to remember why the client engaged us in the first place. Thank you!

    • Joseph Grech says:

      Thank you for your comment Renato and I fully agree with you. I feel that as well that sometimes I focus a lot on empathy and at times what the client needs is the support to help them move forward! It’s certainly an interesting debate at what point too much of a good thing is not a good thing! All the best.

  3. David Grau says:

    Excellent article. I am being asked to deliver a workshop and in the workshop there is an exercise for managers to explore coaching another person. This line in preparation for the exercise is an instruction for the “coach” — “Use questioning and listening skills to identify the root cause.” My first thought was “Huh?” The only time I work with a client to explore root cause (it is so difficult to discover root cause; was it something that happened when the client was 6 years old and the memory is long locked away?) is when they are stuck and finding it difficult to take action or they are feeling fear, anger or sadness in similar situations and don’t know what it’s about. For emotional reactions I use the emotional train technique (using earlier emotionally similar experiences to go back in time to see if the client can discover a very early time in their life where they felt similarly; this is an exercise a client does without speaking out loud) and for not taking action an immunity map to uncover competing commitments and the underlying assumptions that are keeping those commitments in place. Joseph, I found your article by doing a search on “ICF root cause coaching” to discover how others thought about root cause analysis (developed by Toyota, as I recall, for their manufacturing processes). Asking “why” questions of a client can get both client and coach into a conversation that leads no where, and usually people can’t answer “why.” And even if they can, one still has to go to the process Gary outlines (and most coaches use) in his article.

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