Should We Get to the Root of a Problem?
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.