How to Coach The Person, Not The Problem

Great coaches focus on the person – their internal way of being, mindset, and development – not their problem or goal. Most of us are quick to see external causes and solutions. Transformation results from coaching the person toward internal solutions. Here’s how.

There once was a caterpillar who was frustrated that he couldn’t run fast.

“I need to be stronger if I’m going to go faster,” he thought. So, he started working out at the gym every morning. He hired a running coach, who told him to lift his knees more when he ran. Still, he didn’t run noticeable faster.

The caterpillar saw a commercial for Nike running shoes. “That’s it!” he said. He went to the Nike Store and bought 8 pair of their best running shoes. But again, even with the best shoes, he just inched along.

One day, after a really hard workout, he climbed onto a leaf and wrapped himself up in a cocoon for a nap. When he awoke, he felt strange. He pushed at the cocoon and eventually broke through. To his surprise, his normally stubby leg extended into a multi-colored wing.

Standing on the branch, he felt the wind lifting him. “I wonder…” he thought. He let go of the branch. And flew. Faster than he could have ever imagined running.

Coaching The Problem Looks for External Solutions

Most of us are quick to look for and recognize external causes and solutions. Those things are usually concrete and “safer” to deal with. Here are a few situations and common external approaches.

  • Conflicts: What the other person did, said, and how they need to change.
  • Time management: Need for a better calendar and to-do list system.
  • Leading Teams: How to cast vision, support team members, and stay focused on the objective.
  • Getting A Work Promotion: Getting more experience, an advanced degree, and working harder.

Each of these situations and approaches may be part of the solution, but they are not the most important part. The missing piece is the person you are coaching.

Coaching The Person Looks for Internal Solutions

I coached a leader on time management. He said he was so busy with appointments he didn’t have enough time to do his own work well.

He explained that his calendar program wasn’t very sophisticated and didn’t sync between his computer and phone. He’d been researching options and wanted me to coach him around choosing and implementing the best calendar program.

If I followed his lead, I would be coaching the problem, the external. Instead, I focused on what was happening inside of him.

Me: “What are all these appointments that you are so busy with?”

Client: “Co-workers ask me to do things, and I don’t want to say no.”

Me: “What inside you doesn’t allow you to say ‘no’?”

Client: “Inside me?” he repeated thoughtfully. “I don’t want to disappoint people. And I like helping them.”

Me: “What do you get out of being so helpful?”

Client: “They show their appreciation, thanking me. I’ve become the ‘go-to’ guy for a lot of my department’s people. I guess that makes me feel good.”

Me: “How does it make you feel good?”

Client: “I mean it makes me feel important. Like I’m making a difference.”

Me: “I can understand that. Does your regular work make you feel important, like you’re making a difference?”

Client: “Not really. I know it’s important but no one says much.”

Me: “So, you’re gravitating toward the tasks where you get acknowledgment from others, which makes you feel important and needed.”

Client: “Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but yes, I think that’s what’s happening.”

From here we talked about how he could make his regular work more meaningful, with or without acknowledgment of others. He also came up with a set of criteria for deciding when to help others, that included asking himself how much he was helping in order to feel important.

With these personal, internal insights in place, choosing a better calendar program wasn’t important to him because he realized the real solution was within himself.

Identifying The Internal Conversation Lead-ins

We need to train ourselves to hear and recognize internal-focused conversation lead-ins. In the example above, the lead-in was to explore why he didn’t want to say no to his co-workers. Then, how did he benefit from doing all that extra work, and why didn’t he get that benefit from doing his own work.

As you coach, listen for invitations to coach the person, not the problem. Things like:

  • Perspectives – “Given the economy right now, we need to go slowly.”
  • Emotions – “I’m worried that…” or “What she said really ticked me off.”
  • Assumptions – “He wouldn’t ever let me.” or “I don’t have a choice.”
  • Limited-beliefs – “I can’t.” or “I’ll never be able to…”
  • Motivations – “I don’t want to…” or “That was so fulfilling!”

Listen for internal conversation lead-ins. Ask about them by exploring, gently challenging, and inviting the person to reflect.

Transformation happens when people find internal solutions, not just change their circumstances. Internal changes in a person’s way of being, perspective, and mindset develop the person. The result is far-reaching change that goes beyond just the immediate problem to increasing the capacity of the person.

Question: What’s one way you could move from coaching the problem to coaching the person? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    3 thoughts on “How to Coach The Person, Not The Problem

    1. Thanks for this great article. One idea regarding moving from coaching the person instead of the problem is to continue digging deeper to uncover the true issues that are driving the problem.