Three Ways to Coach the Person, Not the Problem

Posted 02.27.2015

Back when we were co-teaching The Flow of Coaching module at the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program, my good friend, hero and fellow Davidson College alum Frank Ball used to do a funny bit with a bottle of water. To make the point that coaches and leaders should coach people and not problems, Frank would put a bottle of water on the table in the front of the room and say, “This bottle of water represents the problem.” Then he would start coaching the bottle of water. Needless to say, he never got very far. The bottle just didn’t have that many insights on what to change or how to change it.

That’s the thing. People have insights, problems don’t. If you’re a leader who cares about growing and developing your people, you have to coach them, not their problems.

That’s counterintuitive for a lot of leaders and even a lot of professional coaches. The solution to the problem is so obvious (to you) that you just want to jump in there and solve it for them.  That’s not coaching; that’s providing the answer. There’s not much growth in that approach. In fact, you might set growth back by creating a dependency that locks both of you into doing what you’ve always done. And of course when you do that, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten.

So, the next time you feel the urge to coach the problem, try one or more of these three ways to coach the person and not the problem.

Ask Questions with the Word “You” in Them:  Questions that have “you” in them put the focus on the person, not the problem. They cause people to think and reflect. Examples include:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What’s important about that to you?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What’s got you stuck?
  • What else could you do?
  • What would you need to do that?
  • What are the next few steps you could take to move things forward?

Spend Regular Time on Non-Agenda Talk:  This is also known as getting to know the other person. If every conversation you have with the other person is driven by an agenda or focused on solving a problem, that’s all you’re going to talk about. You’ll miss the opportunity to learn more about what’s important to that person, what they’re passionate about, what they love, what they hate. Create and leave time to just talk and connect every now and then.

Focus on What, Not How:  Chances are you got where you are in your career because somewhere along the way, a boss gave you a big, hairy problem to solve and more or less got out of your way. They were there to support you in a pinch or act as a sounding board but they weren’t beside you every step of the way saying, “Here’s how you do the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.” They were clear on what needed to be done, but gave you the space on figuring out how to do it. They focused their time and attention on you and let you solve the problem. Now it’s your turn to pay it forward.

What about you?  What have you learned about coaching the person, not the problem?