Identify the Problem

Identifying the Presenting Problem in Coaching

This article was written with coaches in mind, but coachees can benefit from it too if they are personally struggling to identify and/or define their presenting problem. As a coaching relationship starts to form, a key challenge is helping the client identify the right problem to solve. For instance, say you spend a lot of time helping a busy, stressed out client create systems to manage time and tasks, only to find that he or she is constantly sabotaging that plan. There may be personal reasons for this, like an unspoken value your client adheres to (ex. always putting family first). How do you go get under the surface to help direct the coaching conversation to focus on the real need?

The first step is to ensure that you are working on the right problem by explicitly stating the problem or goal, which means asking the right question. Consider these questions, for instance:

  • What is the most important problem you want to solve?”
  • What would make a lasting difference in your life, not just a fleeting one?
  • “How does what we are discussing connect with your overall objectives?”
  • “What matters in your life that you may not have mentioned to me before?”

One-Time Problem or Patterns?

Sometimes coaching goals go awry because you are dealing with a pattern, not just a one-off problem. For instance, busy people often convince themselves that if they just get through the latest project, their schedule will clear up and the stress will go away. Entrepreneurs might think if they can solve just one problem with their business, everything will fall into place. Is that the truth, or just a pipe dream? A good way to find out is to dig a bit into the past. Questions you can ask include:

  • What obstacles to change have you run into in the past?
  • “How often does this area of your life work the way you want it to?
  • Is this the first time you have dealt with this challenge, or does it come up repeatedly?”

Circumstance or Attitude?

It’s only human for people to want to make their lives better. Most people think, however, that they can get the changes and results they want by changing their environment or the people around them.

However, many times the solution lies in changing ourselves or our responses to stimuli, not our situations — particularly when we don’t have much control over what goes on around us. It is important to determine whether the situation needs to change, or simply the way someone responds to the situation. The methods to achieve these goals are drastically different.

Symptom or Cure?

Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on the symptoms, not the cure. For instance, using our first example, someone who says they want to create more family time in their life may actually have a problem telling others “No,” which creates more demand on their time. Or, their identity could be totally bound up in work. Coaching is transformational when you stop treating symptoms and eliminate the true problem. Here are two ways to do it:

Ask for more (pursue a permanent cure instead of a coping strategy):

  • What would it look like to conquer this once and for all?”
  • What do you believe about your own ability to change in this area?”

Explore what drives the behavior (where the motivation behind it comes from):

  • You have told me what you do that you want to change. Now let’s explore the motivation behind that. What causes you to function this way?”
  • “What do you gain from reacting the way you are to this situation? What do you lose?”

Remember, the presenting problem is often not the first problem you hear from the client. It is important to ask the right questions and make sure you identify the problem correctly. It is also important to note that the presenting problem might not be the underlying problem, but we will save that for another post. For more ways to define a coachee’s problem I recommend  Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills. This post was drawn from material from that book.