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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Problem-based coaching is a problem

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Photo by cottonbro studio

In her powerful book Coach the Person, Not the Problem, Master Certified Coach (MCC) Marcia Reynolds encapsulates an entire philosophy in a simple book title. As coaches, we are often tempted to focus on the challenge or the problem, helping the client design strategies and steps to overcome obstacles. This emphasis on the situation, however, has deleterious effects. A recent study highlights the neurological effects of thinking small about the present (e.g., the real self) vs thinking large about the future (e.g., the ideal self).

When clients are coached in a manner that focuses on identifying and solving a problem, their brains are drawn to differentiation, attention to detail, and activation of narrow cognitive categories. These mental guardrails can lead to the omission of discordant ideas and possibilities. When focusing on current reality, or the real self, our minds are also inundated with external expectations that live in the context of the situation. Known is ought selves, these externally imposed expectations can trigger unconscious resistance or willfulness. In other words, a conversation that starts with sifting through a current problem and identifying possible solutions, a popular coaching approach, can in fact limit options and decrease the energy needed to see a solution to fruition.

In contrast, by initiating a coaching engagement with an exploration of the ideal future the client wants to see, the coach allows opportunities to spring forth. The outside constraints of ought selves are sidestepped and all possibilities and solutions are available. Additionally, focusing on the ideal self increasingly allows the client to accept his/her real self and boosts intrinsic motivation to foster and sustain change.

The more we accept ourselves as we are, the more open we become to change.

Coaching to the ideal self sparks a more global focus for clients, allowing them to externally view themselves in the situation and evaluate a variety of factors that are influencing the circumstances. The ideal self activates affirming thoughts, a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and positive emotions. On the other hand, coaching to the real self initiates a more local focus. While this allows for quick goal-relevant action, a global focus is what allows clients to adopt new goals (if needed), persist at them, and enjoy the journey of achieving them. The real self brings with it thoughts and fears of social evaluation, which tend to include negative emotions.


To capitalize on the findings of this research study, coaches should focus the beginning of their conversations on the ideal self. Ask questions such as:

  • What’s the future you’d like to see unfold here?

  • Who do you want to be in this situation?

  • What’s the best possible outcome?

  • If you could wave a magic wand, how would this situation change?

Based on the client’s responses, coaches should then transition to the real self to explore the gaps between ideal and real. When the real self is viewed through the lens of the ideal self rather than the ought self (externally imposed expectations), clients are more motivated to change and more open to new possibilities.

Additionally, focus on fortifying strengths rather than mitigating weaknesses. When a coach and client work together to leverage current strengths to find solutions, they lean into the client’s ideal self. When they instead try to fix the client’s weaknesses, they dwell in the real self and all the negative emotional baggage that includes. Strengths are aligned the ideal self because they are traits and skills one already possesses. Weaknesses, however, are deficits that are more aligned with the real self, thus engendering negative emotions.

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