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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Whoever solves the problem owns the solution

Inexperienced coaches, and even some seasoned coaches that lack proper training, can easily find themselves in an all-too-common predicament.

Tasked with helping a client (e.g., teacher, executive) grow, the coach brings a wealth of knowledge to the engagement. An expert problem solver, the coach is a reservoir of tips that help the client avoid pitfalls and consistently move forward.

Or so it seems.

Coaches who are overly helpful often find that they are stuck on a codependent merry-go-round. Rather than true growth and self-sustainability, the coach, who is acting as "helper-in-chief", bears the weight of the cognitive load and oftentimes shows more commitment to action than the one being coached.

Whoever solves the problem owns the solution.

Imagine teaching your teenager how to drive. You dedicate time to hitting the road together, investing energy into doing it right and sweating the small stuff. You discuss how to properly align the mirrors, how to adjust the seat to the correct distance from the steering wheel, and etiquette when approaching an uncontrolled intersection. You call out when to signal, how to make a smooth stop at a signal, and when a yellow light means to speed up and when it means to slow down quickly.

All while you drive and your child observes from the passenger seat.

As ridiculous as this might sound, for we know that children learn to drive by actually driving themselves rather than by watching skilled drivers, coaching can take the same approach when helping and being the expert overtake true client growth.

How to avoid problem solving

If coaches want to truly be a though partner for their clients, they need to first and foremost let the clients solve their own problems. Knowing that the energy needed to see a solution through to completion comes from reflective inquiry and not from being helped by a well-meaning coach, coaches would do well to keep these three truths in mind when coaching others.

  1. The client is able to solve his or her own problems. While this might not seem revolutionary, many coaches do not hold their clients able as evidenced by their questions, attitudes, and actions. Coaches will never be able to escape the role of "helper-in-chief" if they view themselves as the only ones who are competent and skilled.

  2. Actively monitor which seat you are in. While talking with your client, keep a running tab of which seat you are in. If you find yourself in the driver's seat, or even in the passenger's seat but reaching over to lightly place a hand on the wheel, stop and orient yourself. Unless you want to be on the hook for implementing the solution and troubleshooting the inevitable obstacles that will arise, step back and find the most useful space for you to be in.

  3. Curate a list of questions that support being a thought partner. Committing to holding the client able is all well and good, but it means nothing if every question you ask leads toward you taking control of the conversation (and the solution). Here are some of my favorite questions to ask that keep me in my proper place during a coaching conversation:

  • How would you like to think about this? This helps the client build context for the situation, which places them (not you) in the center and invites them to give direction on how you could best help.

  • What's the real challenge here for you? Probably the most flexible and utilitarian tool in my conversational toolkit, this query from Michael Bungay Stanier helps the client define the issue and get to the root of the problem.

  • What do you need to have/happen to accomplish your goal? Identifying the obstacles is an important step for clients to begin to identify solutions that work for them.

  • Who/How do you want to be in this situation? This question places the client within the larger situation and allows them space to reflect on how they want to show up in the midst of the problem.

  • What's becoming clearer to you? When it's time for the client to identify next steps and commit to action, it becomes increasingly tempting to end the conversation with a succinct summary that wraps everything up in a bow. When you do this, however, you end up jerking the wheel away from the client and are on the hook for the solution as well.

Whoever solves the problem owns the solution. Clients only grow when they, not the coach, are the real problem solvers in the coaching encounter.

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