Are problems really the problem?

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Written by Stephen Manley on 16 December 2019 in Opinion

Stephen Manley takes a new approach to problem solving.

Reading time: 2 minutes 30 seconds

With problem solving I often find myself working with groups of stakeholders who may be impacted by the problem and I follow a structured, tried and tested method to seek out the root cause(s).

Have you ever noticed how traditional problem solving approaches can often start with a gusto but quickly lose momentum, despite the compelling need to reverse the situation?

So how does problem solving work in coaching in one-to-one situations?

The essence of coaching is about helping the coachee to develop resources for themselves which will help them bring about change for themselves and move forward.

This is largely achieved through the coach skilfully asking questions to guide the thinking of their coachee towards what it is they want to achieve.

One of the key themes within coaching is problem solving, although the previously mentioned approaches might not be best approach to follow. 

The deeper you take someone into the problem, the more it can negatively impact their mindset. In a way, there can be a problem, with this approach to problem solving when coaching.

Let me try to explain this …

Traditional problem solving takes you down an investigative spiral to identify the root cause(s) – which is very effective in certain situations – especially when looking at processes.

Instead of going deeper into the problem, focus on changing how the coachee thinks about the problem

However, when you're coaching, this approach can take a coachee deeper into the problem and the problem mindset – which ultimately can leave them feeling less resourceful about how to move forward.

This invariably leads to little action, and almost definitely no change.

The coaching approach to problem solving can differ as we’re looking to break or disrupt the problem mindset so that new solutions can be identified – with a fresh perspective and new insights.

So instead of going deeper into the problem, one coaching approach can be to do the complete opposite – focus on changing how the coachee thinks about the problem.

If they think about it differently, they will not be constrained by the problem itself and hence become more resourceful.

So, as a coach, it can be useful to balance any tendency to explore the ‘why’ of the problem with the question ‘what do you want instead of this problem?’ if you want to build motivation towards a problem-free future for your coachee.


Further still we can disrupt their thinking to create a new mindset that opens up exciting new possibilities and insights that might never come from simply seeking out root causes.

To experience this yourself, try this great free resource that I recently came across. The Unsticker is a free app on Android, or on iPhone use this link.

The instruction from the developers is simple: Think of a problem, try to hold it tightly in your mind, then keep on asking yourself questions until you feel the problem changing. When you're ready for the next question, just click the Unstick! button.

Most people report that after four or five questions, either their perspective of the problem has changed dramatically, or the problem seems to be ‘solved’ altogether.

Problems can often come along and disrupt us from making progress in our lives. Maybe the way forward is to fight fire with fire and be disruptive back to our problems.


About the author

Stephen Manley is the coaching director at Spitfire Consultancy who are registered with the Association for Coaching


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