In coaching, we help our clients to achieve goals, realize their potential, get better at things and we support them in discovering what is important to them. Sometimes our clients come to us in order to come to terms with a situation that is out of their control: they have lost their jobs, a relationship has ended, the new boss isn’t someone they would have chosen to work. There might also be other external circumstances like the one we are currently experiencing in the COVID-19 crisis that make life difficult for our clients.

So, how do we help our clients when the coaching topic does not seem to be about what to achieve, but what to get away from? How do we help our clients when there seems to be nothing that they can do about the situation at hand?

In Solution Focused coaching we distinguish between “problems” and “limitations”. A problem is defined by the fact that a solution is possible. The limitation is something that we cannot change. The best way to turn a limitation into a solvable “problem” or a goal in a coaching session is by framing the agreement around how to come to terms and deal with the limitation.

Here is an example:

Client: My business is in danger and I have lost many contracts. I can no longer go out due to lockdown and it’s making me antsy and demotivated. I really don’t know what to do, and I just wish all the stuff was over. I’m just so done sitting at home with my kids doing nothing.
Coach: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It seems like the situation is making life difficult for you. How are you coping?
Client: Well, I am trying to keep a regular schedule, I get up in the morning and I also have an exercise bike that I use every once in a while. All that helps me keep my sanity a bit.
Coach: So, a regular schedule and exercising helps you stay sane?
Client: Yeah but I am really struggling. Especially since I am very worried about my business.
Coach: I’m hearing a couple of things that seem important to you here: staying at home and keeping your sanity, staying motivated and keeping your business afloat — does that sound about right?
Client: Yes, that’s it
Coach: Which of these would you like to explore further — or are they related?
Client: I think the main thing for me to explore today is how to stay sane and keep calm because it seems like that’s the prerequisite for dealing with my business.
Coach: Okay. So, exploring how to stay sane and keep calm. Suppose you managed to stay sane and keep calm, what would be the first thing that you’d notice that would tell you?

 Here are the coaching moves illustrated in the above example:

  • Separating the person from the problem (a technique from narrative therapy)

Instead of saying “you are having difficulties”, the coach replies “the situation is making life difficult for you”. This invites the client to imagine the problem as outside of the him- or herself. The problem becomes something that the client can come to terms with or deal with and is not identified as “belonging to” the client (i.e. “my” problem)

  • Assuming that the client already does things to cope with the situation

The coach asks what the client is already doing, feeling, thinking in order to cope.

  • Picking up on what the client wants instead and not on what the client does not want

The client stated that he or she wants to keep calm and sane and that the business is in trouble. The coach picks up these important words and asks whether the client wants to explore any of those.

  • Agreeing on what the client wants to work on (something in his / her influence)

Once the client has picked something that they want to work on, which is in their realm of influence (e.g. dealing with the limitation), invite the client to explore in detail what that looks like in order to come to a more fully understood coaching agreement later on.

  • Continuing the discussion in the direction of the desired outcome

Gently lead the client back to what it is that they want rather than what it is that they don’t want if the conversation reverts to discussing why and how the situation is very difficult. This can be done by empathizing again, acknowledging that the situation is making life difficult for the client and asking what makes the client confident that they will be able to make a positive change for themselves.

If you would like to explore topics like this are other topics related to coaching come to our free coaching meet up an exchange that is run every week. To register click here:

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