September 15, 2023

The problem with “problem talk”

Sometimes, life is hard for clients: the boss is unreasonable, their children are not doing what would be best for them, the circumstances prevent them from living the life that they want to live. Understandably, they want their coach to understand the severity of their situation and talk about what is wrong. Coaches may get antsy after a while. They assume that talking about what is wrong won’t get the client very far in solving the issue and might experience the impulse to “do something” to help the client out of “problem talk”. The impulse of the coach may be noticeable to the client and in the true spirit of “if you insist, I will resist” invite them to more stories about how difficult things are. After all, the coach does not seem to understand. So here is what to do when you feel yourself getting antsy with client’s “problem talk”.

Stop labeling it “problem talk”

I know that “problem talk” is a term used by Solution Focused trainers and experts when teaching the approach. It is a helpful shorthand when learning to invite clients to describe positive change instead. It is not a helpful term when it leads to the coach dismissing the client. So instead of labeling clients’ description of their difficulties as “problem talk to be avoided”, we might reframe it as “what the client already knows about what they do not want”. With this attitude, the coach is not criticizing the client (even in their thoughts) but experiencing the client as trying to be helpful.

Partner with the client

If you feel like you have enough information about what the client does not want, you might ask the client whether they would like to start talking about what they want instead. You could say something like: “I feel I have a good view of what you are trying to get away from – would you like us to explore what you would like instead or is there more you feel you need to tell me about the issue?”

Ask “what instead?”

“What instead?” is a really magic question. It acknowledges that things are difficult and invite a description of a positive change. Even if the client starts talking about the circumstances that may be different or what other people may be doing differently to make things better, it is always easier to invite the client to talk about what they might experiment with when there is a glimpse of a positive future.

Ask about the client and what is important to them

Suppose the client continues to talk about what other people should be doing instead, you might invite the client to explore what is important about this. I usually pick out the client’s important words to do that. For example: “You mentioned that you’d really like your boss to appreciate your work more, would you like to spend some time exploring what is important to you about this appreciation?” and then follow up by asking for observable change in the client: “Suppose you had more appreciation, what difference would it make? How would you notice? How would other people notice?”

Only then agree on the session goal

Partner with the client to figure out what the client wants from the session. More often than not clients know that they cannot change other people or that “complaining” won’t get them any further. Coaching agreements then could then range from: “How do I cope?” to “What can I change?” or “How do I change?” or even “How do I influence others?” and “How do I get more of the important thing (e.g., appreciation) in my life?”.

I hope to have given you some ideas on how to invite clients to describe what they want respectfully, in a partnering way, without judging them if they engage in “problem talk”. If you want to discuss things like these, see short demos, talk about cases or learn about our courses why don’t you join one of our free meetup and exchange sessions?

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