Thursday, January 7, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Solve Problems

Compared to psychotherapy, coaching is more focused and directed. It helps with defining goals, making plans, and executing those plans. Or it might work toward solving problems.

Where psychotherapy is about how you feel, coaching is about rational deliberation about addressing and solving real problems in the real world.

At its origin psychotherapy was anything but focused. Freud insisted that his patients free associate, meaning that they had to say whatever came to mind, regardless of the effect it produced on the listener.

The hallmark of successful free association was a scattered collections of disconnected fragments. The more illogical, presumably the freer. The less connected with reality, the freer. In truth, free association was an exercise in learned rudeness.

It was not an accident that this method left real problems unsolved. The more you are concerned with your mental productions, the less you will be able to focus on specific problems, analyze their complexity, and develop a plan to solve them.

The first therapists were masters of mental space; they thought that reality was a distraction, and that real problems could wait.

Coaching works differently. Coaches do not just sit back and let their clients babble on. They engage a conversation; they try to make a connection; they show respect; they take the client's problems to be in real need of a solution. They do not believe that these problems will magically solve themselves once the client comes to understand his unresolved issues.

More than conversation, coaching involves questioning. Questioning in the sense of working together. Part of a coach's talent involves asking the right questions without appearing to be an interrogator.

A coach asks questions to fill out the picture, to elicit information, and to get the facts. He will want to explore all of the angles, see the problem from all sides, and examine all of the possible solutions.

Without the coach's questioning many salient facts about a situation will often be ignored or forgotten. Clients take the facts for granted, perhaps because they are anxious to solve the problem right away, or perhaps because the therapy culture has conditioned them to think that feelings matter more than facts.

Facts also matter more than the narrative. Most clients have already constructed a narrative to explain what is happening to them. Sometimes the narrative will preclude any action that might solve the problem; sometimes it will incite to action that will further the interests of the narrative and undermine the interests of the client.

Narratives always have a slant. They edit facts selectively, sometimes to make the client look good, sometimes to make the client look bad, sometimes to sustain specific emotions.

A good coach will be able to ask the kinds of questions that allow the client to exit the space of narrative.

Coaches who accept narratives as statements of fact are simply not doing their job. They are joining their clients in jumping to conclusions before fully understanding the situation.

All coaches, I daresay, have found themselves offering recommendations that do not stand up to full knowledge of the facts.

Once a problem's complexity is grasped, the solution will often be clear to all concerned. Or else, both coach and client will see the different possible solutions. Rational deliberation involves choosing among several possible solutions.

The work of coaching is always collaborative. If the client feels that the coach has pulled a solution out of his hat, or is trying to dictate it, he will be less likely to implement it.

In some situations, the client will go home, think things over, and come up with a solution that had not been discussed with the coach. Well and good. As long as he defines and implements action that addresses the problem, he is moving in the right direction.

After implementation, reality will tell you whether the solution has been good or bad? Reality is the final judge of the value of any piece of advice.

Does the solution work or doesn't it? Does it advance the client's interest or not? Does it make the client feel like more of an active participant in his life or does it make him feel that he is still at the mercy of circumstances?

Of course, you may do exactly the right thing and still not get the job or the lover. No one wins all the time. Yet, win or lose, the client should be able to walk away with his head held high. Dignity always trumps acquisition or even bliss.

If reality shows that the decision is wrong, both client and coach will return to the drawing board, to effect a mid-course correction.

Wrong does not necessarily mean irrational. It's possible to make a perfectly rational decision, implement it correctly, and not have it work out. It is never a good idea to blame the client for being overly emotional. Undermining confidence does not lead to success.

In some case the client cannot implement the decision, or becomes so disappointed after a first failure, that he will withdraw from the fray.

A good coach will explain to him that decision-making and problem-solving involve reality checks. Once reality has cast aspersions on your decisions, you need to make that extra effort to try again.

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