Coach the Person, not the Problem (Podcast #60)
Maik Frank

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What is one observable key differentiator between a novice coach and a more experienced one? The experienced coach focuses on coaching THE PERSON, not THE PROBLEM that the client has. If this statement makes your eyes go glazed, read on. It’s one of the most important things for us to learn as Leader Coaches to be effective.

(Please note: I refer to the person being coached generally as the ‘client’ in this article, regardless whether they are a paid client, a peer, a team member who gets coached etc.)

A coach who coaches THE PROBLEM tries (with all their power and positive intent) to help the client resolve the actual issue they could be a presentation they have to prepare, a snarky colleague that they don’t know how to talk to etc. Coach and client take apart the problem, analyse it. The coach may even ask the client how they would fix it. Yet, this is not the most powerful coaching. Why? People often come to us after they have already explored a lot around their problem, often in an exhaustive way. They are stuck. In this situation, they will benefit a lot from a changed perspective, a reframe. They need to identify a likely blind spot.

Yet, a blind spot and different perspective are hard to establish alone. Enter: the experienced coach, who is trained to help in exactly that area.
This is what coaching THE PERSON accomplishes. The coach focuses on something entirely different here: on the relationship that the client has TO THE PROBLEM. Questions are geared towards exploring that relationship. The coach will also share neutral observations that help the client gain new awareness about their situation and problem.

In this article and related podcast episode, we look at some examples to show the difference between coaching THE PROBLEM vs coaching THE PERSON. We also explore the impact of coaching in these different ways and give some simple tips that help us remember to coach more powerfully.

How could it sound when a coach coaches THE PROBLEM?


Client: “I don’t know how to deal with James any more. He does not weigh in enough at all. How do think I should talk to him about this?”

Coach: “Well, luckily I know James. So let’s talk about him. I am curious to know what you think drives him and what you can do to help him change. I also have a few ideas what you can do.

In this example the conversation will likely be about James, a person who is not even in the room. Having a conversation about someone who is not in the coaching conversation can also be called ‘coaching the ghost’. It’s rarely effective.


Client: “I have two candidates for this position, and they are equally good. Who should I hire?”

Coach: “Well, good that you have this choice of candidates! Since you ask, how about we both explore about the decision factors and go through pros and cons for each, so we can figure this out together, ok? I am curious about your thoughts!”

While the coach does a good job giving autonomy to the client in finding ideas, we are operating at a level of ‘thinking something through’ linearly, i.e., pros and cons. While this can be useful undoubtedly, it is likely not the way to build long-term capability and autonomy in the client.


Client: “There are so many things going on now, and I can’t figure out what to delegate. What would you do?”

Coach: “Well, I feel for you. I had the same challenge so many times. How about I share with you a few things that worked for me and then lets discuss in detail which topics you should delegate first? How does that sound?”

Here again, the coach goes right into the actual detail of the optic, i.e., where can we delegate. However, it is useful to remember that the topics that our clients bring may not be the most useful things for them to talk about. With a bit of help (and coaching the person instead) we could get to a much more productive conversation.

In all three responses, we start coaching the PROBLEM. This is already helpful, but far away from the powerful coaching that a Leader can deliver: to coach the PERSON, as they relate TO THE PROBLEM.

How might coaching THE PERSON sound instead in the beginning?


Client: “I don’t know how to deal with James any more. He does not weigh in enough at all. How do think I should talk to him about this?”

Coach“I heard you want to deal with James and that you want to talk to him. What makes talking to them the right thing to do?”

It is clear to the client that they need to deal with it by talking about it. It is often helpful in this moment for the client to remember the significance/importance of doing that, as it creates a motivational pull. That’s why we can ask, what makes it the right thing to do.


Client: “I have two candidates for this position, and they are equally good. Who should I hire?”

Coach: “First of all, congratulations for having this choice. And it sounds like an important decision to make. Now, I know you as a resourceful person. I wonder at this moment, what makes it challenging for you to make this decision?”

As coaches, we deeply believe in our clients’ general ability to solve things for themselves. Our role is to help them recognise obstacles and overcome them in the their own way. In this example response, the coach shows their believe in the client’s resourcefulness and asks a question to get closer to the actual challenge that the client has in relation to the problem (making a decision). By doing this, we are entering a path that is more likely to build long-term autonomy and skill in the client solving their own future problems.


Client: “I have two candidates for this position, and they are equally good. Who should I hire?”

Coach: “Thank you for sharing. I can imagine how torn apart you must feel with all these things going on. I notice you bring up delegating as the possible solution for your situation. So what’s the relationship between the volume of work you face and delegating for you?”

In this response the coach notices two discreet concepts in the client’s story: the volume of work (and overwhelm) and their choice to delegate. While the relationship between them sounds obvious to us, as a coach we know we should never assume that we have the same understanding as our client. Instead, it is useful to inquire how they view the relationship. It could be the potential source of a blind spot.


The 3 examples above illustrate how different coaching THE PROBLEM and coaching THE PERSON can sound. While coaching THE PROBLEM may feel more gratifying in the moment, it is much less likely to build capability and skill in the client int he long run.

Coaching THE PERSON is a lot more powerful, yet it requires the use of learned and practiced coaching skills. I know many Leaders who can easily accomplish to coach someone on their PROBLEM, but they fall way short on the much more powerful coaching that they could accomplish if the had learned to coach THE PERSON with skill and focus.

The good news: It can be learned and our own IntelliCoach Leader Academy Program (ILAP) is exactly designed to help Leaders build the skill they need to accomplish great coaching with their peers and team members that goes beyond superficial transactional and problem coaching. In our 4 months-long online training, Leaders will participate in a journey where they unlearn and relearn a lot of communication skills. It is suitable for Leaders at all levels.

Are you curious to find out whether it could be for you? Have a look at the Leader Academy, link right below.

All the best! Maik

Resources and Links:

The IntelliCoach Leader Academy Program:

“Coach the person, not the problem” by Marcia Reynolds:

“Coach the Person Not the Problem” by Chad Hall:

About ‘Coaching the Ghost’, a scenario mentioned in ‘The Coaching Habit’ by Michael Bungay Stanier:

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A few words about Maik

Maik is on a mission to give world-class coaching skills to every People Leader. He is a seasoned PCC Executive Coach, experienced online/offline Program Facilitator and founder of, based in Singapore. He has a background in technology and governance and over 15 years of work experience in the mining, tech and coaching industry as a Specialist, People Leader and Coach. Maik has coached and trained more than 400 People Leaders to level up their communication impact and become more coach-like with their stakeholders. Why? The ability to help others without giving advice right away is still rare to be found. However, it is key to (1) building self-reliant, empowered teams and to (2) sustaining trusting and fast relationships with stakeholders in general.

Maik stands out by offering guaranteed measurable growth to his clients. He speeds up his their progress with an exciting mix of self-discovery, laser-sharp mental models, relevant skill practice and creative use of online technology. Maik also hosts the Coaching Leader Podcast (search for Intellicoach) to give Leaders anywhere in the world easy access to simple yet powerful coaching tools.

You will get our regular blog posts, extra resources from the podcast and information about our upcoming courses and webinars.

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