When to Coach the Problem versus Coaching the Person

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When to Coach the Problem versus Coaching the Person

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I received the following question from another agile coach the other day… 

I’m wondering if you might have a solution for an issue. Within our coaching circles, we see a lot of “coaching the problem, not the person.” We’ve done the “temperature” exercise, where the more impactful the question, the higher the temperature. However, I’m on the lookout for other exercises to do with groups to help them understand the difference between problem/person. Might you have any ideas? I’ve posted this question in a few different Slack channels and so on, but so far, nothing is coming up. 

And here are two resources that help to illustrate the challenge associated with the question—



As for your problem/people question. I don’t have a tool or particular tactic. Instead, I have an idea.

If we consider that sometimes the coaching context might be variable based on the situation and client’s needs, then sometimes it’s ok to coach the problem, and sometimes it’s better to coach the person. It then becomes a sense & response exercise of switching stances/approaches in your coaching. 

I think many folks can get confused about the situational nature and get stuck in their approach. 

Perhaps you could run some coaching dojos over time where folks experiment with scenarios or situations where they experiment with coaching the person. Perhaps starting with a demonstration of the technique but also explaining the why behind it. Then do the same thing for coaching the problem. Again, demonstrating what that looks like and explaining the why behind it. 

Then have folks run scenarios where they oscillate between those approaches so that they can experience more situations (sense, response, dancing with the client), practice, and begin to gain a better sense for each and when and how to apply them. 

I’ve been leveraging practice dojos/triads a lot of late and this is really a variation of that approach to practice our craft. Not sure that helps, but it’s my only idea at the moment 😉

I haven’t heard back from the questioner, so I don’t know whether they tried my suggestion or whether it was helpful. But I hope they do and I hope it is.

I guess the conclusion that I’m coming to is this.

If my role is as a professional coach, then I should always be coaching the person and not the problem. To stray into the problem breaks some of the core tenants of professional coaching.

But, if my role is as an agile coach, then I should realize that there are times (client situations & contexts) when I should coach the person and times (client situations & contexts) when it’s best to coach the problem.

This challenge normally shouldn’t surface in professional coaching, because the focus and nuance are generally so clear. The problem or challenge is for the agile coach. It requires deep and broad experiential skills to determine which directional approach is appropriate and when.

But I think the critical point here is to realize that, as agile coaches, we have a responsibility to be able to coach in both directions in service to our clients. And that, as my reply implies, often requires situational awareness, breadth of competencies and skills, and ongoing practice.

Stay agile my friends,


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