Home/Executive Coaching Step 3: Problem Definition

Executive Coaching Step 3: Problem Definition


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy. At Intact Academy, you can participate in accredited training to become a kick ass business coach or agile consultant. Within Team Agility, we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products. We’ve created a model for that. And we take you through that in 32 weeks – with a guarantee. 

I’m talking about executive coaching. I introduced the general model and the steps of contact and contract. Now I want to talk about problem definition in executive coaching. 

Problem definition is a science and an art. Where should you focus your interventions? A client will tell you about all sorts of problems at all sorts of levels. It is really important in the coaching that you help them discern what problems are root causes. This influences what you do with your client first. 

I find transactional analysis really helpful as a model for problem definition. 

The way I like to think about problems is there’s a level one behavioural, level two relational or level three existential problem that a client brings.  Sometimes they bring all three at the same time. 

Level one problem definition

First, I look for what’s happening at the behavioural level. From a TA standpoint we look at what kind of functional ego states the client is using. How are they talking to me? What are the transactions that I can see? How are they talking to me? Are they being active or passive? Are they showing me behaviours like doing nothing, agitation or violence? 

I’m also looking at how and what emotions they express. Sometimes people express emotions that are secondary, that they’ve learned to express instead of their authentic feeling. For instance, lots of guys that come to me for executive coaching (90% of my clients are men in executive positions) and express anger over fear. We call that anger a racket feeling and the authentic feeling might be the fear. 

At the first level of problem definition I’m looking for patterns of behaviour. How people say things tells you something about what’s going on for them inside. For instance, an executive says, “I’m always fighting with my boss.” During the conversation with me, I can see how he might do that as a pattern. For instance, he over adapts to me, and then he starts to challenge and compete with my position, even in the first coaching conversation. 

Level two problem definition

At the second level of problem definition I look at what might be going on inside for them. We call that the structural ego state in transactional analysis. What might they have integrated for themselves, learned from their parents, about what they must do?  What patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour might they have picked up on how to be successful?  How has this person learned to survive? 

I’m also thinking, how are they relating to me? Are they relating to me as equal? Or are they relating at an unequal level, either making themselves smaller or larger? I ask  how might this person have related to friends and family in previous parts of their life? Does that inform me in any way about how they can get into trouble in their life here and now?  It’s interesting to see how people might create symbiosis in those first sessions of coaching. 

I also look to see if they are running rackets or playing psychological games. That’s usually preceded by discounting, when they blank out potentially problem solving information in the here and now. For instance, one client came back to me because he wanted to stop smoking. He’s an intelligent guy, he knows it’s unhealthy for him, so why is he still smoking? I heard him say, “Actually, I don’t smoke that much.” When I checked, he said, “I smoke two packs a day.” I thought that’s quite a lot in my world. When I asked: what’s the problem? He said, “You know, I know it’s unhealthy in general, but I don’t have a problem with it. My father also smoked till he was 92. He was never sick a day in his life.” I could now understand how he could keep on smoking despite all his information about it. We call that discounting. I wrote an article about it in the TAJ called the resistance cycle.

At this second level I look at what’s going on in the relationship with me, and in the relationship with yourself, internally. There’s a lot more to be said about that. But I’ve done that in earlier blogs. So please look those up on YouTube

Level three problem definition

At the third level of problem definition I look at what historic and existential factors might play a role. Is this a repeating pattern? Something they haven’t learned in their past? Is it an identity or values question?

For instance, if they come from very conflictual families, maybe that’s the pattern they’ve gotten used to, and they repeat it later in life. Does it have to do with their narrative? The story they tell themselves about their life? We call that life script. When children are very young they make up a story about how they’re going to live, how they’re going to die, what kind of person they will be in their life. We call that life script, the bass tone in life. 

I’m already thinking about what’s the smallest step I can take in a relationship with the client to change what they’re living from their past in the here and now. 

There’s lots to think about in this problem definition stage. Let me know how you get on.

Published On: December 15th, 2020By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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