Coachee Stuck? Try this Technique to Assess both Practical and Psychological Aspects of an Issue

When working with a client in a non-directive way it is key for us to contract effectively so that we always act in partnership and in the direction they want to pursue. That said, at times, clients might not know where that place might be or what could be the next step that they want to explore. So what do you do then?


If this happens, one thing I do early on in a coaching session is to establish whether the support that a client requires is more practical or psychological. I use a technique called the Dual-Systems Approach (originally developed by Neenan & Palmer, 2000), that helps a client assess what is happening in relation to an issue so they can establish where to go next. The focus of the technique is to very quickly categorise whether the client wants to explore something from a practical or a psychological starting point.

To illustrate this in practice I have used a fictitious example below. Picture an entrepreneur, Mark,  who has come to coaching following some recent setbacks from funding that he tried to secure for his start-up but lost. A redacted version of a coaching conversation together with some notes in italics for the purpose of explaining the technique follows.

Coach: So it seems there are a few things on your mind about this. To explore it further and break it down would it be okay if we worked on something together? (Key here is the coach contracting with the client and obtaining permission before going ahead. The coach has also provided a rationale as to why they are asking this question (i.e. the client has mentioned a variety of things and some clarity would be useful.)

Coachee: Sure.

Coach: (draws a table on a piece of paper as per the image below with two headings: Practical and Psychological. Note here that some clients might resonate more with the word ‘thoughts’ rather than ‘psychological factors’ so be aware of this. Either term works– it depends on the preference of the client you are working with.) If it’s okay I’ll ask you some questions about this situation and then we’ll plot your answers between these two areas. On one side we’ll write the psychological aspects or blocks that could be on your mind whilst on the other we’ll write down any practical steps that you might want to undertake. So, tell me a bit more about this situation as a starting point… (It is important that the coach shows the client what they are writing as this is a co-created piece of work. The table therefore needs to be clearly visible to both. I also like having an extra pen on the table so that if the client wants they can easily pick it up and write directly on my notes.)

Coachee: Well, I need to secure about a substantial amount of money for the Start-Up and I don’t know where to start at this point.  But what I am also noticing is that what is on my mind is the value I’m associating with this investment. (At this point I would start writing what the client says, ideally verbatim, in the relevant boxes.)

Coach: Do you mean the financial value?

Coachee: No actually… I mean the value that I associate with money. The security money gives me. I think that this loss of funding affected me not only because of the financial implications of growing the business but also as it has brought up feelings around why money is important. I mean of course I need to know what to do to secure this funding too…

Coach: Would you be able to describe these feelings to me? (When working with feelings coaches should be very aware not to label them for a client. Additionally I would be aware here of whether the client really means feelings or thoughts. A lot of clients will mention how they feel about something and then tell you what they think about it instead, which is different.)

Coachee: Well I grew up in a poor family and we always struggled for money. That thought or feeling rather stayed with me. Although now my family is much better off whenever I am in a situation like this, where I lose money or I have to pay money, I feel somewhat insecure. I know what I need to do to win the funding so I’m not worried about that. What is really on my mind is how I can get over this feeling I get when I deal with money. In a way I feel that money is controlling me and I want to get over that.

(As the dialogue pursues the coach keeps on writing things down. In this case the result could be something as per the image below. Upon completing this activity I would summarise it back using the exact same language as the client.)

Coach: So looking at this table and hearing me repeat back some of the key phrases that you have used does anything come to mind? What do you think?

Coachee: The first thing is that there’s a few more psychological things that seem to be getting in the way. Perhaps I should start with these?

Practical versus Psychological

We can say here that the coachee continues to discuss this further and decides to focus more on the psychological aspects which can lead the coach to using perhaps a more cognitive based approach to the coaching session. If the client had perhaps decided to focus on the practical steps then some more solutions-based questioning would be more appropriate. 

As seen through this example being able to establish, with the client, what type of coaching work they want to do is key. This is just one way how we can work with a client in a more integrative way, something that is explored in our ICF Diploma in Integrative Coaching

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