Let’s not talk about the past…

“If I do not understand my client’s issue how can I support them in reaching a resolution and improving themselves?”


This week I spent an amazing couple of days supporting an organisation in developing their line managers into executive coaches. As part of the discussions held one key question, that typically always arises when training coaches, kept us busy for a whole afternoon. 

“If I do not understand my client’s issue how can I support them in reaching a resolution and improving themselves?”

Understanding the rationale behind not wanting to get the client into detail exploring an issue is important for coaches and line managers and is particularly key for people who want to progress from being good coaches to great ones.

Here are four reasons why:

  1. ​Focusing on understanding the client’s issues and challenges will require the coach to ask a lot (and I mean, a lot!) of questions in the past. Although this is not necessarily a negative thing as the past sometimes needs to be explored it can mean that the client ends up using most of the session to describe and explore what has happened rather than focusing on what they are going to do. The coach here needs to ask him or herself – is me understanding the past truly for the benefit of the individual in front of me?
  2. Getting the client to delve into the past whilst looking for faults and what made something difficult can bring about a range of negative emotions. Certainly some questions, based in the past, can be key to unlocking the future development of a client, e.g. exploring what worked well in the past and how they could use it again for a specific or new scenario. This can be truly motivating as the client typically feels more positive and encouraged because they remind themselves that they can reproduce strategies that have previously worked. If however, our focus is for us to understand a specific past challenge without moving them forward, then the client can get demotivated and stuck.

  3. Reaching a resolution to a particular issue might not necessarily be the client’s goal. It could be your intention here to want the client to progress by resolving something. However, sometimes, clients might just want to sit with the issue in order to decide what to do next. For example, the client’s way of moving forward is by acknowledging the ambivalence they are feeling rather than by resolving it. Therefore, us asking questions to resolve a particular challenge could be detrimental to a coaching session.
  4. Your role as a coach is not to resolve the challenge for a client. Doing so can cause issues in the coaching relationship especially if the client starts seeing you as the Parent (think Transactional Analysis here where the coach takes the Parent role and the coachee the Child role). 

So what can we do as coaches and line managers? 
The key thing to do is to let go of the feeling that in order to be a great coach you need to fully understand the issue that the client is facing. Instead, develop your ability to centre your questions mainly about the future. For example, instead of asking “Tell me about the [issue]” try using a question like “So, what needs to be different here?” You will notice that the client will engage more with you this way and ultimately develop themselves even further.

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