Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry

by Marcia Reynolds

Marcia Reynolds trains leaders how to use a coaching approach. “Coaching should be a process of inquiry, not a series of questions. The intent of inquiry is not to find solutions but to provoke critical thinking about our own thoughts. Inquiry helps the people being coached discern gaps in their logic, evaluate their beliefs, and clarify fears and desires affecting their choices. Solutions emerge when thoughts are rearranged and expanded.”

“When people are overwhelmed, stressed, and angry, coaching reminds them of their purpose, visions, and power to move forward.”

“Coaches are essentially thinking partners focused on helping clients use their creativity and resources to see beyond their blocks and solve their own problems… Coaching is best used when clients have some knowledge and skills to draw on but they aren’t sure about the options, what’s best to do first, or the reasons for their own uncertainty.”

The term “reflective inquiry” was coined by John Dewey in his 1910 book How We Think. “Adding reflective statements to questions makes coaching feel more natural and effortless. You don’t have to worry about formulating the breakthrough question.”

The author makes a distinction between transactional and transformational coaching. “Coaching the person, not the problem, by using reflective inquiry is the cornerstone of transformational coaching.” The approach is “developmental (expanding clients’ perspective) instead of operational (exploring what didn’t work and how to fix it)… The changes in their beliefs and behaviors that occur when you focus on their thinking instead of just options and consequences are enduring yet adaptable.”

FOCUS. “When people say they have no idea what to do, ask if they have no idea or if they questioning a solution that comes to mind. I often find that people who say they don’t know what to do actually do know. They have a solution but are afraid to use it. In such cases I might say, ‘You have many life experiences. I bet you have some ideas’ or ‘If you had nothing to lose, what would you try?’ or ‘Have you ever observed someone else in this position or scenario—might you try what you observed or do the opposite?’ If they still have no ideas, put on your mentoring hat and offer options.”

“Often, exploring what they didn’t do will reveal what is at the source of their hesitation.”

“Coaches will often pause to let their clients think. If the pause is unbearably long, the coach might offer a reflection and question such as ‘It looks like you are considering something. What is coming up for you now?’”

“Processing new information can take days… Sometimes the best learning happens in the time between coaching sessions… Remember, the impact of coaching often happens after the session is over. The shift in perception embeds when clients apply what they learned about themselves to their daily lives.”

ACTIVE REPLAY. “One of my favorite phrases in coaching is, ‘So, you are telling me…’ Then I restate the issue, problem, or outcome expressed and the key factors the client says is making it difficult to take action. The client will either agree or correct my perception without asking a question. Although you are highlighting, don’t leave out a jarring detail. Often a side comment expressed with a shift in emotion reveals the big belief that is creating the client’s block.”

“When you have compassionate curiosity, you accept what your clients feel without judgment. You don’t use questions to change their feelings. You question the source of their reactions to understand the relationship of an emotion to their desired outcome.”

BRAIN HACKING. “Because our brains don’t like uncertainty and are adept at assigning meaning to our moments, we instantly compose stories using our beliefs, biases, and assumptions. Some stories are laced with fears. Some are lined with desires and hopes.”

“Coaching at the story level is a good place to start. When listening to a client’s story, the coach can pinpoint key beliefs holding the story together. The coach can also see and inquire about gaps in logic and unverified assumptions that paralyze action.”

“Coaching the story often leads to more options for action than what clients thought they had to choose from. The verbalization might clarify the choice the client wants to make but is avoiding the discomfort of making.”

“Encourage your clients to discuss their feelings. What was the betrayal? What was so disrespectful? What was annoying or unbelievable? Letting clients process their emotions will help them understand the unfulfilled needs that triggered their reactions.”

OUTCOMES. “Articulating the outcome is the conduit between uncertainty and progress.”

“The outcome often takes time to emerge. Once they envision an outcome they truly want, not one that others want for them, clients are more willing to commit to at least one step that will move them forward.”

“Whether the outcome subtly shifts or it completely changes, you need to notice the shifts and changes and then make sure the client is okay with altering the direction of the conversation. Your client may choose to go back to the original outcome. Your job is to ensure the conversation is moving in a desired direction throughout the conversation so you don’t chase your client down distracting side roads.”

“Wrapping up the session with a commitment to do at least one thing, even if it’s taking time to reflect on the session, strengthens their conviction to act when doubts or busyness creep in.”

PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. “The coach’s responsibility is to create the conditions for clients to feel safe enough to say what is on their minds. Employee engagement expert William Kahn described psychological safety as ‘being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.’”

IT’S THEIR JOURNEY. “Never lose sight that the journey is theirs to take. You are their thinking partner. They choose the direction, clarify the options, and make the decisions… To be a nonreactive thinking partner, strive to remove [the word I]from your conversation. If you fully immerse yourself in the conversation and resist the need to tell your opinion or story, you can maintain a strong connection with your client.”

TRUST. Coaches must create a bond of trust, be genuinely curious, and believe in the client’s potential. “If their brains detect even a likelihood that the conversation will feel patronizing or contrived, they become defensive or mentally retreat. Connection is lost.”

RECEIVE, DON’T JUST LISTEN. “Receiving is an active, not passive act. To fully receive, you need to be aware of your sensory reactions as well as your mental activity. With sensory awareness, you can receive and discern what is going on with others beyond the words they speak.”

Reynolds quotes Henry Miller’s novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957): “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Reynolds, Marcia. Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020. Buy from

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