Solution-focused vs. problem-focused coaching questions

Problem talk creates problems. Solution talk creates solutions. – Steve de Shazer (1940-2005)

This being the Holiday Season, I would like to share with you a great gift that Anthony M. Grant and Sean A. O’Connor gave to the Solution-Focused Coaching community this year: a pilot study of “the differential effects of problem-focus and solution-focused coaching questions”.

From the abstract:

Findings – Both the problem-focused and the solution-focused conditions are effective at enhancing goal approach. However, the solution-focused group experience significantly greater increases in goal approach compared with the problem-focused group. Problem-focused questions reduce negative affect and increase self-efficacy but do not increase understanding of the nature of the problem or enhance positive affect. The solution-focused approach increases positive affect, decreases negative affect, increases self-efficacy as well as increasing participants’ insight and understanding of the nature of the problem.

And from the Summary:

Problem-focused questions reduced negative affect and increased self-efficacy. However, the solution-focused questions were overall more effective, providing the same benefits as the problem-focused condition while also increasing positive affect and participants’ understanding of the nature of the problem. Overall it seems that while both problem-focused and solution-focused questions are effective, generally, solution-focused coaching questions are more effective than problem-focused questions. [my emphasis]

Thank you Anthony and Shean!!

The differential effects of solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions: a pilot study with implications for practice by Anthony M. Grant and Sean A. O’Connor, in: “Industrial and Commercial Training”, vol. 42, No.2, 2010, pp.102-111.

“Visitor”, “Complainant”, “Customer” revisited – review

“People are hard if not impossible to change. Relationships are almost as hard to change. Conversations, on the other hand, are relatively easy to change, especially if one is aware of the roles each participant is taking and is skillful at inviting changes in those roles” – Phillip B. Ziegler

In a short paper which appears in Doing Something Different: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Practices (Thorana S. Nelson, ed), Phillip B. Ziegler contributes a simple yet  key distinction that might be very useful to Solution-Focused practitioners.

Traditionally, SF practitioners are taught that clients can be in a visitor, complainant or customer relationship vis-a-vis therapy/ coaching.

Someone who is in a visitor relationship might be a mandated client, somebody who shows up because someone else (the justice system, the spouse, family or, in coaching, management) told him or her to.

Clients who are in a complainant relationship with the SF practitioner are not yet ready to work towards a solution, they first need to voice their concerns and they need to feel validated.

Clients who are in a customer relationship are ready and willing to work towards their goals and to take responsibility for it.

During SF training, a great deal of emphasis is given to the fact that these terms are to be used to characterize the relationship, and not the client – we want to avoid to label the client.

However, as the author of the paper points out: “a visitor is someone who is visiting, a complainant is a person who is complaining and a customer is a ready buyer” - in natural language those terms refer to people, not to relationship.

In a simple yet brilliant move Ziegler suggests to introduce the other term of the relationship, i.e. the SF practitioner, in those formulations.

Therefore, we have:




This way:

– the focus is clearly on the relationship, and any temptation to label the client is warded off

– the interactional nature of SF, which is its essence, is properly re-established; and it makes you wonder that a discipline that places so much emphasis on language and its nuances did not come up with something like this before…

roles are implicitly suggested for the SF practitioner: to be a host when the person approaches as a visitor, to sympathize when the client needs to be heard and to help clients find their own way forward  when they are ready. An effective partnership is set for every possible scenario.

– the name of the game is recognizing which kind of conversation is taking place and therefore in which role the SF practitioner can best be useful to the client.

As Ziegler points out: “being able to recognize what kind of conversation is occurring is extremely helpful; knowing also how to invite, respectfully decline, and offer counter-invitations are essential skills”.

“Visitor”, “Complainant”, “Customer” Revisited by Phillip B. Ziegler in Doing Something Different: Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Practices, Thorana S. Nelson ed., Routledge, New York, 2010.

Coaching Plain & Simple – book review

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of “The Little Prince”, once wrote: Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

According to that definition, this little book is perfection.

In 100-pages Peter Szabó, Daniel Meier and Kirsten Dierolf manage to distill the essence of Solution-Focused Brief Coaching.

The beginner coach will find in the book a useful framework for leading a successful coaching conversation:

– Reaching a Coaching Agreement

– Discovering a Preferred Future

– Finding Resources and Precursors of Solutions

– Defining Progress Clues

– Coming to a Session Conclusion

– Follow-up Sessions

The experienced coach will discover in the book the fascinating simplicity of the Solution-Focused approach, with a clear illustration of its key assumptions, jargon-free:

– Solution-Building is a Fast Track to Problem Solving

– Clients Already have Experience with the Solution

– When in Doubt, Trust the Client

– Not Knowing is Useful

together with some case studies that bring home the essence of Solution-Focused Coaching.

Do not be led astray by the simplicity of the book – it is built on years of coaching experience by the authors.

There is a difference between 100 pages that are all the authors can say on a topic, and 100 pages that are the essence of the 1,000 pages the authors could write on a subject. Clearly “Coaching Plain & Simple” belongs to the latter category. A small little gem.

Parents as coaches?

It is not coaching.

And it is definitely not Solution-Focused.

However, the concept of parental guidance put forward by psychologist George W. Holden in his research article Childrearing and Developmental Trajectories: Positive Pathways, Off-ramps, and Dynamic Processes does remind me of coaching.


In his conceptual framework, Holden hypothesizes that parents guide their children’s development in four complex and dynamic ways:

• Parents initiate trajectories, sometimes trying to steer their child in a preferred developmental path based on either the parents’ preferences or their observations of the child’s characteristics and abilities, such as enrolling their child in a class, exposing them to people and places, or taking a child to practices or lessons;

• Parents also sustain their child’s progress along trajectories with encouragement and praise, by providing material assistance such as books, equipment or tutoring, and by allocating time to practice or participate in certain activities;

• Parents mediate trajectories, which influences how their child perceives and understands a trajectory, and help their child steer clear of negative trajectories by preparing the child to deal with potential problems;

• Finally, parents react to child-initiated trajectories.