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The Pitfalls of “Issue-Based” Coaching or Counseling

While, in my mind, it’s unfortunate, “issues-based” coaching (e.g., addiction specialists, marriage specialists, weight-loss specialists, or I-can-help-your-mental-game-in-golf specialists) seems to be the norm today. Trouble is, trying to help another person, or yourself, overcome a specific life issue by focusing on that issue drastically reduces the odds for development, insight, and achievement. We’ll get to what increases the odds later, but for now, here are the six reasons why (if you’re a coach, therapist, or consultant) you might want to reconsider this common practice ASAP.

  1. There’s not a causal relationship between a specific personal issue and one’s state of mind.

No doubt, it often appears that personal problems, or issues, are the cause of mental anguish or strife. But, in truth, it works the opposite way: Personal problems are a symptom of mental anguish or strife. Meaning, a person cannot feel better by trying to fix an issue that has nothing to do with how he or she feels in the first place. Plus, it may sound strange, but an issue isn’t really an issue at all. Issues tend to disappear entirely, or no longer look like issues, the instant a person’s state of mind ascends.

  1. Focusing on a specific issue points people in the direction of what they want to avoid.

Quite simply, addressing a supposed issue energizes the illusion described in #1. Here’s a quick story to illustrate: I once worked with an NHL team whose goaltender, according to the head coach, needed to stop giving up goals late in games. I asked the coach, “What have you guys done to help him?”

He said, “We talk to him about this issue all the time, but it’s getting worse.”

I replied, “I’m on it, but you must promise me one thing: You’ll never discuss this issue again.” The coach reluctantly agreed and, without me ever discussing it either, the issue disappeared. The team then went on to finish first in their conference.

  1. It’s impossible to reverse-engineer the human experience.

Human beings work one way: inside to out. That is, a change of heart (inside) is the only thing that can create a change of experience and clear up issues (outside). Sure, starting outside with the intent of working inside might appeal to someone who’s mistakenly blaming his or her low mood on a specific issue. But since fixing issues can’t fix moods (we can’t work outside-in), shifts will be minimal at best. For example, many coaches make the body language of their players a vital issue. Some even hire body-language specialists to teach players how to carry themselves. What they don’t realize is that body language is strictly an effect of one’s mood or state of mind. So, while players may temporarily exhibit good posture or forced smiles, they don’t experience the inner shift that causes consistently genuine and productive behavior.

  1. Truth is universal; the implications of truth are personal.

Although it’s a universal truth that the human experience is an inner one of spiritual ebb and flow, creating our varying perceptions of the world outside, the implications of this truth—or issues cleared up by it—will be personal for each of us. For one person, it might mean less fatigue and increased energy. For another, a decrease in the urge to cope. For another, a more powerful bond with God. You’re not a soothsayer. No one can accurately predict where looking within might take someone. We do know this, though: Truth (inside) comes first; implications (outside), second. Always.

  1. Addressing personal problems limits possibilities.

Seeking or offering help for a specific issue restricts opportunity. If you tell someone that you can help them lose weight, for instance, they’ll most likely confine their focus to weight loss only. This requires intense concentration and personal thinking, which narrows vision and reduces the chances for widespread growth.

  1. It’s a matter of integrity.

As inferred in #4, no one wants to make promises that they can’t keep. Whether in overt marketing or subtle innuendo, if you’re in the coaching business, you simply have no ability to guarantee precise results. And, if you’re tempted, bait and switch tactics (luring clients in the door by offering to fix X and then hoping to deliver Y) aren’t cool either. Rather, here’s what you can offer and guarantee the people, teams, and organizations with whom you work: love, accessibility, support, and an unwavering guide inward for answers. The bottom line: Issue-based coaching lacks integrity.

So there’s the list. And while I hope you find it helpful, the question remains: If issue-based coaching isn’t advisable, what kind of coaching paradigm actually does increase the odds for development, insight, and achievement?

The answer: one that strips away, and doesn’t take advantage of, the widespread misunderstanding that external “issues” truly exist. In other words, the world outside is merely a projection of the world inside. And we help others, and ourselves, by pointing toward this fundamental principle—never away from it.

Thanks for reading,

Garret