“Where do you feel the problem in your body?” – sense and nonsense of a question

I have heard this question used by a number of coaches from various backgrounds: Gestalt, ontological, NLP and others. What is this question about? Why are people asking it? Honestly, when I was first asked this question when I was a client for another coach, I had no idea what to answer. So here are my musings about the question which might help you gauge when and if you would like to use it.

Separating the interpretation from the observation

I am starting with the positive intentions *see me polishing my halo*. One possible result of the question could be that clients start describing their physical sensations when they are experiencing the problem. A client might say: “I feel too much responsibility. It is really tough”. “Where do you feel the problem in your body?” asks the coach. The client might say something about their shoulders aching. The discussion is on longer about “too much responsibility”, which is an interpretation of the client, but on the concrete experience of the client. This may be changed more easily than the “too much responsibility”.

Generating agency

By describing the aching shoulders the client is talking about themselves and not the problem out there. This could potentially lead to a discussion on what the client would like to be feeling instead (light and stable shoulders, for example). This may be followed by a discussion on what difference it would make if the client viewed the world with the new feeling (e.g. light and stable shoulders). More agency for the client is created.

Focusing on the problem

*taking off halo* The question invites a discussion and even worse, an invention of a physical sensation of the problem which might not have been there before. The coach invites the client to experience the problem, to delve into it. “Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions”, a saying often attributed to Steve de Shazer, comes to mind. When clients think intensively about the problem they are usually not gathering hope or confidence. Instead, they are imagining the problem as harder to solve than it may be. Also, most clients have discussed the issue at length with other people — the coach is not making a difference by continuing conversations that have happened before. Solution Focused coaches would invite the client to think about what they would like instead and describe that in great detail. A much more hope generating practice.

Locating the problem INSIDE the client

For the question to make sense, the coach needs to assume that “the problem” is “in the body” and can be “felt in the body”. The client is taken as a “bounded human being”, an atom, a monad, an island. The relationships and interactions the client has are completely ignored by the question. Imagine the above situation. A homeschooling, pandemic-ridden, single mother of 5, who is also head of a large HR department which she runs via zoom throughout all time zones says: “I feel too much responsibility, it is too tough”. How on earth are we going to start helping the person if we assume the problem is in the body? The problem is in the interactions and that’s the level that we need to address. In Solution Focus we would ask: “Suppose there was less responsibility, what would be there instead?” The client might answer: “I would feel that I was doing my best, that I was enough.” “Suppose you felt that — who would be the first person that would notice?” We’d then explore what her colleagues, her children etc. would see her do, how they would respond and we’d get a detailed, interactional description. In narrative practice (according to Michael White and David Epston), we could externalize (i.e. do the opposite) the problem: “When this feeling of responsibility is not present, what might be there instead?” We could help the client write a letter to the “feeling of responsibility”, ask what relationship the client wants with it etc. The person is not the problem — the problem is the problem.

Sorry for the mini-rant — I think it is important to scrutinize what assumptions our questions carry and what they invite our clients to think about. The world view that questions carry with them and that they invite clients into should be one that promotes wellbeing, growth, agency and not make reaching these harder. Of course, it always depends on how the question is asked, what happened before and how the client likes thinking about issues. There is no “bad” question — whenever two people sit together and one wants to be helpful to the other and the other wants to be helped, something good will come out of it. Taking good care of our clients is a really beautiful thing and I would invite us all to continue to be mindful of this.

If you would like to explore questions like these, why not join one of our free coaching meetups and exchange?

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