Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

The differential effects of solution-focused and problem-focused coaching questions: a pilot study with implications for practice

Hi Hans-Peter,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for your interest in my work. My brief response is below:



The purpose of this paper was to explore the differential effects of problem-focused (PF) and solution-focused (SF) coaching questions becasue ot much work has been done in this area. We did a literature overview and then ran an exploratory pilot study. Our aims were to examine the impact of problem-focused and solution-focused coaching questions and to determine which is more effective.  To this end we conducted a pilot study that was designed to emulate a problem-focused and a solution-focused interaction within a coaching session. That is, we did not conduct a whole coaching session; rather, we asked a series of problem-focused and solution-focused coaching questions We were not making any suggestions about the efficacy of either PF or SF coaching questions beyond the context in which the study was conducted. The findings may well generalise, but we cannot say if they will or not at this stage. The paper is what it is!



Although both problem-focused and the solution-focused conditions were effective at enhancing goal approach, the solution-focused group had significantly greater increases in goal approach compared to the problem-focused group. 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. Thus, we suggest that coaches aim for a solution-focused theme in their coaching work if they wish to conduct effective goal-focused coaching sessions that build self-efficacy, reduce negative affect, increase positive affect and support the process of goal attainment.


Implications for practice

This paper has some useful implications for practitioners. We suggest that coaches aim for a solution-focused theme in their work with clients. This is not to say that we should ignore the existence of problems: solution-focused does not mean problem-phobic! In reality, problem-focused and solution-focused approaches overlap, coaching conversations are not solely solution-focused or solely problem-focused. Coaches move between these approaches to best meet the needs of the coachee. Many clients want to talk about their problems. Having the time and space to talk about problems can be cathartic, and stopping them from doing so can alienate them. Indeed, just thinking about problems seems to help coachees move towards their goal. However, and this is an important point for coaches, consultants and trainers to bear in mind, although a problem-focused approach may reduce negative feelings, it may not increase positive feelings: we of course assume that it is important that clients feel energised by their coaching sessions.



In a pilot study such as this there are inevitable limitations and these should be taken into account in interpreting the findings. Firstly, the sample size is somewhat small. While sample sizes of thirty-nine and thirty-five are sufficient to detect medium to large effect sizes in within-subject designs they may be on the small size in terms of producing reliable correlational statistics (Cohen, 1992). We recommend that further research use larger sample sizes. Secondly, the participants in the study took part as part of their course requirements. It would be useful to replicate this study using actual coachees, rather than mature age students. Thirdly, the measures are purely self-report. Future research could use objective behavioural indictors of goal progression in addition to the self-report measures used in the present study.



 I (Tony Grant) have now competed a much larger scale randomised controlled study with about 400 people and will be publishing the results later this year. This new study is a more robust study and also explores how goal setting might overcome the negative effects of being problem focused.


These kinds of studies into solution-focused thinking and coaching techniques are really not hard to do, and it would be great to see other work along these lines. It is not always easy to run studies looking at whole SF coaching sessions or SF coaching programs, but small parts of the SF methodology can be quite easily investigated.


Warm regards to all on the list - I see a few familiar names and faces!

Anthony Grant

Anthony M Grant BA(Hons), MA, PhD C.Psychol. MAPS


Director: Coaching Psychology Unit,

School of Psychology,

University of Sydney,

NSW 2006,



The aim of the Coaching Psychology Unit is to enhance the performance, productivity and quality of life of individuals, organisations and the broader community through excellence in research, education and coaching practice.


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Comment by Nicoline Wackerberg on January 23, 2011 at 17:12

Hi Anthony and Hans-Peter,

This is very interesting to follow. I am trying to introduce SF in healthcare organizational development. Healthcare is used to the problemsolving method and a lot of leaders are very sceptical about SF and thinking it is just a new wave. I am trying to find good studies done in developmenet in Healthcare organizations but have difficulties to find. However good to read that you are building more and more knowledge. Thanks for updating and explaining. It inspires me to go on.....

Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on January 4, 2011 at 15:46

Hi Anthony,

many thanks for you blog! Now for me the findings of your study are much more clear.

And I fully support this:

In reality, problem-focused and solution-focused approaches overlap, coaching conversations are not solely solution-focused or solely problem-focused. Coaches move between
these approaches to best meet the needs of the coachee.

Since some months (and the next few months) I work as a "Scrum Master" in a big IT-company. This role has a lot in common with a "Coach".  And together with the team I have to handle very different issues: One kind of issues are related to the "teamwork", which can be handled best with SF-questions (asked e.g. every two weeks - at the end of each "sprint" - in the "retrospective", which is one of the Scrum-ceremonies).

An other kind of issues are related to IT-technical issues like "how to reduce the amount of bugs"; "how to make the development-infrastructure more stable"; "how to reduce the response time for user-queries"

For those issues deep and detailed analyses of the root-causes of the "problem" must be done. And I experienced, that the team members (= IT-experts) really like this kind of "problem focus" and at the end, having found a way to eliminate the essential root-causes,  they feel very proud and relieved.

So, in my role as a Scrum Master I have to "play both pianos": The SF one for complex issues which are related to the team as a social system and to specific persons being part of or connected with the team . And the "PF" (problem focused) one for complicated issues which e.g. are related to the IT-systems.


Best regards, Hans-Peter 




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