Coach the Person, Not the Problem with Marcia Reynolds

Reading Time: 17 Minutes

Conversations can evoke powerful transformations. In this interview with Marcia Reynolds, we discuss where anxiety and discontentment comes from, the upsides of “wandering,” integrating time to friends into busy schedules, a process for helping people grow professionally, how to avoid triggering people’s defense mechanisms and 5 practices for reflective inquiry.

About Marcia Reynolds

Marcia is the president of Covisioning, LLC, where she coaches leaders to be more engaging and effective in their conversations. Her newest book is Coach the Person, Not the Problem. She’s also the author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs and Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. Her work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CNN, ABC, the Los Angeles Times and more.

Marcia Reynolds is the president of Covisioning, LLC, where she coaches leaders to be more engaging and effective in their conversations.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Hey, Deliberate Leaders. I am your host, Allison Dunn, founder of the Deliberate Leaders podcast, dedicated to helping leaders build strong, thriving businesses. Each episode, we feature an inspiring interview to help you on your leadership journey.

I am so excited to have the guest we have today.

Who Is Marcia Reynolds? What Is Covisioning?

Allison: So Marcia, I love your message that conversations can evoke powerful transformations. I think that is so incredibly true.

Marcia Reynolds is the author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs. She also wrote Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

Her newest book, which got released today, and I’m so honored to be on the premier day of it, is Coach the Person, Not the Problem and what a powerful title that is.

Marcia: Thank you.

Allison: I have mine ordered and it’s coming on its way.

Marcia has been featured on the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, CNN, Los Angeles Times, and I could go on and on. Marcia, thank you so much for joining us here at Deliberate Leaders today.

Marcia: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Allison: Absolutely. So I know that you are the president of Covisioning, which is your own LLC. That’s where you teach leaders to be more engaging and effective in their conversations. Yes?

Marcia: Yes.

Allison: Fantastic. Where is Covisioning located?

Marcia: In Phoenix, Arizona.

Allison: Okay, fantastic.

Marcia: I put on a sweater for this, but then I won’t have it on because it’s hot out there!

Allison: Awesome. Well, I’m hoping that we could kick off our interview quickly with a very deliberate conversation today.

I’d like to tee up an important question, and I think that you’ll have gold to give. So what would you say is your top leadership tip?

People Need Leaders Who Are Present, Not Perfect

Marcia: One of the things that I often tell my leaders is people want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect.

So many leaders I work with, they resist even learning how to coach because they think they need to know everything and have all the answers and constantly be giving advice. So many times, and especially these days, people need to be heard. They need to feel valued.

How you make people feel is more important than the words you choose. You don’t need to know everything. You need to be human, and you need to respect people as valuable human beings as well, if you want to engage them in an important conversation.

Allison: That’s a very powerful tip.

How would you say that could be best implemented? If there’s one thing someone can implement right now, so that people do feel heard?

Marcia: It’s really important that leaders go into conversations with a little bit more curiosity. Even if they’re disappointed or angry with someone, say, “I really don’t know what’s going on. Can we discover what’s happening together? Are there goals that we both want to achieve?”

Truly listen to the people you’re coaching. Use the skills in the book about coaching the person, instead of telling them they’re wrong, which shuts people down.

Just reflect back, “so here’s what I hear you saying and here’s what I hear that you believe.”

Then ask: “Is that true? Is that still serving you right now? Is there another way to look at this that might help you to achieve what you want instead of being stuck not getting there?”

Reflection and curiosity and really receiving, so I can give back to you what I hear you say and what I notice in your reactions…that is so powerful in helping us think together in order to move forward.

Coming in with, instead of knowing, not knowing… and then being curious.

What Is the Discomfort Zone?

Allison: I love that. Thank you.

In your book, The Discomfort Zone, you talk about the discomfort zone. So, what is the discomfort zone?

Marcia: What’s really interesting is I’ve had people say that they were disappointed. They thought the book was going to be about how to get rid of discomfort, and I’m saying…

Discomfort is necessary for growth. It’s okay if people are uncomfortable in your conversation. That moment, not knowing what’s right or wrong, is the best place to learn.

But that’s not a comfortable place.

So we have to be willing to challenge people’s thinking in a way. First, they have to feel safe with you, but in a way that could make them uncomfortable so it creates an opening for learning. I’m saying…

Make them a little uncomfortable. That’s okay. But don’t make them uncomfortable in the way of saying you’re wrong. You make them uncomfortable by saying, “Here’s what I hear you saying.”

They look at their thinking, and they realize that their thinking isn’t serving them anymore, and that doesn’t feel good.

But then we can be there with them and say, “Can we look at other ways that will really serve you to move forward?”

And if they trust that you believe in them, and you’re truly there for them (not just to meet your KPIs and your goals), then they will go through the discomfort and move into a place of seeing things new, of changing their stories, and even having a breakthrough in their behavioral and thought patterns.

That’s a critical moment. They will always remember the leader that did that for them!

Share Back What You Hear Someone Saying

Allison: I love achieving breakthroughs in any conversation. Sometimes those conversations aren’t always good. Sometimes those conversations are bad. Is there a proven process to recognize when you’re almost there or you’re not quite there?

Marcia: One of the things in coaching, I’m saying that you want to share what you hear — you replay, you summarize, you paraphrase. But an important point is also to share when you notice shifts in people’s emotions. So little things like were they “huh” and they look away, or they get excited about something, or maybe even show a little sadness.

When they do that, you want to share back:

  • “I noticed.”
  • “I noticed you got quiet.”
  • “I noticed you were hesitating about that, so what’s going on?”
  • “What’s going on in your mind?”
  • “What’s emerging for you?”

Encourage them.

Use Compassionate Curiosity to Provoke Breakthroughs

I say it’s compassionate curiosity, so you’re compassionately encouraging them to really share what happened in that moment.

That moment, that small emotional shift, is often what you were talking about. That, “ah, that’s the point! Something’s bubbling up”. They may be afraid to see it, but if you notice the shift…

For example, I was talking to a leader who had to have a difficult conversation with an employee. He was so afraid that she would react and get mad and he didn’t know what to do, and she might leave….

All of a sudden in the middle of the conversation, he looked down and said, “But I thought she’d be the one.” And then he came back and started saying, “and it’s going to be a horrible conversation…”

And I said, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! What just happened there? You got really quiet, almost sad.”

He took a breath and I can tell he was almost a little embarrassed. And he said, “I think I promoted her too soon.”

I said, “Oh, okay. So does that realization change your conversation?”

And of course, it did. Because then he needed to look at how to take responsibility and tell her that he wanted to develop her. Instead of throwing her into the position, maybe they could step back and help her grow into it. Instead of just saying, “You did a bad job and I need to put you back on the line.”

It was just noticing that moment that created the shift for him and an entirely different conversation where he could keep a really good employee. So that was a powerful moment.

How to React to People’s Emotions

Allison: Awesome. I know that when you’re keeping people in the discomfort zone, where the growth happens, we can trigger people pretty easily, or in conversations you can trigger people. It usually shows up as emotions, sometimes sadness or anger.

Can you give some examples of the right kind of questions to ask and the wrong kinds of questions to ask once you have recognized a trigger in someone?

Marcia: I’m not a fan of having question lists and “Here, you should ask these questions…”

Because your questions will come out of your curiosity in the moment.

If somebody has an emotion, you have to first catch yourself. Are you reacting to their emotion?

If you are, then you need to release your own reaction because that’s going to have an impact on whatever it is you say next and it probably won’t come out right.

You need to breathe, let it go. Don’t judge their emotion. Just give them the space.

And then go back to some “what” questions.

  • “What’s going on with you right now? I can see that you’re really irritated or frustrated. Is it too much?”
  • “Have I asked too much for you in this moment?”
  • “Why don’t you tell me what’s happening with you right now, and let’s see if it’s affecting this process?”

So, it’s more about “what”. Don’t say, “Why are you doing that?”

We always say, avoid the “why” questions. Instead, ask, “What’s going on right now? I noticed… ” and then share exactly what you noticed.

Don’t say, “So what are you feeling?” Don’t say that, because they probably don’t know and they can’t label it in the moment.

If you notice they’re feeling something different, then say again, “I see that you’ve gotten really irritated or you’re hesitating in responding to me. Is there something that you don’t want to talk about or that’s getting in the way, or you’re just not sure about right now? Tell me what’s going on with you.”

Allison: I can think of so many examples…. My curiosity sometimes gets me into trouble. Do you ever find that your curiosity gets you into trouble with a trigger?

Marcia: With their trigger?

Allison: Yeah.

Marcia: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing….

An Essential Question to Ask While Coaching

Marcia: I’ve been working with WBECS, the World Business & Executive Coach Summit. We’re going to do a big program in the fall. What’s really fascinating is whenever I do a demo for them, there’s always these people that say, “Can you do that? I didn’t know you could do that in coaching.”

And I’m like, “Well, it worked, didn’t it?”

And usually, it has to do with when I push people to really understand, “What is it you really want here? You said you want this, but you keep going back to this situation and it seems like there’s something else that you want to resolve or to have happen that you’re not saying.”

And if they say to me, “Well, the real issue is this”, then I’ll say, “Is that what you want to work on?”

I may ask that question four or five times: “Is that what you want to work on?” Because I need to clarify with them, “Where are we really going with this conversation?”

I don’t mind irritating them because it’s really important that we know exactly what they want to create instead of what they have. Not just to know the destination of the conversation, but also how to ensure that there’s going to be progress, that they’re going to actually move forward.

So I’ll be a little pushy about getting clear on “What’s the outcome you really want in this conversation?”

I think it’s more about being just pushy than being overly curious. Now, I do have a coaching colleague that says, “There is a difference between being nosy and being curious.”

Allison: I agree that there is a big difference.

Marcia: Right. So if you’re just being nosy (like “so what were those people wearing?!”) details that are really not important… so you have to be careful of that.

Allison: That’s fair. That’s not the kind of “overly curious” I meant.

I feel honored to be in this conversation with you on this day, because today you released your newest book, which is on, you said the #1….

Marcia: It just hit! Just like…

Allison: Congratulations!

Marcia: 10 minutes before we got on together, I checked Amazon and there it was, the #1 standing, I’m like, “Yay!!”

Allison: Fantastic.  I would like to dive deep into a conversation about that, and maybe even get some tips on how… All of your books have made it to the #1 bestseller’s list.

Marcia: Yes.

Allison: I don’t want to forget to ask you, “What are the tricks to doing that?” I guess having a good following would be one of them, for sure.

Writing a Book for Leaders and Coaches

Allison: So Coach the Person, Not the Problem is the title, correct?

Marcia: Yes.

Allison: Who did you write this for?

Marcia: It’s so interesting because I originally wrote it for coaches.

For my last book, I wanted to write a coaching book and my editor said, “No, no, no. Write it for leaders. The coaches will buy it anyway.” And that resulted in The Discomfort Zone and frankly, more coaches bought it than leaders because that is my following. That is my life. My life is coaching.

So this time I said to him, “There’s just some things in coaching that I need to address. I really want to write a coaching book.”

He’s like, “No, no, no. Coaching’s a big thing right now.”

So, I wrote the book for coaches, but what I’m finding is many people are saying, “This is so useful for me for all my conversations.”

Especially right now, we’re just having trouble listening to each other. There’s a lot of bad things going on because people don’t feel heard and they don’t feel valued. Taking a coaching approach to all of our conversations is critical.

Where we go in more with listening and trying to understand in order to connect, and not to tell people what to do or how to feel.

The worst thing you can do is say, “Oh, don’t worry about things. It’ll all get better. You should feel this way.”

That’s so degrading to do that. And so it’s interesting, this time I wrote it for coaches and I’m having so many leaders, parents and team members, just saying, “This is so critical for me to connect with people at a human level, instead of just solving these external problems.”

How to Use Reflective Inquiry

Allison: One of the things that the book teaches is how to use a reflective inquiry. Can you share what that is?

Marcia: Many, many years ago, my second master’s degree was in adult learning. So I’d always been curious about, “How do people learn. How do we change their brain?”

So I had started in the ’80s working for training departments in companies. So I’ve been teaching leadership and communication skills for a very long time.

People would come to my classes and they’d say, “Oh, I love your class.” They would give me the happy face… and then they’d go back and do exactly what they were doing before.

It’s like, there’s got to be another way. That’s when I found coaching and I started studying the science and how it changes the brain.

When I started writing this book and I was talking about the value of coaching, I wanted to get into the distinction that this isn’t therapy and it’s certainly not consulting.

So I went back to look at the origins of the word “reflective inquiry“, because that’s what I use, and I realized… it didn’t come from the therapy. It came from all my work many, many years ago in learning psychology.

A guy wrote a book in 1910 called How We Think was a guy named John Dewey who was an educational reformer. And he said, “Teachers need to help students think more broadly for themselves by reflecting their thoughts, so they can see the gaps in their logic and how their misinterpretations of the future are getting in their way, and then ask questions about that.” So, it’s reflective inquiry.

And what he defines in his book… I’m like, “that’s coaching!” I’m like, “That’s where I got it!” and it was so powerful.

Nobody gives John Dewey the credit!

Allison: You do.

Marcia: Yes, right. It’s so important. He said:

Questions just get answers, but reflective inquiry provokes insight.

So we share what we hear you say and what we notice you feel. Then we ask the questions.

Combined, it makes you stop and think about your thinking.

And that’s the goal: It’s not to tell you what to do. It’s to have you become an observer of your own thoughts. Then you can see how you’re getting in the way of yourself, how you’re sabotaging yourself, and how you’re stopping yourself from getting the goals you want.

And that’s the power.

We’re thinking partners, which is so important because it’s also a mutual respect that “I believe in you. I think you’re smart and you’re just stuck. I’m going to help you get unstuck.” And that’s my goal.

How to Practice Reflective Inquiry Without a Coach

Allison: I love that you use the language “being a thinking partner.” I think that just is ideally what a coach should be.

How about for listeners who maybe don’t yet have a coach? How do you practice reflective inquiry? What would be your suggestions if you don’t yet have a coach?

Marcia: Just start by summarizing and paraphrasing what you hear. So, start your sentence with…

  • “So I hear you’re saying this”, or
  • “I notice that you put a lot of emphasis on this word”, or
  • “you said you want to make a decision and when you described it, you were excited about one option, not so much about the other. What’s stopping you from doing what you want?”

Start by summarizing and paraphrasing back what you hear. Then say, “Is that right?” or “did I get it right?”

People feel heard when you do that. It’s so powerful just to summarize and paraphrase. Then just ask a question based on that.

And that’s simple! That was one of the goals with Coach the Person. I wanted to simplify coaching and demystify it to make it easy for anyone to access it.

How to Avoid Going in Circles When Coaching Someone

Allison: I like sharing back with you’ve heard, reciprocating what you’ve heard.

Are there any other significant practices in the reflective theory?

Marcia: Well, what you heard and what you notice, in terms of the emotions.

But it’s really important that you know where we’re going. A lot of times people come to you with a problem and they’re complaining and all of that. You need to ask, “What is it you want to have instead of what you have now?

Allison: The question.

Marcia: And “What’s getting in the way of you getting that?”

It’s interesting when you ask them, “What’s getting in the way? What needs to be resolved for you to get what you want?”

Sometimes that’s going to bring up a real issue. “Well, I’m really don’t feel satisfied with my work and I don’t feel like I’m being seen.”

“Okay. So is that what you really want to create?”

So you start going a little deeper into what they really, really, really want.

I have a diagram in the book that says:

  • What is it that you want?
  • What’s stopping you from getting it?
  • What is it you really want?
  • What’s stopping you from getting it?
  • What is it you really, really want?

And that alone – just trying to determine “where are we going with this conversation?” – can lead to the breakthrough and the new behaviors. Just by going that track.

It’s so critical. And so many coaches neglect that. So they end up going in circles. I’m sure you’ve experienced that. We all have, where we’re just chasing someone around in circles and people get frustrated. Even if they say, “Thank you, I really appreciate being able to talk about out this”, they didn’t come up with anything new that’s going to solve the problem. They just got it off their chest.

How to Identify What Someone Really Wants

Allison: I love asking “What is it you want and what do you really, really want?” What happens if you are finding it still challenging to identify what they really, really want?

Marcia: I would reflect that.

Just say, “So it feels to me that we’re kind of stuck in this. The problem is unsolvable. Is that what you think? Do you feel that there’s nothing within your control to do here that might change the situation? Where do you think you stand in this? Because it feels to me that we’re just going around in circles. What do you think?”

I will often step back and just share how I feel the process is going and see what they think about it, because they probably feel the same way.

Allison: I think when you’re in a coaching session, everyone knows the feeling of the room, whether you’re talking about it or not.

I am excited to get my copy of the book. How would you describe the essence of the book?

Marcia: It’s very practical.

  • It starts with what is coaching and 5 crazy coaching beliefs that people have created that have stopped people from coaching.
  • Then there’s the 5 essential practices to implement with tips to make it easy.
  • Then there’s the 3 mental habits that make the practices come alive.

If you don’t do the mental habits that create the coaching mindset, then it’s just a formula and it’s not going to work.

I grappled with, “Do I put the habits first or the practices first?” It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing, but I think people always want to know, “What do I do? What do I do?” Then step back and say, “and you need to align your brain and receive what they give you and release your judgment in order to be present to create the results, to get the impact and the breakthroughs you want.

How Marcia Hit the Bestseller List with Her Coaching Book

Allison: I am excited to pick your brain for just a minute or two on how writing a book has been for you. Then how do you get it to the bestseller list so quickly? What is the magic?

Marcia: I’ve always been a writer since I was a kid. So writing’s not a problem for me.

But I’m an immersive writer. I don’t do the writing a little bit every day. I would immerse on Saturday and produce a chapter and then work on the chapter every month.

But it’s only based on when I see a need and when I see a problem. The purpose was to resolve that, to make coaching better, to help bring coaching out in the world. So I had a purpose and a reason. It’s not like I just wanted to get a book out.

That helps me stick with it, because it is a long process.

Being that I’ve done a number of books, I’ve learned what it takes. You have to work on your visibility constantly. The posting and getting out there and having people to know who you are and see you as a thought leader and expert.

Then there’s creating the videos and the graphics and all the different types of social media posts that people want.

You’re not just saying, “Buy my book.” You’re saying, “Here’s good information in 3-minute videos.” I use my own photos for graphics, so I don’t even have to buy them. I just put my own quotes. Instead of just using other people’s quotes, quote yourself!

By the time the book comes out, people see you as a valuable resource. I think that’s the most important thing besides the tips and tools.

And hire a PR firm. You’ve got to do that.

Pre-Launching and Launching a Bestseller

Allison: So, bestseller list in less than half a day? Is that right?

Marcia: Yeah. I have to say, I kind of knew it because even before in the pre-launch, we already had gone into second printing because we’ve had a number of huge bulk orders, which I have never had before. Organizations are buying them.

But now I have launch bonuses. If you buy 5 books, you get 3 bonuses. If you buy 1 book, you get a bonus. But if you buy 20, you get a whole bunch more….

Even outside of the US, people say, “Okay, I want 20, 30 books. I want you to come do a presentation.” (Because one of the bonuses is to do a little webinar for them.) They’re like, “Yeah, yeah! We want that,” which also helps sell the books.

Allison: I bet it does. That’s brilliant.

I know this just hit the stands and people are getting their copy. Do you have something that you’re working on that you’re moving forward with in the future? Or are you going to give yourself a break?

Marcia: I always say, “Don’t ask me what I’m going to write next because it’s such a pain to market it!” And usually, I don’t know for another year, so I always say, “I’m not doing it again.

But I think this program with WBECS is going to be huge. It’s going to be a 6-month program or breakthrough coaching. We’re going to take people deep into this work.

I’m so excited about that. It’s also exhausting, putting all that together.

Allison: Congratulations on being part of that. I think that obviously shows the quality of the experience you bring to the group.

Marcia: Thank you.

Allison: Outstanding.

Marsha’s book Coach the Person, Not the Problem is now available on Amazon.

Marcia, where is the best place for people to follow you, connect, or reach out to learn more?

Marcia: My website is If they want to know more about the book, it’s on the website or coach the, and there’s the launch bonuses linked there too so you can see what those are so you can use them for your own books.

Allison: Fantastic. And how long are your launch bonuses going on for?

Marcia: About three more weeks.

Allison: Excellent. All right. I will make sure that this gets some good traction on my feeds in that time.

Marcia: Great.

Allison: It’s been such a pleasure to have you join us this afternoon. Huge congratulations on the book and sharing it here first. So thank you so much.

Marcia: Yeah, thank you.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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