I want to address the pattern for ‘Getting to the Real Issue’ inside a few different contexts.

You’ll find this simple skill-set an invaluable tool to have in your toolbox and it can save hours you might otherwise spend talking people through their presenting problems and complaints.

It requires listening in a way that goes deeper than the surface level of the problem state.

As a Manager Helping Direct Reports

If you are a manager with direct reports, you’ve had people coming to you with problems.

Managers often think that their value is derived from solving problems.

After all, they ask, “Isn’t that what I’m paid for? 

The answer is emphatically ‘NO!”  

Your job as a manager is to listen and to provide resources that allow your direct reports to develop their own solutions.

One problem is that if you solve all their problems for them, they only learn to be dependent on you.  You want them to grow and flourish, don’t you?

Resources could possibly be finances, instrumentation, or other materials, but are more often personal, intellectual, and about helping someone get in touch with values and emotions attached.

One manager told me that when she does work well, she has less and less to do.

The bigger problem with solving problems for people, however, is that when you start firing solutions at someone who is already set on a single solution, they experience that you are not listening to them. 

That’s how companies find themselves spending money, time, and resources that are not satisfying to people. 

A company I heard about gave away a trip to Hawaii and employees interpreted as just another way the company was not listening and it made the conflict even worse.

They were focused at the wrong logical level.

As a Coach with Your Clients

As a business and life coach, people come into my office complaining about what they don’t want anymore.

My first job of a coach is to help a client get to what they do want.  I ask, “What do you want?”

The answer should be stated in the positive, not what the client doesn’t want.

Sometimes that is a game changer right there. 

People can get so focused on the negative that it’s like having blinders on.

They can’t see any other possibilities and any solutions developed from that mindset are doomed not to address the real issue.

When people can get clear about what it is that they do want, things get way easier to resolve for themselves.

Now the next big issue is to determine what is the real problem underneath the surface-level complaint.

People Who Complain Care About Something

I find it useful to realize that if someone is complaining, they are not just complainers, they care about something.

There is something that is important to them to complain about it.

My job as a manager and coach is to help them find out what is underneath the complaint.

This allows me to be more compassionate and resourceful than the almost automatic judgment I am going to make about complainers. 

I’m more likely to be resigned and write them off and believe that’s just the way they are.

It’s a missed opportunity.

I really can’t help them from that point of view.

What I want to listen for is going to be at the value level.

My client will go from being stuck at the surface level complaint to the awareness of the deeper value underneath.


When I teach the class on Total Win Negotiating or the High-Performance Results business seminar, Getting to the Real Issue is critical.

Each party in a negotiation is likely to go into the negotiation fearing what they will lose.

They are generally stuck at a single solution and tend not to be open to the possibility the other party may suggest.

The Total Win Mindset includes the belief that, “There’s almost always more on the table than people realize.”

When I can reach the real issue underneath the position of the parties, I can open up the possibility of options that neither party would have guessed could be possible.

Contexts for Getting to the Real Issue

To recap: The skill-set, Getting to the Real Issue, is a simple and elegant process that can save lots of time talking around issues to ferret out what is going on with a client and instead of going right to the heart of the problem.

In my NLP Coach training program, students often ask me how I know what to work on with a particular coaching client.

Coaching clients often come in for sessions with a laundry list of problems or they are aware of what they don’t want, but haven’t formulated what they do want or they are already stuck on a single solution.

People most often enter into negotiations with a single solution in mind.

They tend to get more and more dug in on their positions as emotions rise with the interaction.

Business managers hear complaints from direct report employees that are almost never the core issue.

Team members tend to stew over problems and jump at the first solution that suits them, but their solutions rarely address the real issue underneath the problem without a coaches help.

I want to teach business people to develop coaching organizations where anyone can coach.

People tend not to look far enough into the stated problem.  

Since they are focused only on the problem at hand, they see only the symptom and try to solve the issue at the wrong logical level.

The Pattern

So, here’s the pattern.  When I hear a student in my workshop, for example, complaining or otherwise stating what is wrong, like “I can’t learn this.”

I simply ask, “How’s that a problem?” 

Almost always, the client blinks and holds his or her breath for a moment and then gives the next answer.

You might have to repeat the question.

He might say, “It’s too complicated.”  I ask, “How’s that a problem?”  He says, “I get confused.”  I ask, “And when you are confused, how’s that a problem for you.”  An answer might be, “I feel stupid.” 

Maybe you are noticing there’s a pattern here.  I ask, “When you feel stupid, “How’s that a problem for you personally?’

That’s right, it’s basically as simple as that.  Ask, “How’s that a problem” over and over until you get to the value underneath.  Find the opposite of ‘stupid.’  The value might be feeling ‘smart.’ 

It’s a good idea to check a level deeper, just to be sure.  I ask, “How’s that a problem?”  The client may answer, “I remember my Dad telling me “You’re no good.”  I ask, “How’s that a problem”…until I get to a value that sounds like it is the core issue. I look for the value that is being violated, and say, “So, what’s important to you is being valuable.” (opposite of ‘no good’)

Push It a Level Deeper

I am listening for when I hit upon the deepest level value.  Although I tend to push the pattern a level or two deeper to make sure there’s not something even more core to the issue, at some point, I repeat back what I hear as the value underneath, “So, what’s really important to you is…’X value’.

When I get a congruent agreement verbally and in the physiological cues (body), I know I am at the ‘REAL ISSUE.’   I find that from the real issue, the person can easily generate multiple solutions they couldn’t see from the symptom level they were looking from.

There are probably dozens of ways to satisfy the value to ‘protecting myself,’ ‘being worthwhile’ or ‘confident in myself’, or ‘smart’, even though the single solution we started from had only one solution.

I can then ask, “Assuming we can preserve your expressed value of ‘X”, (belief in yourself), would you be willing to consider some options in how we resolve this issue together.” 

It’s hard for a person to say ‘no’ to this question.  You’ll have permission to transition into the next phase.

The Transition Point

If it’s the direct report, as soon as I get to a value level of the issue and transition, I am going to ask specifically for an idea that he/she can generate and write it down and then I’ll give a solution I think of and ask again for a possible solution from the direct report.  I want a balanced and more or less equal number of possible solutions from each party.

We are now in a process of brainstorming the solution as collaborators working together.

If at all possible, I write these collective ideas down on a flip chart, whiteboard or notepad, so the problem is no longer a problem between us spatially, but a challenge we are working on together over there on the board or pad.

The dynamic shift from conflict to collaboration is often striking.  When the real issue has been surfaced, mutual options fall out naturally.  Generation of solutions become easier and fun.

Multiple Solutions Emerge

You’ll be amazed how quickly you get to the meat of the issue when you use this simple technique.  It will be a gift to the person you use this skill-set with because they almost surely have not thought it through enough to get why their particular issue is such a violation to them in general.

From the right logical level, problems have multiple solutions that simply were not available when the person was stuck in the problem state. Not only that, but the emotional upset gets unhooked as soon as it has been acknowledged.  At an unconscious level, what happened was that my unconscious was saying, “she hears me”, “she understands” what is important to me.

To accentuate this point, the unconscious mind is saying, this person is “just like me” and “understands me.  That is so important to the communication process.

It doesn’t really matter so much what your intention is in a communication with another person, but what is important is that the other person experiences being heard.

Recap the Pattern

So, let’s recap the pattern.  When you hear someone complaining, you say, “How is ‘X’ a problem for you?”  The person will respond and you take whatever he/she says and then ask, “And how’s that a problem?”

People will tend to get deeper and deeper underneath what they thought was the issue and toward the real issue each time you ask the question.  Ask 6 or 7 times if necessary, until you are sure you are at the deepest value level.  Sometimes the person will say something like.

Some people will go sideways here if you let them.  “Well, then I would do X!”  You want to say, “So, that’s what you would do, but how is it (last level you elicited) a problem for you when that happens?” 

Keep your person on track.  Remember what he/she said last and chunk down again from the previous level. 

Ask again, “How is ‘X’ a problem for you?” or “How specifically is that a problem for you?” or “How is that a problem for you personally.” 

Sometimes people will answer other questions than the one asked or try to divert attention to others, so you have to sort for the deepest value and bring it back on a subject until you reach the ‘real issue.’

When you get to the ‘real issue’ you should instinctively know what to do next.  You can transition to a closing statement.  In Total WIn Negotiating, you need to transition to the Option Generating phase of the negotiation. “If we could preserve ‘X value’, would you be willing to consider some options in how we resolve this issue (the subject of negotiation)?”  It’s hard to say ‘no’ to that.  Stay positive and write down as many possible solutions as you can.  Keep it even.

Suggest a possible option if necessary and then elicit another option from him or her.  The sense of conflict will have disappeared and you are now in a brainstorming session working together to solve the problem that is no longer between you and any other parties involved.  You are both working together when the Total Win Mindset has been successfully established.

If you are a manager fielding a complaint, remember that the person complaining cares about something, or else they would not be complaining about it.  We don’t argue for what is not important enough to us.

Starting from this belief changes the interaction in lots of ways.  The real key, in this case, is to guess at the emotion being expressed and then repeat back the value just like it was spoken by your person (same inflection and tonality). 

People just want to be heard.  When an individual hears their own keywords and phrases just the way they said them, they feel as if you understand them (deep level rapport).  After all, you must understand me when you have the same expression, tone and specific words and phrases that I am using.  People rarely notice that you are copying their behavior.

One more time:  To focus this discussion on the Getting to the Real Issue pattern; you will hear a complaint or problem presented.   Ask, “How is that a problem?” Listen for the response and ask again, “How is that a problem for you?”  When you hear the next response, ask, “How is that a problem for you personally?” 

Keep asking until you are satisfied you are hearing the value underneath the complaint or problem and then verify by saying, “So, what’s really important to you is…X value.”  Look and listen for a congruent agreement and then transition to something like, “If we could make sure your value (say the value) would you be willing to consider some other options in the way we resolve it?”   That’s the pattern.

By Bill Thomason

Executive Coach, NLP Master Trainer practicing in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

Contact Bill at 602 321-7192 or Christopher Shiver at 480 319-4865 to schedule NLP Coaching Sessions or register for upcoming workshops.

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