Getting participants to focus on a goal or outcome

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 42-54.

The population I work with faces many undisputable challenges and barriers. As a researcher, problems and difficulties are alluring as it gives me material to write about and propose solutions. The issue with problem-talk, though, is that they are unhelpful. The participant understands their problems very well. They are immersed in their challenges and often stuck. By dwelling on their problems, we are not helping them to find better solutions. On the other hand, by focusing on the solution, they can find greater motivation and resources to make the changes they need.

Despite my coaching and research training and my desire to do solution-focused interviewing, I find that it is not easy to shift away from the problem talk into a desire or goal. That is why I am excited about a tool I have recently learned a tool at my clean language course. The P-R-O, problem-remedy-outcome, is a very simple tool to help differentiate from a problem, or the trickier remedy, which is a problem disguised as a solution, and the desired outcome. It also proposes questions to help move from a problem to an outcome. The P-R-O is well explained by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley here.


A problem is something the participant does not like. For example, “I can’t get a job in my field.” When presented with a problem, a question to move towards an outcome is:

  • And when [problem] what would you like to have happen? For example, “And when you can’t get a job in your field, what would you like to have happen?”


A remedy is a means of eliminating something undesirable and describe how the participant expects to solve the problem. For example, “I want to stop wasting my time with menial work.”

When presented with a remedy, a good question is:

  • And when [remedy], then what happens? For example, “And when you stop wasting your time with menial work, then what happens?”


The desired outcome describes what the participant wants. They are not a solution to a problem. An outcome is something that has not yet happened, contains a desire or need, and does not contain any reference to the problem. For example, “I would like to work on something I love.” 

Once an outcome is identified, you can proceed with a line of questioning to develop the outcome. In the clean languagetradition, that involves exploring the outcome symbolically to create an embodied understanding. In more traditional approaches, it may include transforming the goal into a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific) goal.

Developing S.M.A.R. T goals

In his book “Coaching Questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking questions,” Tony Stoltzfus proposed some helpful questions to lead participants towards more concrete goals or outcomes (p. 37). They are listed below.

Specific: the goal is clear

  • What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  • What will it look like when you reach your objectives?

Measurable: there is a way to establish progress

  • How can you quantify this goal, so we will know when you have reached it?
  • How could you state this objective, so your progress towards it is measurable?

Attainable: it is dependent only on the participant and can be achieved

  • Is this goal within your capability?
  • Are there any barriers or circumstances that preclude reaching this goal?
  • Does this goal depend on anyone else’s choices? How can we reword it, so it depends only on you?

Relevant: this goal is a priority

  • Why is this goal important to you?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to you to reach this goal?

Time-specific: there is a clear deadline

  • By when will you reach this goal?
  • When will you start?

And what would you like to have happen?