Coach Definition and Meaning with Stages
Prochaska and colleagues (1994) taught that the stages through which people move are predictable and identifiable. They begin with the pre-contemplation stage during which they are not yet thinking about making a change, all the way through to the maintenance stage where changes have been adopted as a way of life and are stable. The characteristics people exhibit at each stage are distinct and recognizable.
The five stages of change are:
Precontemplation (not ready for change)
Contemplation (thinking about change)
Preparation (preparing for action)
Action (taking action)
Maintenance (maintaining a positive behavior)
It is important to note that a client is not a stage but rather a client is in a particular stage related to a particular behavior or domain of change such as nutrition or physical activity.
Precontemplation: “I Won’t” or “I Can’t”
When someone is not yet thinking about adopting a positive or healthy behavior, it’s usually because they fall into one of two categories of the pre-contemplation stage; these are the clients who say “I won’t” or “I can’t.” Those who say “I won’t” are not interested in changing because they do not believe that they have a problem.
Family and friends may feel otherwise and may be nagging them about it, but clients themselves fail or refuse to acknowledge a need to change, or perhaps more accurately, they may resist being changed by others. Those who say “I can’t” would like to change, but they don’t believe it’s possible.
For different reasons, both kinds of clients are not even contemplating let alone working on making a change in a particular area. Clients in the “I won’t” category need to hear messages that communicate an understanding of their stage of readiness and an appreciation of their full autonomy and control over their choices. It is important that they are not made to feel judged or inadequate. Coaches should validate, with sincerity, the good reasons for the unhealthy behaviors, the needs these behaviors meet, and how they help clients cope with the demands of their lives.
Clients in the “I can’t” category are aware that there are issues to be addressed and there is a need to change, but they believe change is too complicated or difficult. They may have tried and failed over and over in the past. These people may be acutely aware of their barriers and need help to look at the barriers in a positive and possibility-minded way so that they can learn from them rather than being overwhelmed by the negative emotions and low confidence generated by past failures or large roadblocks today.
Most clients will be in the contemplation and/ or preparation stage for at least one area (fitness, weight, nutrition, stress, mental, or physical health), and coaching can support them in reaching the maintenance phase (sustaining one or more new behaviors consistently week to week) within three to six months. Many clients are dealing with significant life stressors that are depleting their abilities to change, and these may be areas suited to a coaching partnership before addressing health behaviors.
A coach may also be able to support a client in moving forward later in areas where they are in pre-contemplation when openings emerge in coaching sessions. Also, when clients progress in one area, their confidence in self-change grows and they may become ready to move forward in another area where their previous readiness was minimal.
To move forward, a client in the pre-contemplation stage first needs to experience genuine empathy and unconditional acceptance. This is the time to use reflections to demonstrate understanding and respect for a client’s emotions and needs. A coach’s ability to recognize and accept that a client does not intend to change a particular behavior is the key to building trust and future possibilities.
A coach steps on a client’s autonomy by encouraging him or her to move forward in making a behavior change when he or she is not ready to do so. Instead, focusing on understanding a client at a deeper level without judgment or fear supports a client’s self-determination.
With a coach, clients can sort their barriers into those that are real, feel large, and need to be put to the side right now; those that are excuses and can be reframed in new, positive ways; and those that can be overcome by tapping into the energy of deep autonomous motivation. Taking large barriers off the table in the immediate term can lower a client’s resistance level in discussing any change; time may have to elapse before clients can perceive these barriers as manageable.
A client doesn’t have to convince a coach that the barrier feels insurmountable. This acceptance shows your clients that you are on their side. When clients are readier to work with you, find a strong positive source of self-motivation and identify other behaviors they are ready to change.
When clients connect to something they really want, such as being a role model for their children by not smoking, they are far more motivated to work on other healthy changes in addition to smoking. For example, other healthy changes may include a walking program, yoga for relaxation, more fruits, and vegetables, or getting in control of a large life stressor such as caring for an ill family member.
Contemplation: “I May”
Another term for the contemplation stage is the “I may” stage. At this stage, clients are thinking about changing unhealthy behaviors or adopting healthy behaviors and are considering taking action within the next six months. They are more aware of the benefits inherent in changing and are less satisfied with their present health and well-being than are those in pre-contemplation around a specific behavior but still feel a sense of doubt and will delay the change.
Clients may express a fair amount of ambivalence about change, feeling that change will be difficult or even impossible to achieve. People often remain in the contemplation stage for a long time and could be considered chronic contemplators, because they cannot imagine themselves behaving differently and/or they do not know how to change.
They are still weighing the benefits of change against the effort it will take, and the balance is pretty even between the reasons to change and the reasons to stay the same. It is not until the reasons for making the changes (the “pros”) have more weight than the reasons for staying the same (the “cons”) that a client becomes ready to change.
When openings emerge, those who are thinking “I may” might be willing to explore their best experiences with change in the past as well as the positive reasons for behaving in a particular way in the future. By focusing on their past accomplishments, values, and vision, they may come to appreciate how the change would improve their lives.
Assist these clients in connecting the dots between the changes they seek and the values and hopes for the future that they hold. Setting behavior change in this larger context makes the change more meaningful and significant. If clients have not sufficiently identified their personally compelling motivators to change, including new supportive relationships and new reasons to change, a coach can support them in thinking this through. A clear vision of what they want (not just what they don’t want) is essential.
These clients need to examine not only the upside but also the downside of giving up old behaviors for new healthier behaviors. Identify which barriers are immovable for now and which can be navigated. Normalize, don’t catastrophize. Most everyone is stuck in at least one life domain. Support contemplating clients in identifying and accomplishing small, realistic investigating and thinking goals at first to enhance motivation and/or confidence, thereby empowering them to be more confident in their ability to change.
Clients can move beyond the contemplation stage by connecting to their strengths and getting excited about the possibilities that would emerge with change. The discovery work alone may be enough to move them to the next stage of change. Increasing their awareness of compelling reasons to change and getting them to connect with people who have successfully made similar changes are key change strategies.
When appropriate, coaches can ask whether clients want them to share important scientific facts about the benefits of a behavior. Coaches can assist clients with discovering and sorting through the benefits of change, and these can become positive and even powerful motivators.
In the contemplation stage, stage-appropriate goals include mindset shifts through reading, thinking, talking, listening, discovering, and deciding— often not actually doing the particular behavior. Or sometimes, a client might also adopt the Nike “just do it” mantra and take tiny behavioral steps like five-minute walks, 10 minutes of yoga poses, or an apple a day while sorting through ambivalence. A series of small successes without a larger commitment can also build self-efficacy and improve readiness.
Preparation: “I Will”
The preparation stage is also known as the “I will” stage. In the preparation stage, ambivalent feelings have been largely overcome. Clients have strengthened their motivation, and they are planning to take some action within the next month. These clients have one or more strong motivators.
They know what their barriers are, and they have come up with some possible solutions that provide some hope for success. If these thinking tasks, developing strategies to navigate barriers, are not accomplished, then clients will likely remain in the contemplation stage.
During preparation, clients experiment with their possible solutions, discard the ones that do not work, and think up new approaches. In this stage, a coach can support clients in solidifying plans for change. For example, a client could write down a formal statement of what they are committing themselves to do, containing specific details of what, when, and how. Additionally, with a coach, a client could brainstorm to identify the many small steps that could be taken as long as they are realistic.
If clients exhibit ambivalence, resistance, or fear of failure, it is important to explore the challenges and identify new ways to navigate around their challenges. However, a coach must be cautious not to add to the resistance by telling a client what to do. Honor a client’s competence, and fears, by asking the client to take the lead in co-creating solutions and strategies.
Discuss situations clients think could be problematic when they actually start the behavior and have them develop multiple possible strategies before they begin.
Action: “I Am”
During the next stage, which lasts six months or longer, clients are working on building new relationships, practicing new behaviors, and establishing new habits. The action stage is also known as the “I am” stage.
Here, clients may have to concentrate hard while practicing fledgling new behaviors and refining their lifestyles. In this stage, clients have identified one or more new behaviors they want to establish and are doing them consistently, building up week by week, month by month, to a target level.
For example, a client may be working toward more cardiovascular exercise, for instance, three to four times a week for 15–60 minutes at a time at a moderate to high level of intensity, or he or she may be meeting a specific set of nutrition criteria he or she has agreed on with a physician. A client may also be striving toward a goal that will provide some relief from a life overflowing with stress.
When clients are in the “I am” stage for a particular behavior, it is important that they keep their strengths and values at the top of their minds to get on and stay on track. It’s also valuable for them to engage in social connections or develop new relationships with people who share their interests and behavioral goals. The more modes of support they can identify, the better.
Through gradual changes and small achievable steps, clients can feel successful early. It’s important to anticipate situations that could be problematic and encourage clients to develop multiple possible strategies to handle these situations before they come up.
Coaches should anticipate and be prepared for lapses in behavior and support clients in reframing lapses as temporary setbacks. These incidents are best perceived as important learning opportunities rather than failures. An all-or-nothing mentality about goals can lead to guilt, self-blame, and reasons to quit. A client could even benefit from conducting a safe, planned lapse, such as a day without exercise or a meal during which he or she can eat anything, to develop new mental skills, perspective, and resilience under a controlled situation.
Because there is a high risk of a return to the preparation stage, discussions to process the learning from setbacks and reframe them as sources of valuable learning are important. A client may lapse once in his or her execution of the desired behavior or may cease to engage in the desired behaviors all together for a week or more.
These situations provide an opportunity to explore a client’s response to the situation, the perceived loss of control, and the help or hindrance of social connections. A coach can support clients in exploring their challenging situations and to learn from them in the future. Assisting clients in developing new relationships with people who share their interests and behavioral goals can make significant differences. With the right modeling and supportive environment, clients will be more likely to make progress in the action stage of change.
Maintenance: “I Still Am”
When a client is in the maintenance stage for a behavior, s/he is in the“I still am” stage. This stage begins when the new behavior change has become a habit and is done automatically—usually at least six months after the initial behavior has changed. Clients are now confident that they can maintain the new behavior, and they would rate their confidence to maintain the new behavior at a level of 8 or 9 out of 10. In this stage, their self-efficacy is both high and self-reinforcing.
Just because clients progress to the maintenance level does not mean they don’t need to continue working diligently to maintain a new behavior and prevent relapse. (Nor does it necessarily mean that they will no longer need or want a coach.) There are different sets of risks in maintenance, including boredom and the danger of gradually slipping back into old, less healthful habits.
Lapses, in which people temporarily abandon new behaviors, can occur during the maintenance period just as easily as it can during the action stage. If and when this happens, clients often need assistance to set new goals and get refocused. For example, they may benefit from signing up for an event related to the goal, taking up a new type of exercise, trying a new but related skill, or helping others who are just getting started.
This can be easier in maintenance than in action because the clients have already come to experience the value and benefits of their new behavioral patterns. Lapses in this stage don’t usually produce any significant alteration in the health and fitness benefits of the behavior change, which means people can more easily and quickly get back on track. Learning to make such adjustments is indeed a sign of being in the maintenance stage of change.
Relapses can be more challenging in any stage of change. As extended abandonments of new behaviors, relapses lead to the reduction or even to the disappearance of benefits. To reverse a relapse, it is important to revisit, revise, and reconnect clients with their strengths, values, resources, visions, goals, and motivators.
In addition to exploring lessons learned, it is important to go back and restart the preparation and action process with judgment-free listening, inquiries, and reflections. The more vividly clients can remember and reconnect with their capacity to put their strengths to work, the more they will develop the self-efficacy and regain their sense of control.
Processes of Change
Cognitive processes encompass a wide range of reflective learning processes in which people are sorting out their thoughts, feelings, and desires regarding a particular health-promoting change. These processes, which often take place over a period of several months or even years, include:
Getting information: finding out about all the benefits (e.g., medical and life) of doing a behavior Being moved emotionally: taking to heart the health and life benefits of a behavior and using these benefits to ignite a client’s drive to change
Considering how one’s behavior affects others: for example, thinking one’s children may be learning from witnessing a parent’s positive behavior
AI, appreciative inquiry; MI, motivational interviewing.
Self-image: connecting the dots and seeking congruence between one’s vision, values, and behaviors to enhance the integrity
Social norms: connecting and talking with like-minded people who are all working on the same behavior (e.g., a support or special interest group)
Behavioral processes encompass a wide range of action-oriented learning processes in which people are experimenting with new health-promoting behaviors and adopting the ones that work. These processes include:
Making a commitment: for example, writing down exactly what new behavior will be done and when
Using cues: for example, designing environ-mental reminders to do what is planned
Using substitution: replacing an old health-risk behavior with a new health-promoting behavior (e.g., substituting carrot sticks or a straw for a cigarette)
Social support: recruiting family and friends to help with behavior change by asking for specific forms of support; this requires clients to think carefully about what they would like someone to do and then to ask the person on their support team to do it
Rewards: setting up reward systems for having completed action goals
Supporting Clients in Moving Through the Stages of Change
After establishing trust and rapport with an orientation around the clients’ strengths and values, it is valuable to encourage clients to identify what stages of readiness they believe they are in with regard to their potential areas of focus or any life issues related to their health and well-being.
This alone can generate engaging conversations as to why they picked the stage they picked, what got them to where they are, and what goals or behaviors they want to focus on first in moving forward. This also supports in developing a client’s sense of competence and autonomy in moving toward change.
One goal of using the TTM process is to increase a client’s sense of self-efficacy or belief that one has the capability to make a change in the desired area. Self-efficacy describes the circular relationship between belief and action; the more you believe you can do something, the more likely you are to do it. The more you do something successfully, the more you believe that you will be able to do it again.
The opposite is also true; the more you believe that you cannot do something, the less likely you are to do it. The more you do something unsuccessfully, the less you believe that you will be able to do it again. In other words, to quote an old adage, “Nothing succeeds like success.”
Therefore, it is important that clients set appropriate goals— ones that correspond to a client’s stage of change and capability. The potential consequence of inappropriate goals is that the client may lapse, possibly setting up a series of relapses. That’s also why it is so important to correctly determine a client’s stage of readiness to change (e.g., whether you are working with an “I may” or an “I will” person).
In other words, it can be risky for a client in the contemplation stage for a behavior to set late-stage behavioral goals. Instead, a more appropriate goal type would be a thinking goal, which encourages the exploration of motivators and challenges. When clients have experienced a challenging situation and have had a lapse, the coach can work to reframe the experience as a learning experience.
Another way to engage clients in the processes of change, especially in the behavioral processes, is to focus on the relationship of a behavior and its consequences. Known as operant conditioning, or learning through positive and negative reinforcement, it is a form of learning that takes place when an instance of spontaneous behavior is either reinforced or discouraged by its consequences.
Successful operant conditioning looks for the antecedent conditions that may trigger an undesired behavior. For example, missing breakfast may lead to overeating at lunch, which may lead to feelings of guilt, which may lead to irritability. This irritability may lead to the abandonment of any improved eating habits for that day. The end result can be an ice cream binge after dinner. When a behavior chain is identified, assisting clients to alter a behavior earlier in the chain instead of later can generate significant shifts and benefits.
Readiness to Change Assessment
The following readiness to change assessment can be used with clients to prioritize the behaviors they want to change and rate their confidence in their ability to change.
It’s not important that clients use the formal names of the stages themselves. It may be better to simply have clients choose the descriptive statement that best describes where they are with respect to changing a particular behavior:
I won’t do it.
I can’t do it.
I may do it.
I will do it.
I am doing it.
I am still doing it.
Once a client has become familiar with the stages of change, a coaching session may flow according to the following pattern:
Explore the client’s strengths, core values, and primary motivators or reasons for change.
Co-identify the client’s stage of change and one or more appropriate cognitive or behavioral goals.
Co-design strategies that will promote quick wins and self-efficacy with those cognitive or behavioral goals.
Discuss challenges, as appropriate, that may interfere with behavior change and stimulate generative thought about possible solutions.
Elicit the client’s commitments as to the steps he or she will take and the efforts he or she will make in the week ahead.
Reconfirm the client’s readiness to change and willingness to move forward.
An effective way to engage clients in the processes of change, especially the cognitive processes, is to encourage them to weigh the pros and cons of a particular behavior or behavioral change. Known as a decisional balance, such weighing increases the chance of successful behavior change by taking into consideration:
The pros or gains for self, gains for others, approval of others, and self-approval
The cons or losses for self, losses for others, disapproval of others, and self-disapproval
Table Readiness to Change Assessment
Research has shown that self-change is a staged process. We move from not thinking about changing a behavior to thinking about it, to planning to change, and then to test out ways to do it before we actually start. When thinking about changing or adopting a behavior, ask yourself the following:
Why do I really want to change the behavior; what makes the change important to me (the benefits or pros)?
Why shouldn’t I try to change the behavior; what is in my way (the obstacles or cons)?
Do my pros outweigh my cons?
What would it take for me to change the behavior and overcome my cons? What’s my strategy?
Can I really do it?
To move forward, it is best if you believe in your ability to change; the pros outweigh the cons and you have realistic strategies to overcome the cons. Behavioral scientists recognize five stages of readiness to change a behavior:
Pre-contemplation (“I won’t or I can’t in the next six months.”)
Contemplation (“I may in the next six months.”)
Preparation (“I will in the next month.”)
Action (“I’m doing it now.”)
Maintenance (“I’ve been doing it for at least six months.”)
A number of techniques can help you move from not thinking to think, to planning, to do, and to continue doing. Determining how ready you are to change a behavior can assist your coach in helping you make that change. The following questions can assist you and your coach with making that determination. Your answers will help your coach guide the conversation so that you can move through the stages of change and reach your goals.
The goal or behavior I want to work on first is:
My reasons for wanting to accomplish this goal or change this behavior are:
The strengths, aptitudes, values, and resources that I can draw upon include:
The main challenges I will face while changing this behavior are:
My strategies to move forward and meet those challenges are:
The efforts I made toward changing this behavior in the last week are:
My goal for next week with respect to this behavior is:
My readiness to change the behavior is (circle the level that best describes where you are):
I won’t do it.
I can’t do it.
I may do it.
I will do it.
I am doing it.
I am still doing it.
Pros, benefits, and motivators are the good things about doing a new healthy behavior. They are what the client will get if he or she behaves in this new healthy way. Through inquiry, the coach can support the client in moving from a general, nonspecific pro to a specific, personal, positive motivator.
Cons, barriers, and challenges are things that make it hard to do a new healthy behavior. By getting clients to sort through their barriers, the coach can assist them in discovering that some barriers are large and only time will change them, whereas some can be overcome by a strong enough pro or motivator.
For example, the young executive who was working 14 hours a day in his first job trying to make a name for himself had absolutely no time to exercise regularly until an attractive young woman who worked out regularly joined his firm. He then somehow found the time to go to gym because he wanted to get to know her. Some barriers can be overcome by a strong enough motivator.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, researchers have found that the pros have to outweigh the cons for someone to actually start and continue a new behavior successfully. This means it is important to help clients in the early stages of change who have not yet started to do a behavior to find personally salient, specific, positive pros or motivators while they honestly sort out their cons.
When a client is thinking about changing a behavior, a coach may use the following inquiries:
What is leading you to want to try and change the behavior? (What are the pros?)
What are the reasons you shouldn’t try to change the behavior? (What are the cons?)
What would it take for you to change the behavior? (What’s your strategy to overcome your cons?)
Cognitive processes comprise the key work for clients in the early stages of change. By assisting such clients with articulating strong, personal, specific, and positive motivators and by assisting them in discovering not only their barriers to change but also possible solutions or workarounds, coaches help clients get ready for action.
If a client is in the “I can’t” stage and totally focused on barriers and all the reasons that they cannot make a change, acknowledge the value of their appreciating their barriers. If the three tasks of a person in the early stages are finding a motivator, knowing their barriers, and coming up with some possible solutions, this person has one of the three tasks completed. He or she is acutely aware of the barriers. The work of coaching is to make sure the other two tasks get done.
The Mount Lasting Change Model
Well, coaches created a graphic metaphor for the coaching process: Mount Lasting Change. This behavior change pyramid provides a guide to what it takes to make lasting changes in mindset, behavior, self-awareness, and self-image.
The base level of the pyramid represents the vision and higher purpose for the change. First, the clients decide to take charge. Then, they define what it would like to be their best selves—what they value most about life and what they are striving for. It is also important to identify the skills and knowledge to reach one’s “best self” as well as the strategies for using strengths to handle challenges.
The next level addresses how the vision is turned into a realistic plan, including behavioral goals, one’s support team, and how to increase confidence. Then a commitment is formalized. The third level depicts the doing process (specific behavioral goals) with early wins and constant fine-tuning. The fourth level represents the approach to sustaining new behaviors. The top is the “best self.” This is what a client yearns to become or uncover through the change process.
Change isn’t a linear process along which one proceeds from the bottom directly to the top of the pyramid. Clients cycle up and down the five levels, sometimes for years. When they don’t make lasting change, they typically have missing or weak building blocks. A coach works with a client to lay down the structure and assemble the building blocks to get to lasting change and the client’s best self.
The bottom “vision level” of the pyramid is the foundation for change. It is essential not to rush through this level. Devoting the time to generously exploring a client’s positive core—the vision-level building blocks—prior to moving into preparation and action is enlightening and valuable. Revisiting and reinforcing the vision building blocks along the way breathes life and inspiration into the change process.
People choose to make specific changes at specific times and for specific reasons when they are ready, willing, and able.
Self-awareness and Responsibility
Developing mindfulness and self-awareness of where the client stands with all of the building blocks is an ever-present theme. Taking charge and personal responsibility for change is the call to action, activating autonomy and self-determination.
The change process is much more likely to succeed if clients identify and stay connected to the strengths and abilities that have proven successful in other parts of their lives. Building on what’s working now is a key coaching approach.
This building block is at the center of the foundation because it represents both the higher purpose and deeper meaning for the change. One’s values, when clearly articulated and kept in view, are what keep them going in the face of big and small challenges. What people value or treasure about the benefits of change is highly personal, ranges widely, and changes over time. Some values include being a role model, having peace of mind, looking good or youthful, living in balance, and exercising self-control.
To discover client values, ask about who they want to be and why they want to be that way. Of course, one can’t become that person overnight, but one can start doing the things that a person would do. Acting “as if” is a great way to get on track. Coaching discussions often center around a client giving himself or herself permission to live from his or her values, especially when that means saying “no” to others to practice self-care. Coaches can assist clients in recognizing that setting boundaries to support self-care undergirds being one’s best in life and work.
Other clients will want to develop specific strategies for dealing with challenges, especially if they have a long history of the derailment. Either way, the key to masterful coaching is to elevate a client’s confidence in his or her ability to move forward successfully. At its core, coaching generates hope in a client’s ability to change as well as awareness of realistic strategies that work.
Before proceeding and while on the change path, it is vitally important to have a moderate to high level of confidence in one’s ability to be successful. If a client’s confidence level is less than a score of 7 out of 10, more work is needed to increase the level to at least a 7 or an 8. One of the most important goals of the behavior change process is self-efficacy; one must have the confidence that one has the ability to initiate and sustain the desired behavior, even in the face of challenges.
Benefits and Information
One must identify, explore, prioritize, and emotionally connect with the list of potential benefits to be derived from making lasting change. When needed, providing just-in-time education and information on the new behavior(s) will be important for keeping a client interested in experimenting with new behaviors.
Challenges and Strategies
Identifying and exploring significant challenges, such as competing priorities, lack of time, lack of confidence, and the benefits of not changing are ongoing life processes. Raising awareness of how challenges might be both harmful and helpful is important thinking/feeling work for those in the early stages of change.
The thinking/feeling work around challenges then leads to the thinking/feeling work around realistic strategies for moving forward. Some clients will get so excited about a new interest that challenges
When an oral or written commitment is made to another person—a family member, friend, colleague, physician, or coach—to establish a new habit, the probability of success is increased.
Making changes can be tough and having support from family, friends, or colleagues, who can help us work through the change process, stay on track, and provide positive feedback, is extremely valuable. It’s often helpful for clients to ask for support and be specific, explaining the kind of support that is working or not working. Clients appreciate and experience more success when they have support for their autonomously selected goals.
The details are crucial. Developing and updating a detailed plan describing scheduling and preparation, as well as clearly defining the behavioral goal (what, when, and how), is an important activity. Tracking performance is also important—using journals or logs, for example, to record how we eat, exercise, and relax.
Choosing, refining, and committing to specific behavioral goals which are realistic while challenging is the all-important “doing” part of behavior change. Committing to the mastery of a new behavior in three months or so, and then maintaining it for a further three to six months, reaching high self-efficacy, is a good target for change.
The goal should be specific and measurable; for example, replace “exercising more” with “I will walk four days a week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity.” Building up to a three-month behavioral goal should progress gradually each week in manageable steps. Some weeks, more progress will be made than others. A good starting point would be “walking four days for 10 minutes” or “walking two days for 20 minutes.”
Although challenges and strategies are addressed on the vision level as part of the foundation for change, clients inevitably encounter challenges and setbacks along the way to reaching and mastering their behavioral goals. Coaches can assist clients in viewing such times in a positive light as opportunities to learn and grow.
An effective problem-solving process, including brainstorming, enables rapid self-awareness, increased desire to stay on track, and prompt corrective actions, which may include brainstorming and experimenting with new action strategies or even tweaking the behavioral goals themselves. The secret is to normalize and appreciate such experiences for the gifts they have to offer rather than to fret or catastrophize and begin a downward spiral.
Extrinsic rewards, and to savor the intrinsic value of behavioral changes. Clients generally start to feel better, stronger, lighter, or more energetic, for example, when they start to exercise more, eat better, relax more, be more engaged with life, or have more fun. They need to mindfully observe, enjoy, and celebrate such rewards to fully engage with and sustain the change process.
The diligent effort to build up to a behavioral goal and embrace the challenges along the way has a big payoff when clients are successful. The key is to move from extrinsic incentives to intrinsic motivation and contentment. That is the work of masterful coaching.
Even after one has mastered a new behavior, there is still potential to get sidetracked. Shift happens. New challenges emerge as environments and motivations change. Developing strategies to prevent relapses is the thinking/feeling work required when a client has reached the maintenance stage of change.
One of the big bonuses of lasting change is the expansion of one’s sense of self. Often, one’s best self is buried under extra physical and emotional weight and stress and is revealed when a change has been experienced, even mastered. A coach encourages a client to take the time to notice, embrace, enjoy his or her best self, and celebrate!
To reinforce a client’s motivation and confidence, it is important to experience quick “wins,” to enjoy Ambivalence, the existence of coexisting and conflicting feelings that create a decisional balance that doesn’t lean toward pros or cons can be a major factor inhibiting clients’ commitment to change.
Feeling ambivalent is a common and perfectly normal state of mind. Guide clients to accept their ambivalence rather than to fight it in order to better work their way through it. It may always be present to some extent, and that’s OK. Ambivalence doesn’t need to be completely resolved for clients to get started and be successful with change.
For example, some people may always be ambivalent toward getting up early to exercise, but they continue anyway because the intrinsic rewards make it worth doing.
If ambivalence jeopardizes your clients’ commitment, then it is a problem. If it simply makes them question their commitment and does little more than lead to a temporary detour now and then, it can be a positive experience as they develop resilience and an ability to get back on track. Self-awareness of their positive core and goal setting through lapses and relapse are powerful tools for dealing with ambivalence.
Clients may underestimate the power of a personal coaching program at the beginning. With your help, they will make changes they didn’t realize were possible. As their confidence in changing grows, their readiness to change will spill over to other areas of their health and fitness and even other areas of their lives.
Change in one area of life can have a mobilizing effect on changing another area. Coaches will find that when clients have success in areas where their readiness to change is more advanced, they may progress past contemplation in the more difficult areas, powered by new self-efficacy.
Assist clients infrequently connecting with their positive core, especially their strengths, aptitudes, values, and resources for learning and growth. This will assist them in maintaining a hopeful and positive relationship to the prospect of behavior change. Remind your clients that change can be uncomfortable and difficult in the beginning. This is normal when people are stepping out of their comfort zones and seeking to make conscious changes.
Reassure clients that lapses are common during the early stages of change; that is why they will need a lot of encouragement and support when they first get started. If clients are struggling with change, the coach can reassure them that what they are experiencing is a normal part of the change process and let them know that they are doing something that is difficult for most people.
It is a good time to remind them of progress they have made to date—such as hiring a coach! Most people underestimate their ability to change and lack the tools and process to facilitate change. A coach can help clients raise their level of confidence by never losing sight of their positive cores. “You CAN do it!” is a key framework of masterful coaching.
Coaches help clients develop internal motivation and focus less on external motivators by having them look inside and focus on changing behaviors for themselves and not for anyone else. If a client’s motivation originates externally (i.e., “I’m doing this for my spouse/children/employer/etc.”), it can wobble and then lead to guilt, frustration, anger, and often quitting.
When clients can honestly say “I’m doing this because it will make me feel good and feel good about myself,” then they have internal or intrinsic motivation. The guilt-inducing, self-esteem–based “I should do this” is usually counter-productive because it fosters inner criticism which is depleting. Client should focus on their internal and positive motivation and not on externally induced pressure and validation.
Common sources of ambivalence include:
I don’t really want to do this (I don’t have a good enough reason).
I can’t do this.
I have never done this.
I don’t have the time.
I can’t get started.
It’s too hard.
I won’t be able to . . . (drink beer with my friends, enjoy parties, eat what my family eats, etc.)
At the conclusion of a coaching session, a coach should consider: “Is this client really in the stage I think they are in or have they moved back into an earlier stage, and I need to help them set more thinking/feeling goals instead of behavioral goals?” When the coach is not on the same page as the client, the dynamic dialogue can disappear, leaving a sense of disconnection.
If clients have not made significant progress on chosen goals over 3–4 weeks and the goals are not unrealistic, it may be time to honestly question whether they are truly committed to those goals. They may want to change their goals or even their approach. For example, a client may benefit from a different intervention, such as a dietitian, personal trainer, or psychotherapist, or a more prescriptive or structured program with a lot of education. Often, clients receive such honest questions as a “wakeup call” that renews their commitment to change.
The breakthrough comes when clients take control and responsibility for their own well-being and health, the change process, and becoming connected with their own motivators. This will unleash their inner resources to navigate the obstacle course of change.
The Value of Assessments
Client assessments are valuable tools in the coach’s toolbox and offer a variety of benefits to the coaching partnership.
In the corporate environment, an executive or business coach might measure behaviors and ways of being using assessments of emotional intelligence (EI) or personality type. Coaches of various niches may use a variety of assessments focused on life balance or wellness. A common example is the “wheel of life,” which is focused on self-care and balance.
Assessments of character strengths or talents provide an excellent springboard for new directions in coaching sessions. Many coaches and clinical groups value the positivity ratio. The higher the ratio, the more resources available for change, and increasing the ratio is a valuable goal.
Assessments stimulate reflection and self-awareness. Assessments can be helpful at the beginning of a coaching relationship because they not only inform coaches, they also help clients gain self-awareness, insights, and a sense of their priorities for a coaching program. Assessments are also efficient because precious coaching time isn’t used to gather a lot of data; that can feel like an interrogation.
Other benefits of having clients complete an assessment include:
Trust and rapport: When building trust with a new client, an online or paper assessment provides him or her with a safe space in which to first tell his or her “story.”
Honoring personality preferences: Clients with a preference for introversion will tend to be more comfortable communicating personal information in writing, at least initially, than those with a more extroverted preference.
The written word: There is power in providing clients with an opportunity to see a qualitative and quantitative summary of their state of well-being. For the same reasons that writing down goals is important, seeing the information collected can be both affirming and a powerful motivator for action.
Developing discrepancy: An assessment can help a client more clearly see the difference between where they are and where they are not in terms of behaviors and outcomes.
Progress depends on clients expanding their awareness of what is possible. This cannot be done for them without provoking resistance. They must do it for themselves, and assessments are an excellent way to get the conversation started. Through listening, inquiry, and reflections, coaches can then expand client awareness even further in the process of assisting clients in climbing Mount Lasting Change. At its best, ever-expanding awareness generates an upward spiral of continuous learning, growth, and development.
When coaches are integrated into healthcare, corporate wellness, or health promotion programs, tracking health behavioral and biometric data through assessments is vital for program outcomes measurement.
Health risk assessments (HRAs), such as the one provided at Vector Wellness Corporate Wellness Programs & Employee Wellness Programs, are now widely validated and used as tools by health plans and employers to measure health and lifestyle status as well as change readiness. These also may identify “red flags” with respect to mental health status or medical care gaps.
Assessments are invaluable to coaches in the health and wellness fields because they can provide:
An overall picture of the client’s present state of being including physical health, lifestyle habits, strengths, life satisfaction, and readiness to make changes
A snapshot to better understand and appreciate the client’s life context; the coaching questions and approach for a client who has significant health issues such as obesity, hypertension, back injury, or cancer is different than the approach for a highly motivated, fit client. Awareness of situations, such as a major loss or recent diagnosis.
An early indication of the client’s strengths and healthy habits as well as health risks and areas of challenge
Identification of red flags related to physical health issues (e.g., medical care gaps, injury, or contraindications to exercise) or mental health issues (depression or other mental health concerns) for which a referral may be important or even critical
Caution in the Use of Assessments
Although assessments are valuable when used appropriately with the best of coaching skills, there are still a few potential dangers which we explore below.
Less Room for Collaboration and More Room for the Expert Hat
If a coach is not well-trained in using an appreciative approach to reviewing and debriefing results, assessments tend to shine the light on what is “wrong” in client behaviors and outcomes. It can be tempting to fall into old habits of looking for what needs to be fixed and donning the “expert hat” to do so right away.
Noticing biometric numbers that need to go up or down, for example, could shift a health coach into “fix it” mode, listing all of the dangers and “shoulds” for a client. Although being aware of health concerns and other concerns is vitally important, a masterful coach uses an assessment as a conduit for deeper conversations rather than as a mandate for prescribing change.
Evaluation Rather than Empathy
When an assessment reveals a client’s health or life choices are of concern, it can be tempting to experience pity or sympathy for the client. Frustration can emerge as the coach wonders how the client could have chosen a particular behavior, such as smoking, overeating, or overworking.
Instead of evaluation, assessments can provide an opportunity to show acceptance and express empathy. The review of and conversation surrounding an assessment can establish the foundation of trust between coach and client that lays the groundwork for the growth-promoting relationship.
Assessments Are Completed by Humans
Lastly, assessments are completed by people who get distracted, do them at the last minute, and/or mark responses to please or impress their coaches. Hence, assessments aren’t always accurate and don’t tell the whole story. The coaching session is the place for the assessment to come to life through reflection, inquiry, and listening.
This well-being assessment can provide initial information about a client’s:
Priorities: An assessment can be designed to calculate or allow clients to indicate their areas of highest priority. For example, on a scale of 0–10 (10 being the highest), the client may indicate that focusing the coaching program on improving life satisfaction is a 10 (highest priority), whereas improving nutritional habits is a 5 (of average priority).
Confidence: Similarly, the assessment may include a method for clients to indicate the strength of their belief in their ability to make a behavioral change. This information enables the coach to more appropriately designing opportunities for the development of self-efficacy by working with the appropriate personnel, environmental, and behavioral factors.
Readiness for change: It is beneficial for an assessment to create an awareness of the client’s stage of change within the various areas. When it comes to moving a client forward, each of the five stages of change (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance) requires a different approach for exploration. Knowing where a client stands in terms of their readiness is critical for setting goals that are appropriate to the client’s stage of change and for building self-efficacy.
Explore Assessment Results
A protocol for the appreciative review and exploration of client assessments is described below. Although this protocol was developed for the review of wellness, well-being, health, and HRAs, the principles are relevant to other assessments too.
Read with an open mind. Prior to the first coaching session, take time to carefully review the client’s completed assessment. In review, the goal is not to evaluate but to consider the responses with curiosity, keeping in mind that an assessment provides only a partial story.
Open-minded curiosity will enable the coach to ask better questions during the assessment review, use intuition and sense what is unsaid, challenge the coach’s assumptions about the client, develop a strengths-based framework through which to appreciate the client, and be more open to new information and energy shifts during the first coaching session.
Seek out success. It is tempting to begin an assessment review with a search for all of the “problems” or areas to “fix.” Drawing on the lessons from the disciplines of appreciative inquiry and positive psychology, we know that “what we focus on grows” and that “our first questions are fateful.”
Therefore, if the coach begins the initial review of the client’s information with a focus on what’s “wrong,” an assessment is more likely to support that tendency within coaching relationships. Starting with the assumption that all clients can tap into capacities and leverage strengths for positive change will enable the coach to better support clients in the building of self-efficacy.
Notice the client’s arousal. The next task in reviewing a client’s assessment is to look for the areas in which the client is feeling an emotional charge, either positive or negative. Look for places in which the client indicates there is a concentrated energy, such as in his or her priorities for change and the importance he or she assigns to each of the well-being areas.
The role of the coach is to look for the client’s autonomous motivation—the areas in which the client is expressing an interest in growth and change—not the areas in which the coach believes the client should be interested.
Consider the stages of change. If the assessment includes indicators of the client’s stage(s) of change, consider how this might impact the coaching program and the client’s needs. Remember to prioritize the cognitive and emotional goals in the early stages of change and the planning and action goals in the later stages of change.
Question gaps. Due to design or user errors or incomplete answers, assessments will sometimes leave the coach with questions about inconsistencies in responses. For example, a client may name improving nutrition as the “highest priority” while indicating a low score in terms of readiness to change. In these cases, the coach will want to take note and be prepared to inquire about the discrepancy in information during the coaching session.
Note concerns. Where appropriate, an assessment review should include an examination of any mental health or medical concerns indicated by the client. Be aware of any red flags such as health risks, injuries, or other health concerns that might require a physician’s release before engaging in regular exercise.
If a client wants to exercise to be a part of the coaching program, a physician release form can be provided to the client to give to his or her physician. This is a document the coach can create, asking the client’s doctor for any recommendations or restrictions in working with a coach.
Although coaches do not diagnose mental health risks, they need to know what to look for in order to make appropriate recommendations or referrals to a psychologist, therapist, or physician for consultation. The following indicators are examples and not all inclusive:
Depression: Clients who are not eating or sleeping in normal patterns, such as not sleeping or sleeping all of the time, appetite loss, or binge eating, may be showing signs of clinical depression and may need to be referred to their physicians.
Eating disorders: Clients who have lost a great deal of weight without surgery and/or medication and continue to do so when advised it will be harmful to their health (anorexia), exercise beyond their normal physical capacity, or continue to gain and/or lose 20–30 pounds without stabilizing, may be showing signs of an eating disorder and may need to be referred to their physicians.
Substance abuse: Clients who display unusual behaviors, such as acting out or violent outbursts, that are uncharacteristic of their usual behaviors may be showing signs of substance abuse, including steroid use, and may need to be referred to their physicians.
Anxiety disorders: Clients who suffer from panic attacks, claustrophobic behavior, or shortness of breath may be showing signs of anxiety disorder and may need to be referred to their physicians.
If a client shares a serious or life-threatening mental or physical health issue during an assessment or coaching session, advise him or her that the situation is outside of the scope of coaching and encourage and assist him or her to seek professional help as soon as possible.
Honor Intuition and the Client
If a coach has a sense that a client should seek further medical attention or needs resources outside the coach’s expertise, a coach must respectfully express that concern. If the client then chooses not to engage with additional resources, it is recommended that the coaching relationship be terminated until the client has received the appropriate assistance.
Therefore, it is valuable to build relationships with highly respected health experts that could serve as sources for referrals. This may also lead to cross-referrals and business building. If a coach does not have connections to appropriate referrals, clients can also be encouraged to see their primary care physicians for referrals.
If a coach seeks advice about a client from another health professional, it is critical that the tenets of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) are followed, taking full precautions not to share the client’s name or any revealing personal information (US Department of Health and Human Services).
Allowing clients to formulate and find their own answers
Honestly sharing observations
Under-promising and over-delivering
Being humble in sharing information and advice
Coaching with a Well-Being Assessment
The first coaching sessions with a client are an opportunity for establishing trust and rapport, confirming a coach’s sense of the client’s circumstances based on any assessments that may have been completed ahead of time and determining the readiness/energy level of the client for a change.
It should never be assumed that assessments completed ahead of time reveal the whole story or reflect how the client will be feeling when the coaching session takes place. Also, mistakes or misinterpretation of questions can sometimes occur when filling out forms.
It is wise to confirm in a coaching session important items that might be significant in working toward a client’s vision or checking in on items that don’t seem to add up based on other comments. That’s why it’s so important for coaches to practice mindfulness and to be in the moment with clients rather than fixated on the results of an assessment. Assessments are helpful as guides; they become unhelpful when they introduce an agenda that triggers a client to become resistant.
Establish Trust and Rapport
It is crucial to establish trust and rapport with clients at the outset of every coaching session; that is especially true at the outset of the first coaching session. Coach and client may be unknown to each other apart from information exchanged ahead of time, so it is essential for coaches to put clients at ease and to bring them into their confidence through:
Holding clients in positive regard
Listening with full attention
The coach begins by thanking the client for completing the assessment(s), and get a sense of their experience and learning from assessments. Ask the client to share any feelings, issues, or questions they may have in the wake of the assessment(s). Pay attention to the emotional charge as well to the underlying needs so that you can offer an empathetic reflection in reply. It is important that the client feels heard and respected on an emotional level before moving on.
“What’s most important for you right now?”
“What are you most excited to talk about?”
“What are you yearning for in your life?”
“What areas of life make you feel most alive?”
These are the operative inquiries. Regardless of how they may have rated and prioritized things at the time of the assessment(s), coaches work with clients at the moment. Things may have shifted between then and now for any number of reasons (including the taking of the assessment[s] themselves).
It’s the job of the coach to remain open to the presenting energy and issues of the client rather than showing up with an agenda for the coaching session (however grounded that may be in the assessments). The aim is to flow and co-construct things with the client rather than to wear the expert hat of teacher or advisor.
Use Appreciative Inquiry to Discover Client Successes, Strengths, Frameworks, and Hopes
The best way to discuss an assessment is to use the information gleaned from it to make powerful, client-specific, strength-based inquiries in a way that will assist clients in knowing themselves and moving forward in the direction of their desired futures.
By asking clients open-ended questions about their successes, strengths, frameworks, and hopes, the coach will not only learn more about their priorities and the issues they want to focus on at this time, but it will also elevate the client’s readiness and energy for change.
Clients are used to taking assessments that have the intention of revealing flaws that need to be fixed; it is refreshing when assessments are used to reveal strengths that need to be reinforced. Conversations about assessments are a time for learning rather than telling what clients should know or do.
Other inquiries are:
“What questions do you have after completing the assessment?”
“What insights do you have by completing the assessment?”
“I’m curious about the way you responded to . . . Tell me more.”
“About what do you feel most proud?”
“What surprised you?”
“What concerns you? ”
Masterful coaching is about paying attention to and building on the energy clients show up with for coaching. When their energy is low (whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually), appreciative empathy can bring new energy. When their energy is high, the appreciative inquiry can assist them with getting or staying inspired.
Either way, discovering client successes, strengths, frameworks, and hopes that are grounded in reality as revealed by the assessment(s) and by what they have to say now, in the moment, will enable clients to develop a vision and to design appropriate actions.
Discover Preferred Client Learning Modes and Styles
People learn best in different ways. More than 80 learning style models have been developed and another book would be needed to do them justice. The Myers Briggs and DISC assessments, to mention only two of the more popular ones, reveal learning styles and are among the models to consider.
Although there is considerable criticism of the validity of learning style models and assessments by psychologists and psychometricians, there is no dispute that individual preferences in learning styles play a role in change and learning. Take weight loss, for example.
Some prefer to learn from books, some want a close personal mentor such as a personal trainer, some enjoy online self-help programs or online social networks, some value a local live group discussion or class format, some seek out competitions, whereas others do best when they go away for an intensive learning week with experts.
One of the International Coach Federation’s core coaching competencies relates to learning style: “[The coach] demonstrates respect for the client’s perceptions, learning style, and personal being.” Apart from such respect, it’s important for clients to connect with coaches in ways that promote their learning and growth. Noticing the language and approaches they use, the coach can then better come alongside clients in the process of enabling them to more rapidly and successfully acquire new knowledge and skills.
Discuss Components of the Assessment
Next, the coach will inform the client that they have reviewed their assessments ahead of time, getting a sense of where they are at right now and on what they want to work. Explain, however, that assessments never tell the whole story and that it would be helpful if they would be willing to share what surfaced for them during the assessment and where they want to go with what emerged.
Ask specific questions to clarify missing information and to bolster the self-confidence of the client. Seek out successes to notice the client’s emotional charge, identify the client’s readiness to change, and note concerns that may relate to physical or mental health risks.
When clients talk about “failures” or things that have not worked for them in the past, a coach can support them in reframing those experiences as learning opportunities and life lessons. Clients grow through “trial and correction,” not “trial and error.” By taking this non-judgmental, growth-oriented framework, coaches create a safe place in which clients can open up and say anything. Whenever possible, the coach can champion a client’s capacity to change and assisting him or her in finding compelling reasons to try again.
Curiosity on the part of a coach empowers clients to find their own answers, to be more resourceful, and to discover new possibilities for moving forward. Curiosity is not an interrogation; it is rather open, inviting, judgment-free, leisurely, and even playful exploration of opportunities for learning and growth. As the coach demonstrates curiosity with the clients, the clients will be more curious about their own capacities and more willing to try new things.
To use curiosity well, a coach uses deep, open-ended inquiries that require thought to answer and connect clients to their heartfelt dreams and desires. Such questions often reveal information that would not otherwise come to the surface. It is important to:
Notice the energy shifts in client responses. Be curious when there is a change in affect, whether that’s increased energy for change or resistance to it.
Avoid responding to clients with analytical questions. For example, if a client says, “I want to lose weight” or “I need to get in shape” say “Tell me about what makes that important to you” or “Tell me about what that would make possible for you.” Such curiosity is likely to elicit more information than “Why do you want to do that?” because analytical “why” questions can sound challenging or judgmental.
Related to an assessment such as the Well coaches well-being assessment, questions such as the following are useful in generating deeper insights:
You mentioned that you have children/ grandchildren. Tell me about them.
What brought you to a coach?
What would be different in your life if you felt healthier and fit?
What fitness activities did you like in the past? What fitness activities can you see yourself doing?
I noticed from your assessment that you haven’t exercised recently. Tell me about that.
What healthy eating habits do you have now? What changes would you like to make in your eating?
How do you feel about your eating right now? What eating habits would you like to improve?
When have you been the most successful at managing your weight? Describe your experience and the circumstances.
You said you weigh “X” now, and you’d like to weigh “Y.” What would that change make possible?
Tell me about your best past experiences with weight management.
What has worked in the past?
What have you learned from your past efforts in managing weight that would be helpful in the future?
When is your stress at its lowest?
What works best for you when it comes to managing stress?
What do you do when you’re under stress? What have you tried in the past to reduce the stress that would be helpful in the future?
How would you describe your daily energy level?
What fills your cup and gives you energy? What empties your cup and drains your energy?
When was the last time you had a physical exam with a physician?
How are you feeling today?
Tell me about your relationship with your physician.
I see from your questionnaire that you have [name of condition]. What is the treatment plan you have been following?
What is your greatest hope related to your health?
What are you most satisfied with in your life? For what are you most grateful?
What brings you the most pleasure?
Other possible inquiries include the following:
What are you doing presently in this area of health, fitness, and wellness?
Describe your best experience with this area. What have you done in the past that worked? How would you rate your mastery of this area on a scale of 0–10?
By what values are you striving to live by? How are your environment, work, and relationships impacting you? Tell me more about . . .
The Nature of Design Thinking
Design thinking, a concept born of the world of architects and artists, provides some important principles for co-creating plans with coaching clients. Like architects, coaches support clients in creating a clear vision of what they want to build and help make plans to create strong foundations and frameworks on which to build.
In the design process, the coach as “architect” takes a solution-focused approach, incorporating both analysis and imagination. According to Nelson and Stolterman (2012), “Design is the action of bringing something new and desired into existence—a proactive stance that resolves or dissolves problematic situations by design.”
This collaborative state requires open-ended inquiry, mindful listening, and empathy above all. The coach as “designer” doesn’t come to the design stage with a predetermined idea of what the client’s vision and goals should be. Instead, coaches honor the principles of design that rely on the following strategies:
Empathy. Seeing the world through the eyes of the client by encouraging the client to tell his or her own story and listening for the perspectives the client has to share. The coach listens for the spoken and unspoken, checking out intuitions and tapping into the creativity of the client.
Optimism. The coach assumes that no matter how challenging the constraints of the client’s situation, there is always a solution, and the client is capable of success. Much like the anticipatory principle of appreciative inquiry, a coach who uses design thinking holds a positive image of the future on behalf of the client.
Collaboration. The design thinking approach acknowledges the value of the collaborative nature of inspiration and design. Similar to the constructionist principle of appreciative inquiry and lessons learned from social cognitive theory, there is recognition of the power of two or more brains working toward a grand design which, in the case of coaching, is the grand design for one’s life!
Experimentalism. “Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions,” In the process of creating a great vision and subsequent goals, this means that both coach and client must let go of the idea that the first idea is the best idea. This opens up the opportunity for prototype testing, evaluation, and redesign along the way.
Designing the Coaching Program
The startup of a coaching program sets the tone for the entire coaching relationship both by establishing trust and rapport and by creating an inspiring and engaging vision and goals on which a client will work for weeks and months to come. The design of the relationship—including the principles of empathy, positivity, creative collaboration, and a learning and growth mindset through experimentation—is ideally conveyed to the client at the outset.
Designing the Coaching Agreement
The first session is an opportunity to ask a few “get to know you” questions related to the client’s occupation, family, hobbies, physical activities, or daily routine and to find areas of commonality between coach and client. The coach can briefly share his or her own biography but should avoid talking too long or too much about him or herself so as not to take the focus off of the client and the client’s agenda for coaching.
It is also an opportunity to convey the coach’s heartfelt passion about the work as well as to describe relevant education and experience. Clients can tell when the coach is reciting lines, and it does not sound genuine. Before beginning the coaching session, ask “What more do you want to know about me before we begin?”
Of course, the underlying reason for these “warm-up” conversations is to establish a sense of connection between coach and client. Humans have a need to belong, which includes a perception that the other feels a genuine concern and has a long-term interest in being connected.
For clients to become self-determining beings, they need to feel connected to others and experience a sense of belonging “with” another. The coaching relationship is above all a collaborative partnership with deep respect for the talents, strengths, and skills that each person brings to it.
Describe the Role of the Coach
The first session is a critical time to explain or remind the client of the difference between education and coaching. Whereas educators have information, expertise, and wisdom that they want to share with their students, coaches enable clients to discover a lot of that for themselves. On occasion and when appropriate, coaches may provide expert advice or knowledge during a coaching session.
Most of the time, however, coaches will listen, ask questions, and reflect what they are hearing in ways that promote client learning, growth, and movement. That is the coach approach—it’s a personalized learning system which enables clients to find their own answers and achieve exceptional results even in the face of challenges.
The coach can share his or her confidence that this approach often assists clients in reaching higher than they would otherwise. It is even better when this confidence is based on a coach’s track record of client success.
There Is No One “Right” Way
It is crucial that clients realize they are not getting a cookie-cutter approach. With regard to supporting a client’s autonomy and competence, the kind of connection that grows out of coaching relationship is the kind that is organically shaped based on the present needs of the client. A masterful coach does not apply a “one-size-fits-all” template to the client moving through the change process.
Highlight the Promise to Build and Maintain Trust
One of the most crucial ways to build trust is through responsible and respectful record keeping. Being clear about policies of confidentiality and record keeping assures that coaches respect the client’s right to privacy and are fundamentally prudent in the protection of those rights (within the limits of institutional regulations and/or laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
This extends to those records created, stored, accessed, transferred, and disposed of by coaches during the course of working with clients. Clients base their trust in a coach on the assessment of the coach’s benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence. The coach’s commitment to maintaining confidentiality is key to maintaining this trust.
Agree on Coaching Principles
It is important for coaches and clients to agree and commit to some key principles for coaching programs before or during the first coaching session. For example, the coach and client may consider agreeing on the following principles at the onset of the coaching relationship:
I will help my client identify and fully engage his or her strengths on the path to a better future.
I will ask provocative questions and encourage my client to arrive at his or her own answers whenever possible and co-create answers otherwise.
I will encourage realistic expectations and goals.
I will be direct and firm with constructive reflections when needed.
I will support my client in brainstorming creative possibilities for moving forward and navigating roadblocks.
When appropriate, with permission, and within my scope of practice, I will offer advice, instruction, and resources for improving health, well-being, and performance.
I will be punctual and responsive.
I will recognize early whether the chemistry with a client is good or not optimal. If not optimal, I will refer the client to another coach.
I will acknowledge when my client has an issue that is outside my scope of knowledge and skills and recommend other resources.
I will send a summary of each coaching session, including vision and plan for client editing (or ask the client to do so).
I want to improve my level of health, well-being, or performance in life or work.
I am ready to take responsibility to make and sustain changes in at least one area.
I am ready to invest at least three months to make improvements.
I will be open and honest, and I will share personal information that is relevant to my health, well-being, and performance.
I am ready to become more self-aware.
I am curious and open to suggestions and trying new things.
I understand that setbacks are normal on the path of change and necessary in order to establish new mindsets and behaviors.
I will be punctual and responsive.
Whatever the language, it is recommended that the agreement established between the coach and client is in written form and revisited periodically to ensure that both parties are honoring the established boundaries and expectations. It is much easier to address concerns about the relationship based on principles which have already been agreed.
Startup Coaching Session
An initial coaching session is typically focused on gaining a good understanding of the client’s history, strengths, and goals as well as to start building a vision and plan. It is important to explain that the objectives for the first coaching session include discussing assessment results (if an assessment was part of the startup phase);
learning more about the client’s priorities, strengths, goals, motivators, challenges, and resources; and supporting the client in developing a plan (including a vision, three-month behavioral goals, and several first week goals). Because the initial coaching session is particularly impactful and can cover a lot of ground, it may require more time than subsequent coaching sessions, either designed as a longer initial session or divided over the course of several sessions.
Protocol for Designing the Coaching Relationship Set Expectations
What is coaching and what is not coaching?
Introduce the coach’s biography.
Confidentiality and record keeping
Discuss coaching agreement principles.
Clarify expectations regarding logistics (e.g., payments, scheduling, rescheduling, and length of sessions).
Share assessment for the client to complete.
Prepare for Startup Session
Review the well-being assessment: Seek out success, notice aliveness, consider stages of readiness, question gaps, and note concerns.
Remember the key coaching skills: mindful listening, open inquiry, and perceptive reflection.
Formulate curious, strengths-based inquiries.
Welcome and thank you
Thank the client for completing assessments.
Review the session agenda: Confirm the client’s expectations and priorities, review an assessment, gather additional information, create a vision, and design goals.
Explore the Well-Being Assessment
Ask the client what questions s/he has after completing the well-being assessment.
Ask the client what insights s/he may have had had by completing the well-being assessment.
Gather missing information, and clarify the coach’s questions.
Discuss client’s medical history and need for physician release, if applicable.
90 minutes, whereas subsequent sessions can range from 20 to 60 minutes
After coaches and clients have a good sense of each other and have developed trust and rapport, the next stage in the coaching relationship is to support the client in articulating and developing a compelling vision of his or her desired future self. Having clear goals is correlated with happiness and life satisfaction, whereas having a vision of one’s best self-enhances well-being and increases hope. A magnetic and beckoning vision contributes to the motivational energy that moves clients forward in the stages of change.
By connecting clients with a vision that considers their best experiences, core values, and generative conditions, it becomes easier for clients to imagine the way forward to a target, hence confidence grows too.
At their best, health, wellness, and life visions are as follows:
Grounded (building on current success)
Bold (stretching the status quo)
Desired (what people truly want)
Palpable (as if they were already true)
Participatory (involving many stakeholders)
A compelling vision identifies what people want rather than what they don’t want. It’s hard to see and feel the absence of something; in contrast, it’s hard to ignore and resist the presence of something. This holds true for wellness and every other area of life. Wellness is not the absence of disease or the opposite of illness wellness is rather the presence of well-being and the culmination of life and health-giving practices that include mindfulness, self-compassion, energy, and all that contributes to thriving.
Thriving results from tapping into one’s special talents, strengths, and purpose, having a growth mindset oriented toward learning and the ability to set and achieve the goals needed to grow.
Looking at wellness holistically, considering the breadth of possibility for human thriving is exciting, especially when clients have a personalized description of what they want, and believe they can do and be in the longer term (six months, one year, two years, five years, etc.). Successful coaching programs begin at this place, discovering through appreciative inquiries and reflections the values, outcomes, behaviors, motivators, strengths, and structures that clients want to realize through coaching.
Coaches avoid analyzing the causes of obstacles, barriers, setbacks, and challenges as though they were deficits to be fixed or problems to be solved. It is not helpful to ruminate for long or try to solve “why” the client has not achieved his or her dreams yet. This can generate a downward spiral of increasing discouragement and resistance.
It is better to assist clients in generating new possibilities for meeting and overcoming challenges by staying positive, appreciating strengths, brainstorming alternatives, and mobilizing resources. It is empowering for clients when coaches use verbal persuasion to communicate confidence in the client’s ability to move forward.
In the early stages of change, where challenges loom large and may appear overwhelming, it’s especially important to express empathy for client emotions and needs as well as express confidence that they have what it takes to succeed. This will both validate clients and reconnect them with their capacity for change and growth; it will shift the conversation in a positive direction.
In the later stages of change, after clients already have a measure of self-efficacy, clients will need to brainstorm and plan action strategies, including approaches to tackle emerging challenges that will be easier to handle given the higher level of self-efficacy.
The Importance of Motivation
As clients explore the most inspirational and feasible goals, it’s important to tie those goals back to a client’s reasons for the change, which underlie their visions. Understanding the reasons behind the goals helps clients stay on track. For example, if a client wants to lose 10 pounds, it is important to uncover how this is connected to the vision of his or her best self (e.g., “You want to lose 10 pounds because . . . ?”).
Once the reasons are pinned down, explore whether the motivator is strong enough to keep a client on track (“Is this enough to get you to the finish line? Will this reason keep you on track to make the necessary changes?”). It is important to help a client identify reasons that are strong positive motivators. Different prompts and motivators work for each client.
For some, the motivator might be wanting to play with their grandchildren. In this case, posting a photo of the grandchildren on the refrigerator may help. For many, an eating log may motivate them to make conscious choices instead of eating mindlessly or in reaction to emotions.
Some may want to add an avoidance motivator, such as avoiding loss of eyesight caused by diabetes. Keeping a picture of full health in mind can be a powerful motivator. Clients can breathe life into the motivator by creating a picture that they can summon later when they are making decisions between health-giving behaviors and less healthy ones.
Listen attentively for the use of words such as obstacles, barriers, setbacks, risks, or challenges. Explore what they mean by those words and what will enable them to move forward in order to achieve their goals, not just immediately but also in the long term. Staying focused on solutions and possibilities, a coach can assist clients in meeting their goals by asking questions such as:
Tell me more about what is driving you to accomplish this goal. What is important to you about this goal? What results are you looking for?
What have been your best experiences in accomplishing goals like this in the past?
What values would be represented by your accomplishing this goal?
For whom do you want to make this change?
What structures and supports could assist you in being successful in reaching this goal?
To what extent is this scaled appropriately with just the right amount of challenge?
Although each of these topics will support the creation of a compelling vision, the importance of the client’s connection to their autonomous motivation cannot be overstated. Too often we’ve seen a client’s first “design” of a vision being driven by external forces and validation, based on what others want of them or what they feel they “should” want for themselves. These visions aren’t deeply rooted enough to plan and nourish goals that lead to sustainable action.
As clients work on their visions, the following questions can assist clients with discovering not only their long-term wishes but also with beginning to formulate their three-month goals. All of these questions will never be used with any one client on any one occasion (or the clients would feel interrogated); each of these questions add value, however, and may be useful, as clients seek to distill their vision into a provocative proposition.
What would you like your health, well-being, or performance in life or work to look like in three months, one year, two years, five years, etc.?
What do you believe is possible?
What are the top three values in your life? How is your well-being linked to these values?
What are the top three goals in your life? How is your well-being linked to these goals?
What part of your life is most important to you? How does well-being fit into that?
What would you like more of in your life? How is that linked to your well-being?
What would you like less of in your life? How is that linked to your well-being?
What excites you? How can we link that to your well-being?
What motivators might enable you to overcome your inertia and start moving forward?
What would your life be like if you achieved your vision? How would that feel?
What would your life be like if you do not achieve your vision? How would that feel?
What is the best-case scenario?
What have you tried and accomplished in your life that is similar to this goal?
What are some new possibilities that you haven’t considered before?
Protocol for Designing a Wellness Vision
Value: Explain the value of creating a wellness vision: A vision is a compelling statement of who you are and what health-promoting, life-giving behaviors you want to do consistently.
What’s working now: Ask about strengths and current successes: What are you currently doing to support your health and well-being?
About what elements of your life do you feel best about? In what way did you contribute to making those true and/or possible?
Strengths: Collaborate to identify client strengths: What are your success stories? What gives you pride? What qualities do you most appreciate about yourself?
Thrive: Identify ways a client can thrive: What makes you thrive? When are you most alive?
Important: Ask what is most important to the client right now: Given all that is going well, what are you wishing? What elements of your health and well-being do you want to improve?
Motivation: Discover the client’s motivators: What are the benefits of making changes now? What is the driving force behind the desire to change now? What do you treasure most about potential change?
Visualize: Support the client in visualizing his or her vision, and describe it in detail: What are the most important elements in your vision? Tell me what your vision looks like. Paint me a picture. What would you look and feel like at your ideal level of wellness? What kind of person do you want to be when it comes to your health and well-being?
Past successes: Discover previous positive experiences with elements of the vision: What have been your best experiences to date with the key elements of your vision—times when you felt alive and fully engaged? Tell one or two stories in detail.
Strengths to realize a vision: Identify the strengths and values that could be used to reach the vision: Without being modest, what do you value most about your life? What values does your wellness vision support? What strengths can you draw on to help you close that gap and realize your vision? How can the lessons from your successes in life carry over to your current situation?
Major challenges hurting confidence: Identify obstacles to boosting confidence: What challenges do you anticipate having to deal with on the way to reaching your vision? (Talk through multiple possibilities and express empathy.) What concerns you most?
Strategies: Explore the strategies and structures (people, resources, systems, and environments) needed to navigate challenges and ensure success: What people, resources, systems, and environments can you draw to help you realize your vision and meet your challenges? What strategies may be effective in helping you realize your vision and meet your challenges? (Brainstorm and clarify multiple possibilities before focusing.)
Recap: Reflect and summarize what you have heard the client saying about his or her vision. Collaborate on a first draft statement that captures the vision in a way that is meaningful and compelling for them.
Commit: Ask the client to state and commit to the vision.
Visualization Tool for Developing a Vision
This visualization exercise takes only five–10 minutes, and it can make a significant contribution, as clients seek to develop their visions.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath from the lower stomach, and slowly breathe out. (Use this as a transition throughout the exercise.)
In your mind, go to a quiet place where you feel comfortable, peaceful, strong, and confident. You feel relaxed. What does your quiet place look like? How do you feel being there? Notice what’s around you.
Picture yourself (one year, five years, etc.) from now. What does your health, fitness, or wellness look like? How do you look physically? What are you wearing? How does your body move? Notice any other changes in your life. Describe what you are doing, feeling, and thinking regarding your wellness.
Imagine that it is five years from now, and you have accomplished your goals. What does it feel like? What are you doing differently? What is the same? What did you do to get there? Who’s around you? What activities are you doing? Describe your health now. Who has helped you along the way?
Think of one keyword to summarize this experience and/or your commitment to health, fitness, and wellness.
Open your eyes, and let’s discuss what you learned from the exercise. Debrief with a measure of confidence and an exploration of the strengths and resources clients can call on to make it so.
What do you think is the best possible outcome of our coaching together?
What do you think is the likely outcome of our coaching together?
What would you like the outcome of our coaching to be?
Examples of Visions
Visions are best written in the present tense as if they are already happening and in the client’s voice. A complete vision statement might sound something like this: “I am strong, lean, and 20-pounds lighter, shopping for cute, attractive new clothes for my attractive body. I am happy with lots of energy to do whatever I feel like doing. My health is better, and I am open, more patient, and social. My motivators are feeling and looking great with bountiful energy.
I also want to be around a long time for my parents, nieces, and nephews. When I face challenges, such as getting too busy, discouraged, overwhelmed, or stressed out, I pause, collect myself, and take doable steps to get back on track. Healthy eating, exercise, and handling stress well are important to me and within my grasp. Through ongoing, intentional, and realistic planning, I achieve my goals and realize my wellness vision.”
Or: “My wellness vision is that I have healthy eating habits and set a good example for my children. I exercise regularly so that I am delaying aging and preserving my ability to function well in my older years. I look better and feel youthful.”
Or: “I have plenty of strength and stamina so that I can play energetically with my grandchildren. I am in charge of my health and feel greater well-being and contentment. I am a non-smoker (for good) and enjoy life to the fullest.”
Making Visions Real:
Designing Behavioral Goals
Compelling visions incorporate not only the desired outcomes but also the behaviors needed to achieve that outcome. When clients begin a coaching relationship, they typically know more about what they want (the outcomes) than about how they are going to get there (the behaviors). For example, they may say their goals are to maintain a healthy weight, increase their sense of calm, or exercise with gusto.
These are outcome goals and they have their place, especially in the context of the vision statements. They reflect feelings, needs, values, and desires that can motivate and sustain behavior change. In and of themselves, however, outcome goals lead to behavior change when supported by a clear and compelling plan.
Without a clear plan, motivation alone does not propel clients into action, and it often withers in the face of adversity. With a clear plan, however, clients know what to do in order to achieve their desired outcomes and to make their visions a reality. What clients need are both willpower and waypower.
Clear plans include behavioral goals which:
Encourage the client to take on a challenge that stretches them while meeting their potential skills and abilities
Enable clients to think about and identify the specific actions and behaviors they want to do next in working toward their vision, answering the question, “Now what?”
Encourage clients to measure progress against their initial baseline behaviors, adjusting and redesigning along the way. Trial and correction, not trial and error, represents the coaching framework for action planning.
Are grounded in the client’s motivation, rooted in his or her values, strengths, and desires
Support self-efficacy and self-determination, providing opportunities to build competence and create a connection
Enable coaches to measure success. Having evidence-based data is critical for establishing efficacy as well as credibility, not only in one’s coaching practice but also in the consumer and healthcare communities.
Is It SMART?
One formula to ensure that experiments are behavioral goals is the SMART acronym (Doran, 1981):
Assisting clients with being specific about the actions and behaviors in which they will engage to reach their visions will increase their levels of success. Being specific about the details of how and when is crucial because it gives clients a time frame in which to accomplish the goal. (It is the difference between putting something on your schedule now versus “getting around to it” when there is time.) Creating measurable goals identifies when success is attained.
Break down the vision into actions or behaviors that clients want to be doing on a consistent basis in three months. Each week with the client, co-construct new incremental experiment steps that will assist him or her with moving closer and closer to the three-month goals. Remind clients early and often that gradual change leads to permanent change.
Realistic goal setting is essential to client success. If the goal is realistic, success will follow. Quick wins and victories are important. Being successful at achieving one goal helps clients move forward with other goals. Success builds self-efficacy and self-esteem. Nothing hinders the change process more than setting unrealistic and unachievable goals.
Why Set Goals?
Goals affect performance through four mechanisms. First, goals serve a directive function; they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities. Second, goals have an energizing function. High-level goals lead to greater effort than do low-level goals.
Third, goals affect persistence. When participants are allowed to control the time they spend on a task, hard goals prolong effort. Fourth, goals affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies.
“Happiness requires having clear-cut goals in life that give us a sense of purpose and direction”. Even better, when a client has success with one goal, it raises self-efficacy and increases the potential for success in other areas.
Remembering the best experiences one has had with health and wellness
Identifying the core values that govern one’s life
Noticing one’s energy in different environments
Thinking about and writing down the components of a wellness vision
Learning about the things that improve health and wellness.
Weighing the pros and cons of change versus staying the same
Thinking about the importance of making a change
Imagining what it would feel like to be in perfect health
Intermediate Behavioral Goals:
The First Step in the Vision Quest
After a compelling vision has been articulated by your client or deferred until later, encourage the client to set goals that bring the vision closer to reality. The Wellcoaches training program encourages three-month goals as an intermediate step because it is long enough to make meaningful progress, establish some new habits, and experience the benefits, while short enough to stimulate a sense of urgency.
When working with clients to define their intermediate goals, the coach asks the client what they want to be doing consistently three (or one or two) months from now in each of the physical or mental wellness areas they included in their vision. Specific, manageable behavioral goals should be linked directly to a client’s vision. For example, if clients want to be fit and trim, ask what behaviors they want to be doing consistently that will enable them to achieve that outcome.
It is important to prioritize the goal areas by importance to the client, asking what matters most and why. Then, the coach and client can brainstorm and commit to specific three-month behavioral goals in the priority areas that will help them realize the vision. Before moving on to the action plan and experimental goals, clients should clearly state and summarize their goals as part of the process of verbal persuasion.
Examples of Three-Month Behavioral Goals That Support Desired Outcomes
Desired Outcome: Improve cardiovascular health so that I live a long, active life.
Explain the nature and value of setting three-month goals.
Brainstorm actions that would lead to the achievement of the wellness vision.
Ask the client to choose three of the actions that are most important to pursue.
Confirm the connection between the actions to the wellness vision.
Assist the client in translating the actions into SMART behavioral goals.
Three-Month Behavioral Goal: I will do three 30-minute walking sessions each week, at 60%–70% of my maximal heart rate with my friend Jane.
Desired Outcome: I will increase bone density so that I am strong enough to hike the Appalachian Trail for my 70th birthday.
Three-Month Behavioral Goal: I will do two 20-minute strength-training sessions per week at the gym.
Desired Outcome: I will have peace of mind and stop taking blood pressure medicine.
Three-Month Behavioral Goal: I will write in my journal each evening three things that happened that day for which I am grateful and share them with my wife.
Designing Weekly Experiments
Start the discussion of the first action plan by focusing on the intermediate goals of highest priority, then work through other areas that are important to the client. For each area, the coach will ask clients what they want to do immediately, during the next week. Weekly goals enable clients to take small manageable steps toward their longer-term goals. Achieving these stepping stones is often a breakthrough in building a client’s confidence.
When it comes to weekly goals, being specific about the details of how and when is crucial because it helps clients pin down the details needed to accomplish the goal. Having a mastery experience with one goal builds a sense of efficacy and helps clients be more ready, willing, and able to move forward with other goals. Nothing hinders the change process more than setting unrealistic, unachievable goals. And “low goals,” as Locke and Latham call them, goals without enough challenge, produce low productivity and results.
Clients experience flow when their goals are challenging slightly beyond their skills and experience. That’s the zone for clients to enter as often as possible while working on their goals. This zone is that place which is neither too hard nor too easy but rather perfectly suited for client learning, growth, and success.
Because client potential is often greater than the client recognizes, don’t be afraid to consider goals to which clients may exclaim, “No way!” Clients appreciate being called to go beyond what they’re imagining. To assist clients with moving into this zone more frequently, the coach will encourage them to not use the words “try,” “may,” or “maybe.”
It’s better to get clients to speak confidently of what they will do, even to the point of framing behavioral goals in the present tense, as if they were already fully true. This can positively shape client self-image and goal accomplishment
In addition to ensuring that goals are challenging, specific, measurable, and motivating, goals should:
Consider what is needed to support success. Address environmental factors, including the client’s support team and other systems that impact their successful implementation.
Design First Experiment/Goals
Ask the client to choose a goal that is important.
Explore the structures (people, resources, systems, and environments) needed to ensure.
Assist the client in designing a SMART behavioral goal.
Use a confidence ruler to improve the client’s confidence in reaching the goal.
Ask the client to restate the goal.
Affirm the client’s ability to achieve the goal.
Have the client measure confidence. It is valuable to assess a client’s confidence in his or her ability to meet a goal by asking, “What is your confidence level on a scale of 0–10 for achieving this goal?” Explore why the client did not pick a lower number or what it would take to generate a higher number. If confidence is not high enough to support success, reevaluate the goal, and make changes, and design strategies so that clients will feel confident in their ability to achieve it.
Measure goal importance. To assess if clients are ready, willing, and able to change, it is essential to determine how important a goal is to them. Ask “How would you rate the importance of this goal on a scale of 0–10?” Explore why they did not pick a lower number and what it would take to generate a higher number. If clients are not ready for change, express empathy and acceptance, and explore the conditions that would generate readiness so that they recognize them when they arrive.
The Role of Brainstorming in Goal Setting
Brainstorming, the generation of possibilities with-out censor is an essential coaching skill and a fundamental part of generative moments in coaching. It is a time for coaches and clients to co-generate a wide variety of possible goals for consideration. For brainstorming sessions to be most effective, it’s important to:
Clarify the topic
Clarify the output (what’s being generated)
Encourage bold, even wild ideas
Build on what others say
Be visual and specific
Go for quantity
Do it fast
Brainstorming enables clients to develop creative approaches and their best plans before implementation. After multiple possibilities are generated, clients can explore each one in order to determine which are the most inspirational and feasible. Most importantly, the tone of the brainstorming conversation should be positive, demonstrating high-regard for the client’s creativity and capabilities, as positivity leads to enhanced problem solving and insight.
The Client Is in the Driver’s Seat
Be sure clients understand that they may turn away from any challenge or goal. It is always their choice. If they seem intrigued by a behavioral goal but intimidated by the challenge, encourage them to make a counterproposal that is more comfortable.
The job of the coach is to find the balance between challenging clients to do more than they think they can do while encouraging a scaling back of goals that are out of reach. Perceptive listening is a great strategy to use in this situation and with goal setting in general. It will often promote pro-change talk, explore ambivalence, and set the groundwork to obtain a commitment.
Another way to unleash the client’s ability is to encourage him or her to have self-compassion through the process of goal setting. And, one path-way to self-compassion is changing perspectives about goals by thinking of them as “experiments.”
Using the design thinking premise of experimentation, viewing goals as experiments to be tested and adjusted as needed allows clients to be more likely to be resilient through the challenges of trying new behaviors and skills.
Tracking and Measuring Outcomes Progress
Self-regulation theory suggests that the ability to monitor oneself is a key factor in goal achievement, whereas the use of tools (such as assessments) support autonomy, a key component in self-determination theory. Therefore, it is important not only to elicit qualitative feedback regarding client progress but also to track outcomes delivered by establishing new behaviors in an objective, measurable terms. When setting goals, a variety of baseline measurements and tracking techniques can be used to:
Assist clients in tracking progress over time on selected outcomes (e.g., reduced weight or inches lost, improved life balance, better peace of mind, increased fitness, etc.)
Help clients stay motivated toward achieving their goals
Provide important group outcomes for a coaching practice and for the field of coaching as a whole
A combination of several tracking approaches is best because, in a given period, one measure may change, whereas another may not. Clients will be more motivated if they see positive changes in at least one behavior area through behavioral tracking.
Over time, it is important to monitor which combination of tracking techniques will best assist the client in achieving success. During the initial sessions, ask the client which approaches they would prefer and discuss which measurements they would like to track. It is best to start out agreeing on a few effective measurements and adjust measurements over time as motivation increases.
Especially when clients have created mastery goals, or goals to develop or enhance success, they are more likely to take action to increase the chances of success, especially when supported by clear evidence.
Ask for Feedback on Coaching Sessions
Finally, it is important both for the coach’s learning and the client’s growth for the coach to get feedback on the coaching session before ending an initial coaching session. Asking questions, such as the following, provides valuable insight into what the client wants from the coaching experience:
“What was the most valuable part of today’s session?”
“How could future coaching sessions best support your path?”
“Is there anything you’d like to change about our session?”
“What can I do differently to better serve you?”
Unless they are asked directly, clients typically do not tell you that they would like the coaching to be different.
Clients may be thrilled by the startup coaching sessions but it’s best to inquire about their satisfaction in each session. The coach should continue getting feedback and fine-tuning the program. Requesting that the client convey feedback following the session, via email, is one way to encourage candor.
If there are any doubts about the coaching chemistry, it is important to be courageous and address the concern. If the feeling is mutual, the client should be given full permission to seek another coach and be offered assistance with the process.
Defining the Generative Moment
Generative moments can be thought of as the peak of a coaching session. A generative moment can be filled with the high energy that comes from being ready to do something new or the peaceful calm that comes with a new way of thinking.
Generative moments occur when clients are aroused along with the path of change and growth. They are the heart of coaching sessions that happen along the path to reaching or getting closer to the client’s vision. In these pivotal moments, client feelings, needs, and desires are investigated around the “topic du jour.”
During generative moments, coaches and clients explore the nature of the agreed topic, clarify desired outcomes, brainstorm strategies, and identify next steps. In these moments, coaches and clients co-generate new perspectives and co-construct engaging designs for moving forward. Coaches often describe this collaboration as an intuitive dance.
We call these “generative” because they inspire clients to generate new ideas, perspectives, or insights. They may also uncover capacities, which can lead to bold actions that can positively alter a client’s future. Generative moments are mini transformations that energize both coach and client and catalyze the next stage of the client’s progress.
As a client’s emotions intensify—ranging from excited to ambivalent to fearful—coaches and clients have a unique opportunity to take risks, expand perspectives, and challenge assumptions. The more clients can discover new perspectives, capacities, and actions that will meet their needs, the more progress they will make in moving toward their visions.
It’s important to allow time for the generative moment in most coaching sessions in order to focus on one topic that recharges the client’s batteries; this facilitates both the desire to change and the confidence to get there.
Working with a client to establish and revisit a vision can facilitate generative moments at the outset of a coaching program and whenever a session lags. It is good to revisit the vision in detail at least annually, even quarterly or monthly. Although clients commit to change and grow through building visions, lots of old and new topics emerge for consideration in coaching sessions.
Many things may ignite a client’s interest in a topic that calls for a generative moment—whether clients are experiencing negative or positive energy. The energy and its underlying needs make a client ripe for exploring new ways to meet those needs.
One way to think about generative moments is that they emerge as things that clients want less of (aversive indicators), things that clients want more of (attractive indicators), or some combination of the two. The former is generally accompanied by increased resistance, whereas the latter by increased readiness to pursue transformational change.
Sometimes, generative moments emerge when clients are still considering change—for example, when they are in the pre-contemplation or contemplation stages around a particular behavior. This often happens in response to external events. Pain and bad news get people’s attention, such as the message of “change or die” from a doctor.
Hope and good news also have a way of getting people’s attention. For example, many women stop smoking the instant they learn they are pregnant. The desire for a healthy baby eclipses the craving to smoke. At times such as these, coaches and clients have a unique opportunity to shake things up and move things forward.
When Do Generative Moments Occur Within Coaching Sessions?
Coaching sessions tend to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the warm-up phase, which is about establishing a connection, exploring and appreciating recent events and experience around client goals, and clarifying the topic on which the client would like to focus. The end is about identifying goals and developing innovative strategies that will carry the client forward until the next coaching session (and beyond). The end can be considered a cool-down phase after some more energetic work in the middle.
In between lies the space for the generative moment—the energetic epicenter or workout of the session. One caveat: Although there are a specific place and time in the process of a coaching session for the “generative moment,” generativity is not limited to this time and place. Ideally, generativity is woven throughout the entire coaching session.
A good interpersonal connection and understanding of client experiences are crucial to setting in motion the first steps of the generative moment. Understanding a client’s experience with his or her weekly goals, whatever the progress or lack thereof, can reveal topics around which clients have aroused energy.
Reviewing three-month goals can reconnect clients with their values, motivators, and inspiration. In the absence of judgment and in the presence of support for growth, these moments reveal what is alive in and important to clients. Encouraging clients to share stories can shed light on their feelings, their met and unmet needs, and their hopes and desires. Such is the stuff that makes for generative moments.
What Generates Generative Moments?
Each time a client participates in a coaching session, what is important to him or she shows up for the session as well, although a warmup phase may be required to uncover what that is. To use the language of NVC, clients show up for coaching with something that is “alive” or stirring within them at that moment. It’s the coach’s job to listen mindfully for that life force, reflect it back to the client, and inquire about where the client wants to go with that energy.
Client-driven generative moments represent a shift from traditional health education and the expert approach to change. It is not up to the coach to generate the moment. It is up to the client to show up with the energy to explore and the desire to learn. The client has that responsibility in every coaching session.
Coaches enable clients to move forward positively by following the client’s lead, paying careful attention to the client’s feelings, needs, and desires through the use of empathy, AI, and reflections. Like a mid-wife supporting a mother through the transitional stages to delivery, it is not the coach’s job to have “the moment” but rather to support clients through the flow of the generative moment.
Once a generative moment has run its course, coaching sessions flow easily into the design and planning through the use of behavioral goals and action plans. Clients often require assistance to frame such plans as starting points for experimentation, discovery and learning rather than as blueprints for execution.
Static planning models (i.e., make the plan, implement the plan) do not reflect the dynamic of human development. Innovative planning models that include client-centered empathetic design empower clients to make real-time adjustments and improvisations, thus better supporting the client’s confidence in being successful.
Generative Moments Engage Every Coaching Skill
In order to leverage the full potential of generative moments, a coach needs to use every coaching skill and tool dynamically in the moment. At their best, generative moments spark the intuitive dance of coaching. Handled poorly, generative moments are not only squandered but also can set clients back in both motivation and action. The following coaching skills, introduced in previous blogs, all need to be fully engaged to effectively move clients through generative moments.
Generative moments require a judgment-free environment, characterized by trust and the “willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent”. Safety and a strong sense of support are preconditions for success in all coaching sessions.
This creates optimal conditions for generative moments in which clients are challenged to stretch to the edge of their abilities. Establishing such a compassionate environment enables clients to be open and authentic so that the important stuff can get said and considered.
Defined as the “respectful understanding of another person’s experience,” empathy uses both emotional and cognitive awareness to connect with and give voice to what clients are feeling, needing and desiring. Without receiving empathy, clients will often fail to move through and derive full benefits from generative moments. Empathy differs from pity and sympathy in that it is a coach’s reflection of the client’s perceived experience rather than a sharing in it.
Clients are aware of empathy and presence not just consciously but also unconsciously, perhaps through the influence of mirror neurons. the influence of mirror neurons. When a coach—especially one who has developed a place of importance to the client—expresses discontent, it can send the client into a physical frenzy, increasing heart rates and spreading negative energy all around.
Defined as the “nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment,” mindfulness is a way to break free from being on autopilot. There’s no way to identify generative moments apart from mindful listening. By paying attention without judgment to what’s happening in oneself and in the client, coaches can help clients gain awareness of needs and choices. This is an essential component of the coaching presence required to maintain a trust-building and growth-promoting relationship.
If coaches ask too many leading questions with implied “right” answers, the generative moment can be lost. The true inquiry comes from the framework of “not assuming,” “not knowing” the answers, and having a beginner’s mind. The more coaches navigate with open-minded curiosity, especially with regard to clients’ capacities and strengths, the more clients will discover about themselves and where they want to go.
When coaches linger in the discovery phase of AI, with engaging questions that connect clients to their own best selves, clients are better able to put their strengths to work. “Without curiosity, we are unable to sustain our attention, we avoid risks, we abort challenging tasks, we compromise our intellectual development, we fail to achieve competencies and strengths, we limit our ability to form relationships with other people, and essentially stagnate”
Short or analytic answers. Open-ended inquiries that start with “what” or “how” are the keys to evoking such responses. Too many close-ended questions that require short “yes” or “no” answers tend to shut down this dynamic. “Why” questions can feel judgmental or can lead to analysis paralysis. Full engagement follows most directly by encouraging clients to remember and fully verbalize the stories and images of their own best selves.
Asking the client too many questions in a row, even great questions can feel like an interrogation to the client and can then compromise a generative moment. Such inquiry often has more to do with the coach’s desire to propel clients forward than with clients’ desire to figure things out for themselves.
The five forms of reflections used in MI that are especially useful in the context of generative moments are simple, amplified, double-sided, shifted-focus, and empathy reflections. They communicate the full engagement of the coach and connect the client with the motivation to change.
In response to empathy, inquiry, and reflections, clients need to pause to think, feel, or connect with their truths. This especially happens during generative moments. It is essential for coaches to honor this silence, be comfortable with pauses, and not intrude prematurely. Once the ball is in the client’s court, it is usually best to wait until the client hits it back.
Intervening too quickly prevents clients from maximizing their discoveries. Silence affirms the coach’s desire to hear what the client has to say and, even better, implies “I trust in your thoughts and ideas.” It is a special gift to be with clients in silence, especially those who are introverted because silence gives them time to organize their thoughts, feelings, and desires before translating them into words.
Open-ended Inquiry Creative Brainstorming
When it comes to generative moments, an inquiry that evokes stories and images has far more power to generate an upward spiral than does inquiry that leads
Brainstorming is an essential skill of coaching, especially when it comes to generative moments. With the increased motivation to change comes increased interest in specific change strategies. Such strategies are not handed to clients by coaches; rather, they are co-constructed with clients through the creative brainstorming of ideas, questions, approaches, and frameworks.
Coaches and clients can generate an enormous number of possibilities without evaluating the relative merits until later. The mood can be alternately playful, insightful, courageous, and realistic. Taking turns in coming up with possibilities is a good way to build and maintain momentum through the brainstorming process.
Unfailing affirmation is about steadfastly acknowledging the client’s capacities, characteristics, and strengths for a change. In this way, coaches positively impact both client efficacy and self-compassion. “My certainty is greater than your doubt” expresses the framework that coaches come from in working with generative moments.
When clients know that coaches believe in their capacities to change and achieve desired outcomes, they are more likely to get out of their own ways and try new strategies. Such an endorsement enables clients not only to get excited about the possibilities generated through brainstorming but also to move forward with one or more of them.
Generative moments grow out of the connection that coaches make with clients at the beginning of each coaching conversation. By establishing a “no-fault zone” where clients can blamelessly and shamelessly open up and share, coaches make it possible for clients to learn from their experiences and to move forward.
Early and effective use of empathy, inquiry, and reflections in reviewing client goals (both weekly and three-month goals) helps to uncover the topics clients want to explore in greater depth.
Facilitating Generative Moments
When creating a specific placeholder for the generative moment within the coaching session, the process includes eight primary stages:
Collaborates with the client to identify the topic on which to work, where he or she has aroused emotional energy and interest
Asks for permission to explore and work on the topic now
Encourages the client to describe what he or she really wants now in relation to the topic
Explores the strengths or values the client can leverage to move forward
Explores the environments the client can leverage to move forward
Explores decisional balance and develops discrepancy (when the client demonstrates ambivalence)
Engages the client in creative brainstorming of pathways forward
Expresses and facilitates confidence in the client’s ability to move forward
Collaborate with the Client to Identify the Topic on Which to Work Where He or She Has Aroused Emotional Energy and Interest
To identify the topic on which the client would like to focus, pay attention to the emotions, needs, desires, and values that the client has expressed throughout the session. Listen for:
What the client is feeling
What the client is attracted to
What the client wants less of
What the client is celebrating
What needs are alive in the client
What the client is resisting
How ready the client is to change
What gives the client energy
What moves the client to action
What the client highlights and remembers from the previous sessions
Sometimes, several topics emerge that are inter-twined or are ambiguously defined. Inquiry in advance of coaching sessions (e.g., through e-mail) and the use of reflections—particularly simple reflections—are necessary to drill down to a topic underlying others or clarify a clear topic definition.
Ideally, the topic of a generative moment will be self-evident to the client and coach alike. It will shine, like a light in the darkness. When that happens, it will be easy to name the topic and move on to the next step.
More often, coaches and clients will float different topics for consideration until one clearly rises to the surface. Coaches may name a topic and ask if it is an area the client would like to explore.
When clients agree, it may be useful to use a motivational interviewing style ruler to measure how much energy they have around that topic. If energy is low, there may be another topic worth pursuing. Or, it may be possible to invigorate a client’s energy by discussing his or her energy rating.
Alternating between open-ended inquiries and reflections is a way to clarify the topic. For example:
From our discussion, it sounds as though there are three potential topics which we could explore today. Here is what I have heard so far . . . (describe them succinctly)
We have time to work on one topic. On which one would you like to work?
What makes this topic the most important for our coaching today?
What outcome would you like at the end of today’s session?
The point is not to be “right” about the best topic to pursue but rather to invite clients to look more deeply at what is alive in them. Regardless of whether the coach or client first names the topic, the key is to hold that topic as an opportunity for deeper connection and learning. The generative moment is the heart of the coaching session, and the client’s heart determines the focus of the generative moment.
Ask for Permission to Explore and Work on the Topic Now
Once a topic has been identified and clarified, the coach and client agree on the appropriateness of working on it now. Coaching always protects the freedom and choice of clients, which increases both the motivation for change and the probability of success. The client’s stage of change significantly impacts both his/her readiness to address the topic as well as the approach that should be taken.
If clients are in the earliest stages of change regarding a particular topic, it may be difficult for them to mount the energy necessary for a generative moment that would move them forward to action. However, in these stages, clients can do the valuable thinking and feeling about possibilities, working the decisional balance for change, and exploring new supportive relationships or environments. A generative moment which builds hope can be a catalyst for increasing readiness that will eventually lead to transformational action.
Encourage the Client to Describe What He or She Really Wants Now in Relation to the Topic
The work of the generative moment starts with drilling down to the heart of the matter. It is a dance of self-discovery for clients, which challenges them to view and think differently about the topic and themselves. “Ah-ha!” experiences are common. Begin by tapping into or creating hope and optimism by inquiring about the client’s ideal vision or optimal outcome related to the topic at hand.
Next, AI and MI models offer different paths to get to the heart of the matter. In general, it’s valuable to first start with AI to build and harvest as much positive energy and emotion as can be elicited at a given moment. Reconnection to a client’s strengths and capacities may be sufficient to move forward into brainstorming and planning. MI also offers many tools to understand the roots of ambivalence, to play with ambivalence, and, even better, to resolve it. Often, coaches find themselves using a mix of both models.
Explore the Strengths or Values the Client Can Leverage to Move Forward
It is important to approach each topic as a possibility to be explored rather than as a problem to be solved. Working from a deficit-based framework, focusing on what is wrong and what needs to be “fixed,” can negatively influence how coaches view client potential and can
Instead, masterful coaches explore a topic from a strengths-based perspective, even when clients are experiencing resistance to change. Strengths-based inquiries focus on what is meaningful and compelling to clients more than on what they do not want. In addition, they invite clients to recall and reconnect with past successful experiences.
The benefits of using strength-based inquiries are plentiful. They include generating hope, optimism, and other kinds of positivity; reminding clients of their capabilities; and encouraging more of the behaviors that generated previous success. Remember the AI principle: that which we appreciate appreciates. Using the AI interview protocol, the following represents a sample of questions that can generate positive shifts in thoughts and behaviors:
Tell me about a time when you experienced a similar challenge and navigated your way through it.
What did success feel like?
What are the values reflected in and how you have handled this situation?
How does this connect with your vision?
What are the needs that would be met if this vision were realized for you?
What are the structures (people, places, things, tools, routines) that would enable you to be successful with this goal?
What are your hopes for how you would like to handle this issue in the future?
Name your main wish.
The primary objective of using the AI approach first is to engage clients in conversations that reconnect to their vitality—that place of deep longing that brought them to coaching in the first place. Such questions and requests shine a light on the hope and enthusiasm clients have for their visions and realign the situations with their visions.
Explore the Environments the Client Can Leverage to Move Forward
As Peterson and Seligman found in studying the prevalence of universal strengths and values, self-regulation is one of the least valued and used strengths. Self-regulation is vital in the change process. It manifests in diligently planning, preparing, and executing behavioral experiments; unpacking learning; followed by adjusting the what, how, and when of practicing new behaviors, over and over again.
Given that clients make behavioral decisions and choices all day long under strong influences of their environments, how then can clients adjust their environments to bolster their success, including boosting of much-needed self-regulation?
First, of course, the coaching process provides a valuable support in enhancing self-regulation in and of itself. Coaches can then help clients appreciate how their environments affect their self-regulation and encourage clients to consider “what might happen when it might happen, and how it might affect” their progress. “Coaching the environment” is a proactive strategy that supports goal achievement.
Clients can design environments that enable them to be more competent, a key psychological need and resource as we learned in exploring self-determination theory. The coach and client can together find the environments that enhance the completion of new experiments, and they can design structures (people, places, things) that increase the likelihood of mastery experiences.
Explore Decisional Balance and Develop Discrepancy (When the Client Demonstrates Ambivalence)
When the principles of AI do not uncover the heart of the matter and elevate clients’ readiness to move in the directions of their desires, MI tools can be useful to help them understand and dis-lodge their “stuckness,” resolve ambivalence and move forward.
Expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy are all designed to create a safe space for clients to explore their thoughts, feelings, needs, and intentions. When space is right, clients can leave behind their uncertainty to change and open themselves to new possibilities. This is often a critical part of successfully coaching clients through their generative moments.
Inviting clients to describe their authentic reasons for changing (change talk), instead of telling and selling clients on why they “should” change, is a challenging shift for a new coach. “Get into fishing and out of sales,” says motivational interviewing trainer and psychologist Robert Rhode.
Keep in mind that clients are more likely to move in the direction of positive change when they have figured out and described in their own words what outcomes they really want and clarified what challenges may be getting in the way and what it will take to reach their goals (change talk).
After clients have been “sitting in the muck” for a while, struggling with the discrepancy or conflict between the needs to not change and the needs to change, they will gain motivational energy by a desire to resolve the discrepancy and get readier to take action to move forward.
Coaching tools will not work unless the coach starts with the intention of understanding the client’s experience. The more coaches try to manipulate behavior or force an outcome, the more these tools will increase rather than decrease resistance. When that happens, coaches are working against rather than supporting generativity. Self-determination theory makes it clear that the human propensity for growth only happens when change is freely or autonomously chosen in the moment and supported by competence and relatedness.
Engage the Client in Creative Brainstorming of Pathways Forward
Once change talk has begun and client energy is higher, it’s helpful to engage clients in the light-hearted generation or brainstorming of ideas and approaches for moving forward. In brainstorming, possibilities are generated but not critiqued or evaluated. A good rule is the more the better when it comes to idea generation.
Coaches and clients can take turns in the generation of ideas and experiments. It can be challenging for coaches and clients to generate possibilities at the moment, but it is well worth the effort.
Sometimes, coaches come up with possibilities that clients would never have thought of on their own. When coaches take a turn, clients are given the space to think more deeply about or jump off from a possibility in a whole new direction suggested by the coach. Such brainstorming is valuable and usually fun during generative moments.
It is helpful to designate a particular time during the generative moment for brainstorming ideas, questions, or approaches. Brainstorming too early can overwhelm clients and provoke resistance. However, failing to brainstorm at all can squander the potential of the moment, either because no possibilities are generated or because one possibility takes over before others are considered.
Running with the first idea that comes up is not only limiting but also may be dangerous. As French philosopher, Emile Chartier writes, “Nothing is as dangerous as an idea when it is the only one you have.” Basic protocols for successful brainstorming include the following:
Setting a time limit
Withholding judgment or evaluation of ideas
Encouraging wild, fun, and exaggerated ideas
Letting no idea go unsaid
Setting a minimum number of ideas or questions to generate
Building on the possibilities put forth by the other
Combining and expanding ideas
Asking permission to contribute ideas
With many compelling and relevant ideas in mind, the client will eagerly move with confidence and energy to designing action plans, the next step of the coaching session. With high self-efficacy, clients will be ready, willing, and able to commit to specific behaviors that will contribute to realizing their visions.
Express and Facilitate Confidence in the Client’s Ability to Move Forward
The transition to designing action plans at the end of the generative moment is made compelling when the coach champions and supports the client’s ability to move forward with one or more of the new ideas or approaches.
Forward movement is more appealing when clients believe they have the ability to turn the new ideas into action. Hence, coaches not only support self-efficacy throughout the entire coaching session; this is especially important as the generative moment comes to a close.
By acknowledging what clients brought to the generative moment, the good work they have done in brainstorming, and their capacity to see their dreams through to fruition, coaches enable clients to commit themselves and to take actions that will generate success.
Relational Flow in Generative Moments
The earlier process provides a framework for handling generative moments. Yet, in many respects, these moments are not “handled”; rather, they have a playful, surprising, improvisational, flowing quality that cannot be scripted. The best generative moments move seamlessly and organically inflow—they feel like a dance—sometimes slow, sometimes quick, or more like a salsa dance.
Given their impact, new coaches can feel pressure to demonstrate great skill, wisdom, or technique. The most important thing to remember is that generative moments are about the client’s needs and desires. By following the client’s lead, coaches can ease their way into collaborative, co-creative conversations.
Coaches remember that they are in partnership rather than in charge, and they remain attentive to the client’s energy and insights rather than distracted by their own thoughts and inspired rather than inspirational. At their best, generative moments feel intense, exciting, deep, powerful, and moving, but not hard. Generative moments flow.
What Is Relational Flow?
Relational flow, another way to define generative moments, happens when coaches and clients perceive themselves as being in sync and engaged in generative, interdependent, collaborative dialogue. In reflecting on peak coaching experiences, coaches and clients often describe their best moments as like being in an intuitive dance: “a relational dynamic between coaches and clients when they enter a zone where they are fully challenged at a high level of skill and awareness. This dynamic, conceptualized as ‘relational flow,’ may underpin how and when both coaches and clients make large steps forward in their work”
It is a challenge to create relational flow, let alone capture or measure it. That’s because it is an intuitive and synergistic dynamic that is created by the coach, the client, and the field between the two. Like learning to dance, the fundamental steps must be mastered before style, fluidity, and flow can be demonstrated.
Inflow, coaches aren’t married to a plan that determines what happens next or attached to a particular outcome. Instead, they are able to use what is happening in the moment to determine what will happen in the next moment, improvising with agility based on what is most important to the client in the present moment.
What Supports Relational Flow?
Although research into the dynamic continues, several bodies of knowledge illuminate and support the intuitive dance of coaching. These include the following:
Flow studies—Flow exists when one is engaged in a challenging situation that requires fully engaging and stretching one’s skills at a high level in response. Inflow, one becomes immersed in an activity with greater attention, less effort, and an altered sense of time.
Reflective practitioner—The ability to dance effortlessly also comes from practice. A coach with experience is “less tied to explicit rules, processes, and contextual clues in order to know how to act effectively—and yet does so with less effort”. Experienced coaches rely more on intuitive thoughts and perceptions. They draw on previously successful experience—lots of it. The intuition of a master is powerful, whereas for novices, it’s limited.
Readiness to change—A client’s ability to engage in flow depends on his or her stage of change.
The coach must be cognizant of the client’s readiness to change and adjust the approach accordingly. Masterful coaches do not push clients through the stages of change; rather, they draw clients out by honoring the needs of the moment.
Emotional intelligence—emotional intelligence is the ability to “recognize our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” In the coaching conversation, the competencies that contribute to emotional intelligence are necessary for intuition and use it for positive outcomes; this is an essential part of the empathy that contributes to relational flow.
Relational competence—In the generative moment, the dance is a collaboration between two connected people. From relational-cultural theory, we know that growth through connection, rather than separation, leads to healthy functioning. In deep connection with their coaches, clients feel more vital, empowered, clear, worthy, and driven toward more connection with others.
Hall and Duvall conclude:
The coach dances with a client to facilitate the unleashing of potentials and the experience of change. The dialogue dance creates motivation and energy in the player or the client. The dance creates readiness for change, the power to change, and the leverage for change. In this dance, new frames of mind are co-created for facilitating that change. The dialogue is a dance around support, celebration, accountability, fun, and actualizing potential. It’s a dance for enabling dreams to come true. Do you want to dance?
Prepare for a Coaching Session
The most important moment of a coaching session is arguably the minute right before it starts. That’s when coaches relax and clear their minds, set their intentions, and get into a coaching mindset. If growth and self-determination come from relationships, the coach must be attentive to the nurturing of that relationship at every opportunity, remembering the following:
Confidence is contagious. When coaches communicate their genuine confidence that clients can be successful, client confidence will also improve. What is appreciated appreciates. The more the coach focuses on what clients want rather than on what they don’t want, the more energy and ideas clients will have for moving forward.
To listen for the client’s needs. The more the coach sets aside his or her own agenda in favor of listening for the client’s agenda, the more clients will
Table Prepare for a Session
Prepare: Review client assessment results and client communication.
Get present: Practice mindfulness, set intention, and connect to purpose.
Get curious: Consider initial strengths-based inquiries.
First, let’s address time management. In an ongoing coaching session, weekly, biweekly, or monthly, for example, the following percentages indicate how coaches may want to spend their time with clients. The percentages indicate the number of minutes that coaches may want to spend with clients in each section during a 30-minute session.
Session opening—7% (two to three minutes)
Weekly goal review—20% (five to seven minutes)
Three-month goal review (monthly or so)— 7% (two to three minutes)
Generative moment—40% (10–12 minutes)
Goal setting—20% (five to seven minutes)
Session close—6% (two to three minutes)
This could be compared to a warmup, a workout, and a cool-down. For longer sessions of 40–60 minutes, more time becomes available for generative collaboration, a deeper dive into the journey of change, for example, shifting change-hindering mindsets to possibility-creating mindsets.
Thinking through time management before each session and making adjustments as situations come up will assist coaches and clients alike with being more successful and satisfied with the coaching experience.
Trust and rapport are not earned once and for all during the first coaching session. They are earned all over again, each time coaches and clients meet. Understanding this phenomenon, it is important to be prepared to start the session by asking about the client’s feelings and energy now in that moment and to listen mindfully to the response.
Next, explore the highlights rather than the problem areas since the last session. When clients show up with great discouragement or low energy, the focus on highlights may reconnect them with their own resourcefulness and potential. When that does not happen directly, the coach should express empathy for the client’s feelings and needs. By understanding and supporting clients in these ways, coaches assist clients in rebooting and regaining their balance so they can consider anew the possibilities for change.
Asks how the client is right now “in this moment”
Uses reflections to show an understanding of the client’s state
Asks the client to share the best thing that happened from the previous week(s)
Reflects something positive about the client (e.g., highlights, strengths, or emotions)
Asks the client to select the first weekly goal to be discussed
Once a connection has been reestablished, it’s time for clients to select the first goal to be discussed. Don’t assume that this will turn out to be the most important goal for the client. Rather, it is an opening for collaboration, an opportunity to get into the dynamic of coaching. Most clients will set two to five behavioral goals to work on between coaching sessions.
Each of these goals should be reviewed to discover client accomplishments, challenges, and lessons. Building on the principles of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry (AI), it is most effective, to begin with a positive “best experience” question for each goal.
When reviewing goals, it’s best to start by asking about the things that went well and the lessons that were learned. Clients should first be directed to consider what they accomplished rather than start with what they did not accomplish. For example, “Unfortunately, I put butter on my whole wheat toast for breakfast four times this week” can be reframed as: “I was successful in my goal of substituting peanut butter for butter on whole grain toast for breakfast five times 20% of the time this week.”
By reframing goal accomplishment in positive terms and by asking positive questions, coaches help clients find the confidence and energy to move forward. Positive emotions create an upward spiral, leading to the creativity and openness needed for tackling the challenges of goals that weren’t achieved so easily or goals yet to be dreamed. Examples of inquiries for the review process include the following:
What was your best experience with your goals in the past week?
What percentage of achievement did you reach for this goal? What contributed to this level of success?
What kept it from being lower?
What could have made it higher?
What do you like about this goal?
What did you learn from this experience?
What challenges did you face along the way?
Do you think this goal is too ambitious, too cautious, or just right?
When you think about this goal, what feelings does it stimulate, and what needs does it meet?
Inquiries such as these honor the client’s autonomy and competence while enabling him or her to grow in partnership with a trusted collaborator, the coach.
Accountability in Coaching
Accountability means monitoring and giving an account of what was done, what happened, what worked, what didn’t work, and what one wants to do differently in the future. When such accountability comes from the coach-client collaboration, discussing what has been accomplished in an objective rather than judgmental terms, clients often become empowered to reach their goals more consistently and effectively.
When it comes to health and well-being, people are generally accountable only to themselves—and that often isn’t enough, especially in the early stages of change. With such isolation and anonymity, it’s easy for motivation, diligence, and follow-through to slip. Building in accountability helps ensure that clients remain on track.
Checking on a client’s experience with goals is not the same as pestering or nagging. It is rather a welcome conversation that includes reviewing a client’s best experiences with his or her goal design and the learning that arises from it. When appropriate, the coach can assist clients with reframing “failure talk” as “learning opportunities.”
In a complete absence of judgment, exploring progress as an accountability activity is an empowering conversation that provides structure, measurement, and support without being an unpleasant experience for a client. The key is to keep it light without failing to raise important topics. To be effective, it’s important for coaches not to get attached to an outcome, remembering that a coach is not a client’s boss or parent.
Table Experiment/Goal Review
Explores full experience with a weekly goal, starting with the positive
Uses reflections to show listening and understanding of the goal experience
Expands inquiry into the client’s best experience with his or her weekly goal
Responds to client challenges with judgment-free reflections and inquiries
Asks what the client learned from his or her experience
Affirms the client’s strengths, choices, and/or situation
Inquires about the client’s percentage of success
Taking a design perspective once the goals (or experiments) have been tested, evaluation of their effectiveness is the next stage. It is important to explore both how clients feel about their progress as well as the factual aspects of progress.
Three-Month Goal Check-In
It is not necessary for a client to revisit his or her vision and three-month goals every week. It is important, however, to do so at least monthly in order for the weekly experiments and goals to stay connected to a client’s larger vision and purpose. It is empowering to connect the dots between smaller incremental steps and larger motivating life goals.
Table Three-Month Goal Review
Validates the relevance of the client’s vision and connection to three-month goals
Asks about the client’s best learning or growth experience with his or her three-month goals
Asks about the client’s level of engagement commitment with his or her goals and whether he or she wants to revise them
Affirms the client’s strengths, abilities, or growth
Generate New Learning with the Generative Moment
After the goal progress has been reviewed, the area that clients are most stimulated by or struggling with typically becomes evident. Sometimes, it is success and excitement that carries them forward into a generative moment. Other times, it is a challenge, ambivalence, anxiety, or uncertainty. Either way, coaches will want to spend extra time with clients around these areas. These are the big rocks around which clients want to move in generative moments.
Goal setting (or the design of experiments) emerges naturally on the tail of a generative moment. When clients have elevated their self-efficacy or belief in their ability to accomplish a task or goal, especially in an area that is important to them, they want to set new goals for the week ahead that will keep them moving forward. It is important to be sure the goals are measurable, owned by the client, and reinforced by as many support structures as possible.
Asks the client to choose a goal that is important and that he or she is ready to pursue
Explores the support, structure, or environments needed to ensure success and handle challenges
Assists the client to refine goal to be a SMART behavioral goal
Uses confidence ruler to improve the client’s confidence in reaching that goal
Asks the client to restate goals
Affirms the client’s ability to achieve his or her goals
In addition to the goals that flow out of the generative moment collaboration, it is important to help clients set goals in all areas of interest or concern.
A written summary of goals is ideally exchanged between coaches and clients after every coaching session. This serves to facilitate the accountability process and to keep the forward momentum from week to week. Initially, it may be helpful for the coach to write up the plan—vision, three-month goals, and the first week’s goals—in order to demonstrate how to summarize a succinct and compelling plan.
Collaborates with the client to identify the topic on which to work on, where he or she has aroused emotional energy and interest
Asks for permission to explore and work on the topic now
Encourages the client to describe what he or she really wants now in relation to the topic
Explores the strengths or values the client can leverage to move forward
Explores the environments the client can leverage to move forward
Explores decisional balance and develops discrepancy when the client demonstrates ambivalence
Engages the client in creative brainstorming of pathways forward
Expresses confidence in the client’s ability to move forward
As with the session close for initial sessions, it is important to end on a positive note, expressing appreciation for the client’s work and capturing what the client learned. The coach can also take the opportunity to ask for feedback on how to make the coaching session even more effective in promoting the client’s forward progress before scheduling the next session.
Handling Client Challenges
Although every client and every coaching inter-action is unique, there are some common challenges that can happen in the coaching process. It is valuable to be aware of some of the common situations clients might experience along the way and possible approaches that can be taken.
Situation: Clients may tend toward being over-zealous and unrealistic.
Approach: Carefully monitor goals to help clients keep them realistic.
Situation: Clients are slow to become motivated and do not make noticeable progress.
Approach: Address readiness to change or motivational problems through AI and motivational interviewing (MI). Discover strengths, build self-efficacy, weigh the pros and cons of change, modify environmental conditions, try new strategies to overcome roadblocks, and reconfirm or find new motivators.
Communicates an appreciation of the client’s work in the session
Discovers and reflects what the client learned in the session
Asks for feedback on how future coaching sessions would best support the client’s path
Schedules next session
Situation: Clients are starting to get bored.
Approach: Add variety to generative moment discussions, offer a new assessment, and explore other domains for change and goals.
Situation: Clients are not making their change process a priority (maybe manifested in excuses as well as missed and/or late appointments).
Approach: Share your observations, express empathy, and inquire as to what could make their visions and goals more of a priority. Share with clients the value of taking small, incremental steps (e.g., how short bursts of exercise are beneficial).
Situation: Clients realize that coaches are not magicians, and they become disillusioned as to how much work it will take to make changes.
Approach: Normalize their experiences (everyone goes through this). Emphasize smaller steps. Share your confidence in the process with clients, and assist clients with creating action plans that they find engaging and can be successful in meeting weekly goals.
Situation: Clients are not attempting the behaviors they set for themselves as smart goals on a weekly basis.
Approach: Look for what is working in client behaviors in order to set new goals that clients will experience as a fresh start. Probe deeply for inspiring motivators. If the situation persists, discuss the matter with a mentor coach to determine next steps.
Situation: Client is not at the 50% point of their three-month goals at week 6.
Approach: Reassess three-month goals with your client to make sure they are realistic. Revisit the vision to reignite its power. Discuss the situation with a mentor coach for new ideas for generating success.
Situation: Clients get discouraged by not seeing results in several areas.
Approach: First, focus on what is working and on the client’s strengths. Then, spend extra time discussing the areas in which expectations have not been met, and create a plan for improvement. Try different tools and resources. Discuss options with a mentor coach.
Coaching Program Refresh or Close
The three-month point in coaching is a good time to review and renew the coaching program. It is a time to celebrate the achievement of milestones, consider developing a new three-month plan, modify coaching session frequency, and/or renew your client’s commitment to the coaching program.
When a coaching program comes to a close, it’s time to harvest and celebrate a client’s accomplishments and learning. A coaching session can be dedicated to deeper reflection, unpacking the full experience to learn from it. What went well? What a sustainable mindset and behavior changes were made? What impact are the changes having on a client’s life? What’s next? How can the coach support a client in his or her next phase?
Perhaps the client wants to consolidate what he or she has learned and end the coaching partnership for now. Perhaps the client wants to continue the coaching program with a new focus. Either way, it’s a good moment to have the client complete a coaching program evaluation survey. It may also be helpful to track post-coaching outcomes one or more years later to confirm the coaching impact and track record.
Coaches and clients often continue a connection for many years. A coach can send a birthday message or check in periodically on a client’s well-being. They may meet once in a while. A happy
Coaching Program Close
Explore reasons for client choosing to stop coaching program and/or ask the client to complete a brief survey.
Harvest and celebrate his or her learning, and explore what he or she may want to consider next.
Encourage client to keep making progress and to let you know how he or she is doing.
Ask if you may check in with him or her from time to time.
Express your gratitude for the privilege to work with the client.
the client is an excellent source of referrals and may even wish to restart a coaching program on a new domain at a later date.
Most of all, a coach can take time to reflect on what went well and consider what areas of coaching skills, processes, and impacts present opportunities for professional growth and development. The journey of learning and growth never ends for coaches and clients alike.