A New View of Positive Psychology
As the positive psychology movement matures, so does the perspective on its goals. In the early stages, there was a strong focus on increasing one’s happiness through positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. The end game was to feel good. Critics of the happiness movement suggest that there is more to life than happiness or just feeling good.
This Tutorial explains the Strengths and strategies based on the principles of positive psychology, such as optimism and gratitude
For example, Grube and Tamir suggest there is danger in the happiness movement because a life of thriving includes positive and negative emotions; in other words, a balance of emotions is important. Negative emotions serve an important role in informing us of the dangers or unmet needs of ourselves or others.
Seligman then introduced the PERMA model of well-being with five components to expand on his initial thinking:
Fredrickson also goes beyond happiness to focus on flourishing. She contends that people who flourish not only feel good, but they also do good. They have a sense of purpose or calling, and they are highly engaged in life. Positive people give others with their best possible selves to achieve their best possible futures.
Fredrickson contends that the way to happiness is to flourish through cultivating positivity in order to be optimally resilient in the face of negativity. Hence, positivity is a necessity, not a luxury; it is an essential component of good health and well-being.
How Does Coaching Generate Positivity?
An important mechanism of action for coaching is that coaches build positivity by helping clients define what makes them thrive, identify, cultivate, develop, and harvest more positive emotions and achieve important goals.
These aspects of the coaching relationship keep the positivity spiral moving upward. Positivity is a key mechanism of action for resilience and life satisfaction. Daily we are reminded that resilience in the face of minor or significant adversity is essential to human well-being, not just nice to have.
Coaching generates positivity by fostering the capacity, resources, and processes that are needed for successful change. Coaching helps clients identify what makes them flourish, building top 10 positive emotions:
Inspiration: connecting health and well-being to a higher purpose and life meaning
Hope: creating a vision of the future, identifying small steps forward that feels doable, and developing the experimental mindset of a scientist
Pride: uncovering strengths and talents and appreciating success in meeting goals
Interest: setting goals that are engaging and “a stretch” but not anxiety-producing
Love: fostering trust, rapport, and connection with the coach and harnessing social support
Awe: identifying inspiring role models and heroes
Amusement: laughing at oneself and situations
Joy: improving awareness and enjoyment of thriving
Gratitude: appreciating life’s gifts including challenges
Serenity: stopping to savor moments of contentment
When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, he had a vision of a new domain of psychology. Rather than mainly focusing on what ails the human mind (e.g., neurosis, anxiety, depression), Seligman proposed that psychology turn more of its attention to the conditions that enable people to flourish, to what makes people feel engaged, fulfilled, and authentically and meaningfully happy.
This movement became known as positive psychology and has delivered important applications for coaches as an evidence-based body of knowledge to support the process of behavior change and foster higher levels of well-being.
This movement led Martin Seligman and his close colleague Christopher Peterson to complete a deep and thorough exploration of character strengths and virtues—understanding what is right with humans, not mostly what is wrong.
Strengths and strategies in positive psychology, such as optimism and gratitude, are increasingly linked not just to greater mental well-being but also to greater physical well-being. Optimism is linked to better health outcomes, ranging from increased protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease to fewer colds.
Positive emotions are also correlated with higher longevity. Higher levels of positive emotion expressed in the autobiographies of young nuns (who used words such as “joy” and “thankful”) were correlated to longer lives; those nuns lived up to 10 years longer than those who expressed lower levels of positive emotions and higher levels of negative emotions.
Chronic stress and the accompanying negative emotions have been shown to negatively impact health, whereas long-term positive emotions may prevent people from becoming ill, favorably affecting morbidity and mortality.
Happy people are also more likely to engage in healthy behaviors. Positivity and health is a two-way street; good health generates positivity, and positivity generates good health, an upward spiral.
In her blog Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson summarizes her 25-year research career focused on the study of positive emotions. Happiness is about focusing on a target for one’s state of being—moment to moment, day to day, week to week, month to month.
Data shows that 80% of people are below an optimal ratio of positive to negative emotions, which could be contributing to an epidemic of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors.
With more positive emotions, people are healthier and have the resources to change and grow, bouncing back from adversity. Positive people flourish and find themselves on upward spirals. With fewer positive than negative emotions, people just survive, or even languish, falling into downward spirals.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI):
A Tool for Celebrating the Best
AI is a philosophy as well as an approach for motivating change and enhancing well-being that focuses on exploring and amplifying the best in a person or situation.
AI does not focus on weaknesses and problems to fix; instead, clients are encouraged to acknowledge strengths and imagine possibilities in order to rise above and outgrow their problems. Given the value of building positive emotions, AI is a valuable coaching tool for uncovering and celebrating the best of what is and what could be.
The Positive Principle
Positive actions and outcomes stem from positive energy and emotion. The positive principle asserts that positive energy and emotion disrupt downward spirals, building the aspirations of people into a dynamic force for transformational change.
Positive energy and emotions broaden thinking, expand awareness, increase abilities, build resiliency, offset negatives, generate new possibilities, and create an upward spiral of learning and growth.
By identifying, appreciating, and amplifying strengths, people go beyond problem-solving to make bold shifts forward. Demonstrating “why it’s good to feel good,” their actions become positively charged and positive outcomes are evoked.
The positive principle asserts that positive actions and outcomes stem from the unbalanced force generated by positive energy and emotion. Newton’s first law of motion states that objects at rest tend to stay at rest while objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
Applying this law to human systems, the positive principle holds that the negative energy and emotion associated with identifying, analyzing, fixing, or correcting weaknesses lacks sufficient force to transform systems and propel them in new directions. At best, such root cause analyses will only correct the problems. At worst, they will cause a downward spiral.
The Constructionist Principle
Positive energy and emotion stem from positive conversations and interactions. The constructionist principle asserts that positive energy and emotion are generated through positive conversations and interactions, leading to positive actions and outcomes.
Through our conversations and interactions with other people, we create the realities in which we live. “Words create worlds” is the motto of AI in general and the constructionist principle in particular.
More than any of the other five principles, the constructionist principle makes clear the importance of the social context and environment in creating the present moment and changing future moments. Inner work and self-talk alone are not sufficient.
Different environments generate different truths and different possibilities. They even generate different dimensions of individual experience. As Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander summarize the constructionist principle: “It’s all invented!
So we might as well invent a story or framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the lives of those around us”. Clients can invent those stories and frameworks in conversations with their coaches.
The Simultaneity Principle
Positive conversations and interactions stem from positive questions and reflections. The simultaneity principle makes the following claim: Conversations and interactions become positive the instant we ask a positive question, tell a positive story, or share a positive reflection. Positive questions and reflections are themselves the change we seek.
They are not just a prelude to change; they are the change. They don’t just begin a process that leads to a positive future; rather, positive questions and reflections simultaneously create a positive present.
By shifting conversations and interactions in a positive direction, one can create a positive present. Positive conversations with a coach can create a positive world for the client.
The inquiries and reflections used in a coaching conversation are fateful. According to Jacqueline Bascobert Kelm, “There are no ‘neutral’ questions. Every inquiry takes us somewhere, even if it is back to what we originally believed. Inhabiting this spirit of wonder can transform our lives, and the unconditional positive question is one of the greatest tools we have to this end”.
The Anticipatory Principle
Positive questions and reflections stem from the positive anticipation of the future. The anticipatory principle asserts that when there is a positive anticipation toward the future, everything tilts in that direction. The positive anticipation of the future is a proleptic force that energizes the present. The word “prolepsis” literally means “a forward look.”
The anticipatory principle asserts that it takes a specific, positive image of the future in order to impact the dynamics of the present. The more concrete and real the image, the more yearning and movement it creates. According to Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, “Vision is a target that beckons”. Margaret Wheatley describes vision as a field.
As such, it is “a power, not a place, an influence, not a destination.” It is best served, then, by imbuing the present with “visionary messages matched by visionary behaviors”. Anticipation becomes the hallmark and herald of change.
Equipped with a glimpse of what things look like at their best, a client will become more creative, resourceful, and resilient, finding ways to make things happen.
The questions and reflections that a coach chooses flow from the coach’s outlook in regard to the client. It is crucial that a coach adopts a sense of hope about the positive possibilities in a client’s life.
The Poetic Principle
The positive anticipation of the future stems from positive attention in the present. The poetic principle asserts that the more one attends to the positive dimensions of the present moment, the more positive the intentions for future moments will be. A focus on problems begets more problems; a focus on possibilities of begets possibilities.
With positive emotions, one’s vision widens, and through this broadened mind, comes more flexibility, attunement to others, creativity, and wisdom. Seeing and attending to the poetry of life is inspiring. It’s not that problems disappear. Rather, other things become more important. Life’s poetry evolves into a spiral of positive imagination.
Forming the base of a pyramid, on which all the other principles are built, the poetic principle connects hope with mindfulness and intention with attention. Becoming mindful of what adds richness, texture, depth, beauty, significance, and energy to life awakens life’s magnificent potential.
It’s as though life becomes a work of great poetry, filled with hopeful meaning and forward movement toward positive growth and change.
The 5-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry
The five AI principles have resulted in the development of a transformational change process that works with large groups as well as with individuals. Although the process has been described in various ways, the 5-D cycle (define-discover-dream-design-destiny) is the most common and easily remembered.
The process starts by securing an agreement between coach and client as to what the client wants to learn (topic choice) and how the client wants to learn it (method choice). The effectiveness of the AI process depends on the agreement being both clear and appropriate.
Some clients may not be ready, willing, or able to implement a strengths-based approach to transformational change. Get a sense of this by noticing how much they want to talk about their problems and their pains. Express compassion as an entry point to move the conversation forward.
In the absence of a forwarding movement after a reasonable amount of time, clients may make more progress with a therapist or counselor by developing ways to heal or process negative emotions and experiences.
Coach Steve: “Great to reconnect with you again, Katty. What is the most important topic for us to focus on in the 30 minutes we have together?”
Katty Well: “Good question. By the end of our session, I would really like to have a game plan for managing my eating while I’m on vacation next week.”
Once the learning agreement is clear, the next step is to assist clients in discovering promising examples of their desired outcomes, both past and present. AI makes the assumption that in every person’s life and situation, some things are always working, even though they may be buried and need to be unearthed. Life-giving examples, images, and stories that support the learning agreement can always be discovered.
To facilitate the discovery process, AI has developed an appreciative interview protocol that can be adapted and used by coaches at any point during the coaching process. It is particularly effective when clients are discouraged or stuck.
The AI protocol includes four discoveries:
Best experience. Even when people bring seemingly intractable challenges to the coaching session, it is important to encourage them to look at things through an appreciative frame and a light of curious wonder and interest.
All situations have beauty and value, no matter how difficult. “Tell me a story about the best experience you have had dealing with such problems in the past” is an example of a way to reframe deficits into assets.
Such stories assist clients in remembering that their lives are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be lived, and coaches can instantly marshal client concentration and energy.
Although coaching is important to work, a successful coach balances the serious nature of behavior change with the ability to make the process light and fun, eliciting a sense of adventure.
The principles and practices of AI allow coaches to do just that. The coach who endeavors to stay positive, anticipate greatness, reframe reality, evoke insight, and share stories (the five principles) enables clients to experience coaching as bringing out the best in them rather than the worst.
Through the processes of defining ambitions, discovering strengths, dreaming possibilities, designing strategies, and delivering the goods (the five practices) both coach and client alike have their spirits energized and lifted.
The issues may be weighty, but the process of AI can lighten the load in the course of moving forward. Using humor, laughter, and playfulness in AI energizes the behavior change process so that solutions expand in scope, sustainability, and effectiveness.
AI can be used week after week in coaching sessions because people always have new experiences, values, conditions, and wishes to talk about. Instead of starting a coaching session by asking “So how did it go since the last time we met?,”
Ask a more positive opening question that uses AI, such as “So what was your best experience (or your best learning experience) since the last time we met?” The coach may change the time frame or shift the focus but should always stay in a positive frame.
Coach Steve: “Tell me about a time, perhaps on a vacation, when you were able to make healthy choices despite having temptations.”
Katty Well: “Oh, it’s been a long time. You know, now that I think about it, I did pretty well a few weeks ago at my parents’ surprise anniversary party.”
Core values. AI emphasizes life-giving experiences, core values, generative conditions, and heartfelt wishes as it energizes clients to learn to make new contributions and to express new ways of being in the world. That is the fuel for destiny. The challenge is to enable clients not only to deliver on their promises but also to go beyond them.
This happens when clients learn to experiment, innovate, and improvise so that they can take bigger, bolder, and better actions in the service of their dreams. Designs require continuous learning, dialogue, and updating in order to be fulfilled and fulfilling.
Coach Steve: “So a few weeks ago, you were faced with some temptations at a party during what was a stressful, busy time, and you made healthy choices. Congratulations! What were the reasons that led you to make the choice to eat well then?”
Katty Well: “One reason was that I wanted to have really great memories of the party—I’d been planning it for a year. I didn’t want to think back on that evening and be upset by what I had chosen to eat.”
Generative conditions. A masterful coach pays attention to the larger dynamics at play in a client’s life rather than just the immediate goal or task. AI avoids fragmented interventions by recognizing the totality of the whole. For example, one of the more impactful consequences of the constructionist principle for coaching is in the area of self-improvement.
People do not change by themselves, solely from the inside out; rather, change also happens from the outside in as we engage in conversation with others. Because self-improvement is influenced by relationships, it’s important to use AI to open up the conversation to include environments, systems, communities, organizations, networks, movements, relationships, processes, policies, practices, structures, and resources.
Coach Steve: “You relied on your strengths of self-regulation and perspective to make choices that you knew you would feel good about later. What else supported you in being healthy that day?”
Katty Well: “Since I was planning and really managing the party, I didn’t think I’d get to eat much during it anyway. So about two hours before it began, I had my husband bring me a grilled chicken salad from a restaurant around the corner. That kept me from feeling too hungry later in the night.”
Three wishes. “Tell me about your hopes and dreams for the future. If you found a magic lamp and a genie were to grant you three wishes, what would they be?”
The purpose of these discoveries is to boost the energy and strengthen self-efficacy of clients through the vivid reconnaissance of mastery experiences. The more direct, personal, and relevant the mastery experiences, the greater their positive impact on a client’s motivation for an approach to change.
Coach Steve: “Great planning! As you think about your vacation, what three wishes do you have for creating ideal memories with no regrets?”
Katty Well: “I want to enjoy my food, slowly savor each bite, and not regret anything I’ve eaten at the end of the day.”
The discovery phase of AI can be viewed as the most important phase in the coaching session. It elevates self-confidence and lays the foundation for all that follows. That’s why it’s so important to not rush through the discovery process in order to get to goal setting.
The simultaneity principle makes clear that asking appreciative questions is not a prelude to the work of coaching; it is the work of coaching. Inquiry into what happens when the client functions at his or her best is transformational in and of itself. It not only forms the basis for change, it is the change in which they seek.
Once clients have discovered the best of “what is,” it is time to encourage them to envision the best of “what might be.” The discoveries of the last phase are used to create a dream that is grounded in the client’s history, as it expands the client’s potential.
Moving beyond the level of three magical wishes to the level of realistic but provocative propositions about the future, the dream will be even larger than the client would otherwise have imagined without the discovery phase having been done.
In the dream-making process, AI encourages the use of both the left brain and right brain activities. The poetic principle goes beyond the limitations of analysis by using stories, narratives, metaphors, and images to make dreams come alive.
Several considerations impact the dream-making process. The first is the question of a calling: What is life to call a client to be or become? The second is the question of energy: What possibilities generate excitement for a client? The third is the question of support: What is the positive core that supports a client?
Don’t be lured into creating provocative possibilities for a client. “The client finds the answers. The client finds the answers. The client finds the answers.” Encourage clients to generate their own possibilities by thinking outside the box without regard to consequences.
After clients have accessed their own creative resources, coaches may or may not offer to put additional ideas on the table for consideration. In every instance, the client retains the choice in creating the dream, design, and destiny.
When the dream becomes a target that beckons and an anticipatory field that surrounds and supports a client’s best self, it is time to move on to design.
Coach Steve: “Those three wishes are very clear. I’m curious—what is your deeper goal here? How does this fit into your larger life goal?”
Katty Well: “Gosh, if I can live with no regret on vacation—a time when people usually let their guards down and have no rules—I can do anything in the ‘real world.’ ”
The design phase of the AI process gives the dream legs by working to align the client’s infrastructure with the dream.
Clients are asked to make proposals and set goals as to how the dream would manifest itself in terms of habits, procedures, systems, technology, roles, resources, relationships, finances, structures, and stakeholders.
What would shift if a client’s infrastructure were aligned with his or her dream? Describing those shifts in detail is the fundamental work of the design phase.
It is important to make the design phase as detailed and personal as possible. Encouraging clients to make commitments, offers, and requests with a close horizon, perhaps a one- or two-week deadline, is relevant to both this and the final phase of the process.
Commitments represent actions that clients promise to take in response to the requests of others.
Offers represent actions that clients volunteer to take.
Requests represent actions that clients seek from others in order to successfully implement the design.
Coach Steve: “It sounds like your dream for vacation fits well into your bigger dreams for yourself. Would you like to begin to create a plan for your vacation?”
Katty Well: “Absolutely.”
Coach Steve: “What is the commitment you are ready to make?”
The purpose of AI is to elevate both the positive energy and self-efficacy of clients in order to assist them in realizing their destinies. It is not just a feel-good process; it is also an active process that makes dreams come true and makes dreaming intrinsic to the client’s way of being in the world.
By developing an “appreciative eye,” clients learn to make the 5-D cycle their preferred approach to problems and opportunities in order to fulfill their destinies. They learn to continuously innovate their way to even higher levels of performance and life satisfaction.
The Value of Appreciative Inquiry in Coaching
AI is a valuable tool for energizing, motivating, and mobilizing a client toward behavior change. It starts with the presumption that anything is possible (the constructionist principle) and then employs a methodology (the 5-D cycle) to help clients make it happen, thus elevating both self-esteem and self-efficacy.
The increases in positivity and self-efficacy lead naturally to the dream, design, and destiny phases. When done well, the mounting energy and motivation for change generated by the discovery phase of the AI process are palpable.
The anticipatory consideration of best experiences, core values, generative conditions, and heartfelt wishes through a vivid investigation of past and present increases the client’s readiness, willingness, and ability to move forward into the future. “Now what?” and “How do we get going?” are the operative questions of the later phases.
AI generates an expansive upward spiral that enables clients to successfully mount the behavior change pyramid. By going through the 5-D cycle multiple times, clients and coaches create dreams and designs beyond those initially imagined possible.
The AI protocol is a great place to start, especially when clients do not have a clear focus. It can kindle the embers of desire until the fire is burning bright. It can also support specific client learning and development.
For example, instead of asking clients for a generic best experience story related to health and wellness, ask them for the best experience story that is specifically related to their positive visions (or desired futures). Such targeted learning from a positive frame can dramatically accelerate the behavior change process.
AI requires clients to use a mixture of analytic activities and creative activities. It is not enough to encourage clients to identify and commit to SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timelined).
No matter how well-crafted the strategy, a purely analytic approach will fail if it is not supplemented by a process that engages the client’s heart and stirs the client’s imagination. SMART goals must also be compelling goals.
To this end, AI encourages clients to be creative by imagining, articulating, and designing their dreams for the future. Clients can use pictures, images, metaphors, art, movement, music, and/or stories (the poetic principle). The more creative the dreams, the better when it comes to making the case and generating the energy for change.
Clients often enjoy the invitation to use their whole selves in the development of their dreams and designs for the future.
There is no end to what they will come up with once they have the permission and encouragement to get creative (e.g., changing body position, drawing pictures, modeling clay, standing on tables, stepping over lines, writing poetry, ringing bells, singing songs, stretching muscles, controlling breath, telling stories, shouting affirmations, and imagining visualizations).
It is tempting to think that the outcome of using AI in coaching is a clear plan with detailed next steps. Although that is often the case, it is not the only or ultimate outcome.
AI sets in motion an appreciative and innovative approach to life-long learning. The destiny phase of the 5-D cycle has been described as going back around the cycle again and again in perpetuity.
When clients learn how to define-discover-dream-design, as their way of being in the world, they end up realizing their destiny as they grow into their best selves.
The 5-D cycle is not just a tool or technique for coaches to master, it is also—and most importantly—a way of living. By using and sharing AI with our clients, we empower lifelong upward spirals of personal and organizational development.
Instead of tackling problems head-on, AI assists clients in outgrowing problems by engaging in new and stronger life urges. In the process, problems that once seemed overwhelming and intractable lose their energy and sometimes even fade from view. When working on client challenges with the AI framework, keep the following in mind: “You Have What It Takes to Succeed”
This is the posture of great coaching. If a coach does not believe in the ambitions and innate abilities of their client, it will negatively impact progress toward improved health and well-being.
If a coach questions a client’s desires and capabilities or does not believe he or she has what it takes to succeed, then it may be time to refer that client to another coach or helping professional.
“My Certainty Is Greater than Your Doubt”
Great coaches come from this framework, but know that it is better to not directly make this argument to their clients. We provoke skepticism and resistance when we attempt to persuade clients that they can do something.
We evoke confidence and movement when we stay with clients in the muck until they become clear about where they want to go, how they want to get there, and how they will generate the energy. Great coaching communicates a calm energy of confidence on which clients can build and from which they can learn.
But Really, What About Problem Solving?
It is the nature of the human mind to zoom in to look at what’s not working, to notice, analyze, and solve problems. But that does not necessarily make it the best or most effective strategy to use. Indeed, tackling problems head-on often provokes discouragement and resistance rather than fostering encouragement and readiness to change. This insight
Speak the Truth in Love
If the definition of love includes “mutual care,” it is important for coaches to bring this to the coaching relationship, especially in times of challenge. Without falling into the trap of arguing for change, it is important for coaches to honestly share what they see. If there is an elephant in the room and the client fails to notice it, it may be time for a client to hear the coach speak the truth in love.
The energy for change is not created by naive or delusional self-appraisals. Clients who are not fully engaged, being honest with themselves, following through on their promises, working hard, and/or making progress may benefit from coaches reflecting these perceptions. Returning to the 5-D cycle is another way to encourage the client to move forward.
Use Appreciative Inquiry to Handle a Client’s Self-Sabotage
Avoid “wrestling” with clients who are not meeting their goals or following through on their promises week after week. Instead, use the 5-D cycle to make sure the goals and promises are exciting to the client and appropriately scaled to the client’s capacity.
Setting goals or making promises because they would be “good for the client” represent something the client “should” do and will generally fail over time, as is the case with goals that are designed to “please the coach.”
Setting goals or making promises which stretch the client’s capacities must include appropriate, capacity-building strategies in order to be stimulating and effective.
If after employing these strategies and not provoking resistance the coach still cannot assist a client to move forward, it may be true that the client is experiencing challenges that go deeper than coaching can resolve. If so, it may be time to make a therapeutic referral.
Coach the Client and the Environment
Designing environments to be supportive of a client’s goals and promises is essential for client success. A strength-based approach to coaching does not work in isolation from a client’s environment. Indeed, the design phase of AI makes clear the importance of whole system frameworks, including various internal/external and individual/collective dynamics.
In the design phase of the 5-D cycle, the role of the coach is to make sure that a client does not overlook or ignore any aspect of the system. For example, the client may need to learn new skills, modify his or her environment in order to eliminate triggers or gather social support. Friends, colleagues, and relatives can provide emotional support, practical support, partnering, or listening ears.
Exercising with someone
Phoning someone daily or several times a week
Reporting progress regularly to someone
Eating with someone and gaining support for health-supporting choices
Sharing goals, food logs, and exercise goals
Joining a gym with a friend or spouse
Having a spouse watch the kids while exercising
Stay in a Positive Frame
Again, it is human nature to selectively notice and focus on problems. We have a negativity bias; we scan the environment for negative information, even if the negative event only happens once. That’s why news headlines get our attention when they focus on tragedies, terrorism, and scandals.
The coach begins with empathy, appreciating the power that fear and anxiety have over a client. Coaches create a safe coaching environment where clients can relax rather than being distracted by scanning the environment for danger and other negativity.
Fear also presents an opportunity to educate clients about brain science so they understand that the brain is wired to be instinctively afraid, even if the negative emotions are out of proportion to the real threat.
The 5-D cycle of AI shifts the spotlight away from train wrecks and onto the positive aspects of the past, present, and future.
When clients drift into an analysis of past or present failures, it is important to gently but firmly bring them back to an appreciative frame. Acknowledge the problem, and then invite them to look at it from a different perspective.
Two possible questions to ask to make the shift from a traditional problem-solving approach are “How did this make a positive contribution to your development?” and “How else would you describe this situation?”
When the coach adopts a positive frame, a client will eventually follow. By using the generic AI interview protocol, it is possible to quicken the interest of clients in the life-affirming and life-giving dimensions of their own experiences.
It Is “Trial and Correction” Not “Trial and Error”
Trial and correction, rather than trial and error, underlies AI. The process is analogous to the nearly universal human learning experience of learning how to walk.
Those first few tentative baby steps occur after months of watching other people walk upright. These role models awaken in toddlers the desire and ambition to walk, and at the appropriate developmental moment, begin to encourage them.
They stand the toddlers upright, hold their hands, and move them forward. With outstretched arms, they cheer and cajole until the brave youngsters take their first unsupported steps.
No one teaches toddlers how to walk with step-by-step instructions. They don’t have the bio-mechanics explained to them. They figure it out for themselves in a gradual process of trial and correction.
After the first steps, toddlers inevitably fall down. This does not provoke criticism or condemnation. No one takes it as a failure. On the contrary, toddlers are cheered on, encouraged to try again and again until they master the skill.
Enabling clients to loosen up and experiment with different strategies without the fear of failure is the essential work not only of AI but also of coaching. Brainstorming provocative possibilities using the 5-D cycle is one way to make that happen. Such possibilities can be provocative in part because it is unknown whether or not they will work. Only time will tell through the process of trial and correction.
Sharing stories with each other is a great way to incorporate the richness of “trial and correction” into coaching sessions. Stories have a way of inducing people to discover and discern their own meanings and movement.
Like a toddler watching people walk, when we listen to each other’s stories, our ambition awakens, evoking more robust motivation for change.
Clients easily lose sight of their progress when they have setbacks or don’t reach their goals as quickly as they wish. Keep reminding them of past progress, no matter how much or little they have made.
For example, “Three months ago, you couldn’t walk a mile” or “Before we started, you wouldn’t have even noticed that the restaurant meal was high in calories. You’re more conscious of those issues now, and your body is used to lighter food. That is a big step!” Remember, masterful coaches, champion their clients in each and every conversation.
Using Appreciative Inquiry to Transform the Coaching Relationship
Because coaching promotes client development within a learning partnership, it is important for coaches to solicit feedback from clients. Many clients need permission to honestly share their feelings and wishes about the coaching experience.
The appreciative interview protocol can be modified to encourage honest sharing and elicit feedback through a positive frame. For example, at periodic intervals during the coaching program, the following inquiries could be used:
“What’s the best experience you have had so far through the coaching process?”
“What are the values you most often see me modeling as a coach?”
“What conditions have most helped you reach your goals and move forward?”
“If a genie were to grant you three wishes regarding our coaching relationship, what would they be?”
Feedback solicited through this appreciative frame is quite different from criticism. By focusing on positive, life-giving experiences, values, conditions, and wishes, both coach and client are empowered to be honest and to make the coaching relationship as productive and as enjoyable as possible by motivating change that focuses on exploring and amplifying strengths.
Harness Motivation to Build Self-Efficacy
This manual opened with a simple description of coaching: Coaching is a growth-promoting relation-ship, which elicits motivation, increases the capacity to change, and facilitates a change process through visioning, goal setting, and accountability;
At its best, this relationship leads to sustainable change for the good. This blog focuses on two of these key elements—“elicits motivation” and “increases the capacity to change.”
We described two of these mechanisms as the twin engines of change— self-motivation (“I want to do it”) and self-efficacy (“I believe I can do it”). We explored how these two mechanisms build on self-determination theory.
In this section, we explore other science-based constructs, theories, and models, which add to the discussion of motivation and self-efficacy in coaching. We draw further from self-determination theory and address the four principles of MI. We explore the four sources of self-efficacy defined in social cognitive theory (SCT).
We also weave in references to the early research on life purpose and meaning, non-violent communication (NVC), appreciative inquiry (AI), and flow theory. The next blog on the trans-theoretical model identifies other change processes that are related to motivation and self-efficacy.
What Does It Mean to be Motivated?
Motivation is the energy that can drive one too:
Start a new habit or learn a new skill
Take steps toward a goal
Focus on making a habit or learning a skill toward a goal
Sustain a habit or skill
Appreciate and savor goal achievement
However, not all types of motivation are created equal, and not all strategies for uncovering motivation increase a client’s drive and commitment to change.
Motivation may come from an external source with the good intentions of motivating a client to make critical behavior changes or to change unhealthy thinking. External sources of motivation can have the best outcomes in mind for a client while pushing, strongly encouraging, or even demanding “compliance” in behavior change.
Words such as “should,” “must,” and “have to” imply an external standard or expectation that relates to self-respect and self-esteem. “I am a good or bad person depending on whether I do a behavior,” a form of internal compliance is implied, and this is in contrast to a heartfelt desire for the behavior’s outcome.
When clients respond to external motivation with changes in behavior, they are most likely driven to comply by a desire to please another or get this person’s approval or respect.
They may also be reacting to the fear of consequences for not doing so. Simply put, long-term behavior change does not reliably result from force, facts, or fear. This is why, for example, many patients with heart disease often require multiple procedures that could have been prevented if lifestyle changes had been made.
Unfortunately, although external motivation sometimes leads to compliance, it also leads to defiance rooted in a person’s need for autonomy, the deep need to march to one’s own drummer rather than comply with another’s wishes. When one acts in compliance with another’s desires, a sense of autonomy is jeopardized.
The need for autonomy is so fierce that people may resist and rebel against expert advice on healthy lifestyle change just to preserve autonomy. Parents of teenagers know this phenomenon all too well, and it is universal across the lifespan to resist being told what to do, from the “terrible twos” to elders who are hanging onto their independence for as long as they can.
Edward Deci, the co-founder of self-determination theory, suggests that although it is possible to get people to behave in healthy ways through seduction or coercion or through the use of financial incentives, the behavior will only last as long as the incentives are there.
This means that an expert advisor or employer delivering an external source of motivation may not lead to self-generated motivation and may even eventually provoke resistance and defiance, making people less likely to engage than without the external motivator.
Coach Steve: “OK, Katty, I’m pretty concerned about the fact that you are still smoking. You’ve been so great about making great strides in your health over the last few months, but this is an area that hasn’t improved and is concerning.
I know you’d feel so much better and proud of yourself if you made some progress in this area, and I am certain that you can do it!
Also, are you aware of your employer’s new incentive program? If you commit to participate in the “Smoke Freedom” program and stay active in it for three months, you’ll get a $50 gift card. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say we accomplished this?”
Katty Well: “Well, OK, I guess I can give it a try.”
How does a coach support a client in unleashing his or her own motivation without the use of force, facts, fear, or good old-fashioned cheerleading? The answer is tapping into the client’s autonomous motivation.
Autonomous motivation is about behaving with a full sense of volition, interest, and choice. When people are autonomously motivated, they control their choices, and they are acting in ways they find interesting, important, better, or of deep value.
Deutschman cites the work of Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. Ornish also recognized the importance of a higher quality motivation which took into account the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of change.
In his work with patients who had had a heart attack, he noticed that patients would be “compliant” with the “doctor’s orders” only for a few weeks after the event and out of fear.
However, in the long term, patients stopped thinking about their mortality, denial would return, and they would return to their unhealthy lifestyles.
So Ornish took a different tact; rather than motivating patients with the “fear of dying,” he supported them in considering a new vision, focused on the “joy of living” and the benefits that come with living. He recognized that joy is a more powerful motivator than fear.
When behavior change is intrinsic, clients experience pleasure—it’s fun, challenging, and interesting. This kind of motivation can be present-focused, savoring its impact in the here and now and how good it feels to have made healthy choices at the end of a day.
Or it can be future-focused, with the client knowing that the change will lead to a better future, energizing him or her to make the world a better place, stepping closer to his or her “best self,” and recognizing that a bigger reward comes after the behavior is sustained.
According to Deci, the benefits to people who experience high autonomous motivation are big. They include:
New and positive behaviors persist longer.
They are more flexible and creative.
People experience more enjoyment in making changes.
People have better physical health and higher quality personal relationships.
Autonomy is a core human drive as Deci and Ryan have taught us; we are wired to dislike being told what to do. Clients perform best when they are free to make an autonomous choice. This is good news because people also assume responsibility for their health when they act autonomously.
The U.S. healthcare system is designed to be top-down and authority-led, putting the patient in the passenger seat while the healthcare provider sits in the driver’s seat, determining the agenda and delivering advice and education.
This deprives a patient of the opportunity to take charge and drill down to find a heartfelt source of motivation. The coaching model, which starts by eliciting autonomy, can help shift this dynamic in the healthcare system.
When there is an awareness of the importance of the need for autonomous motivation, positive results follow. For example, Deci cites a smoking cessation study that looked at the degree to which medical staff supported patient autonomy.
By meeting patients’ fundamental psychological needs, the staff supported patients in becoming more autonomously motivated; the patients then perceived themselves as more competent in their ability to quit smoking.
Coaches engage in undistracted listening and reflecting with an open, mindful, and curious mindset rather than preaching and prescribing, which triggers resistance and even defiance.
Clients are often taken aback when they connect for the first time with their own heartfelt desire for change—it’s not about pounds on a scale, it’s about unleashing clients’ desires to improve their health so that they have the resources they need to live the lives they most want to live.
Coach Steve: “Katty, what is on your mind for our session today? You’ve raised a few topics in previous conversations—a desire to get more rest and your interest in quitting smoking. Would you like to discuss either of these or is there something else you want to talk about today?”
Katty Well: “Well, I’ve been procrastinating on the conversation about smoking for months now. I know my employer is really getting strict with insurance and that my being a smoker is going to have an impact.”
Coach Steve: “So, on one hand, your employer is encouraging all employees to quit smoking. On the other hand, you have a choice in the matter. Is this something you want to discuss today, or is there something more important to you?”
Katty Well: “Quitting smoking is actually pretty important to me. It’s just so hard to quit, and frankly, I can’t stand being told what to do.”
Coach Steve: “It is frustrating when you feel you don’t have control. Let’s look at the ways you are in control here. What about quitting is important to you?”
Motivational Interviewing: A Model for Increasing Motivation and Self-Efficacy
MI is a counseling methodology developed over the past 30 years initially as a new approach to the treatment of addiction.
MI methods support the eliciting of autonomous motivation, encouraging a client to find his or her own reasons to change. It involves pro-change talk and avoids triggering of change-resistance talk, which can cause the client to resist being told what to do.
In coaching, the more clients make their own case for change (pro-change talk), the more likely they are to actually make changes. Conversely, the more coaches make the case for change, the more likely it is that client resistance will increase and the motivation for change will decrease.
MI aims to increase autonomous motivation for change with the following strategies developed by MI founders Rollnick and Miller:
Engaging: developing growth-promoting and relationship-building strategies that support the client’s autonomy
Focusing: helping clients develop more clarity about their values and goals
Evoking: generating a connection to the client’s autonomous motivations and drives
Planning: designing action plans that support the building of self-efficacy
MI explicitly avoids the top-down expert approach in favor of assisting patients to make their own best decisions about why, what, how, and whether to change. Below we explore the four MI principles, integrating other theories and models that support and extend these principles.
Motivational Interviewing Principle 1: Engaging
MI starts with the premise that pro-change talk is facilitated by a calm, safe, judgment-free relational space in which people feel secure in honestly sharing their thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires without fear of judgment, ridicule, or pressure.
This is especially true when clients experience a seemingly irresolvable conflict between good reasons to not change and good reasons to change.
The more a client feels “stuck” and unable to move forward, the more important it is for coaches to express empathy and to validate and appreciate the discomfort. And, the more labeling, assessing, telling, and demanding that the coach does, the less engaged the client will become.
MI holds that efforts such as pushing, nagging, prodding, enforcing, and insisting that clients make change are usually counterproductive because they encourage resistance talk rather than change talk, which hinders the advancement of the client’s agenda and the work of coaching in general.
To summon empathy and leave promotional efforts behind, it helps to recognize risky behaviors, like smoking, as expressions of a client’s unmet needs. No change is possible until and unless those needs are fully and respectfully recognized, expressed, and appreciated.
Rolling with Resistance
MI holds that a client’s resistance talk says more about the approach of the coach than about the client’s readiness to change. One way to show support for client autonomy is to “roll with resistance.” The fact is clients do not resist change, but they resist being changed.
Marshall Rosenberg describes resistance-creating approaches as life-alienating communication, noting that the following forms of communication can increase resistance and interfere with empathy:
Denying choice or responsibility
Rewards and punishments
Holley Humphrey notes that the following communication patterns also interfere with empathy, whether they are intended to be constructive or not. That’s because they come more from pity and sympathy than they do from empathy.
Advising: “I think you should . . .” “How come you didn’t. .?”
Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just . . .”
Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault, you did the best you could.”
One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait until you hear what happened to me.”
Storytelling: “That reminds me of the time . . .”
Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
Commiserating: “Oh, you poor thing.”
Explaining: “I would have called but . . .”
Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
All of these approaches increase the likelihood of resistance talk. The use of empathy, inquiry, and reflection increase the likelihood of change talk. Empathy makes the relational field between client and coach both safe and interesting, opening the door to new possibilities and facilitating change.
Instead of arguing with clients or fighting fire with fire, empathy helps to redirect and thereby diffuse the energy of resistance in constructive ways.
Learning to roll with resistance is an essential skill in masterful coaching. Coaches pushing back against resistance can increase resistance and can move clients backward in their readiness to change.
When a coach feels the temptation of the “righting reflex” to confront resistance directly, such as by arguing, diagnosing, fixing, or any other communication pattern that fosters resistance, it is important to take a deep breath; extend self-compassion for one’s need for the client to change; and then respectfully explore the client’s underlying feelings, needs, and desires.
The more curious we become about those underlying feelings, needs, and desires while suspending our own judgments, interpretations, assumptions, evaluations, and agendas, the greater the chance of developing a life-giving connection and facilitating change talk.
The followings perspective shifts may assist coaches in rolling with resistance:
From client resistance to an external desire to the connection. The more a coach tries to get a client on board or seek compliance, the more a client resists change. In contrast, the more a coach seeks to respectfully understand the client’s experience, the more open a client becomes.
From an authoritative expert to inspiring confidence. The more a coach claims to know what’s best for a client, the more likely resistance will be provoked. In contrast, the more the coach believes in a client’s ability to learn, the more confident a client becomes.
From causes to capacities. The more a coach digs for causes of problems, the more trouble is dug up. The more a coach and client collaboratively search for capacities, the more engaging the change process becomes.
From counterforce to counterbalance. The more forcefully a coach argues against ambivalence and for change, the more a client will push back. The more a coach counterbalances client ambivalence with appreciative awareness of the good reasons to not change, the more change talk is generated.
Once an empathic connection is made, MI encourages coaches to use open-ended questions, reflective listening statements, as well as a variety of rulers to develop awareness of the gap that may exist between present behavior and important personal goals or values. The coach should not point out the discrepancies, which can feel judgmental.
That can trigger resistance to behavior change. Rather, clients should be encouraged to notice the discrepancies for themselves. When they do, they will experience new feelings, become aware of new needs, and express new desires. Exploring discrepancies with empathy and curiosity can help clients to become more open and motivated to change.
Along with other models used by coaches, MI leverages the full value of open-ended inquiry. Recall that all of the questions in the discovery phase of AI (related to best experiences, core values, generative conditions, and heartfelt wishes) are open-ended.
Such questions allow clients to take an active role in the coaching session as they explore both the positive and negative impacts of their behaviors.
Some examples of open-ended questions that evoke change talk are:
What is the best experience you have had with your desired future behavior?
What concerns do you have about your current behavior?
What values do you seek to live by in your life?
How might your desired future behavior lead to benefits in the future?
How might your current behavior lead to problems in the future?
What changes would you like to make in your routine?
As clients tell their stories and give expression to their full experience, the discrepancies that become self-evident may seem overwhelming. If this happens, the coach can best help a client by expressing empathy and appreciation for the good reasons leading to ambivalence.
Because open-ended inquiry encourages the client to process his or her experience and talk more than coaches, ideally more inquiries in a coaching session are open-ended than closed-ended.
Reflective listening statements function like mirrors, enabling clients to see themselves in new ways and improve both motivation and capacity for change. Timely and provocative reflections (empathy for unmet needs, amplification of topics that might improve motivation and confidence) are at the heart of the MI model.
MI uses more reflective listening statements than questions of any type. That’s because questions tend to generate left brain thinking-dominated responses, whereas reflections tap into emotions and needs.
Additionally, a series of questions all in a row can make people feel interrogated. The ideal ratio of reflections to questions over the course of a session is about 2:1. This is a good rule of thumb for coaching too.
Empathy reflections, or “empathy guesses” as they are referred to in the language of NVC, are particularly valuable for expressing empathy. “When we are thinking about people’s words, listening to how they connect to our theories, we are looking at people—we are not with them”.
The key to being “with” a client is to be wholly present with them by listening for the feelings that they are expressing and the needs that are being met or unmet.
Motivational Interviewing Principle 2: Focusing
The second principle of MI is to enable a focused exploration of the discrepancies between a client’s stated values and goals and their current behaviors. This principle is narrower than the focus of a typical coaching session in which a coach and client collaborate to determine the focus and agenda for the session.
Rather, this principle is about more narrowly directing the focus on the gap between a client’s present situation and their values and goals. This can be appropriate if offered to a client first as one of several options and he or she chooses to proceed to explore this discrepancy as the next best step.
Exploring a decisional balance, the pros and cons of a particular change is a helpful tool in assisting clients to think through whether they are ready, willing, and able to make a change.
Open-ended questions and reflective listening statements encourage clients to thoroughly consider the pros and cons of change. What are the costs and benefits of not changing? What are the costs and benefits of changing?
A decisional balance discussion helps clients more fully appreciate the sources of their autonomous motivation (costs of not changing, benefits of change) and what is required to build confidence (finding possible strategies to deal with the benefits of not changing and the costs of changing).
Physician and MI expert Richard Botelho uses a quantitative rating system, along with the decisional balance conversation in his tool for promoting change talk and increasing motivation. Coaches can use this tool during coaching sessions.
A coach can either help a client focus on one column at a time (e.g., focusing first on all of the reasons to stay the same) or use a technique called mental contrasting where the client would alternate— first identify a reason to stay the same and then a reason to change, and back and forth.
Response to Stay the Same
What are the benefits of staying the same? (List as many as possible.)
What are your concerns about making a change? (List as many as possible.)
Response to Make a Change
What are your concerns about staying the same? (List as many as possible.)
What are the benefits of making a change? (List as many as possible.)
After listing as many reasons as possible, explore your thoughts and feelings about staying the same or making a change. To explore your thoughts, answer the question, “On a scale of 0–10, what do I think about all the reasons I came up with?” To explore your feelings, answer the question, “On a scale of 0–10, how good do I feel about all the reasons I came up with?”
Finally, looking at the two scores, answer the question, “On a scale of 0–10, how ready am I to make a change (motivation score) or stay the same (resistance score)?”
Clients are first asked to list the benefits and concerns about not making or making a change. Once the lists are generated, clients are asked to rate on a scale of 0–10 (with 10 being the highest and 0 being the lowest) what they think and feel about their lists.
After looking at the thinking and feeling scores, clients are then asked to assign composite scores to their levels of resistance and motivation to change.
Perceptive Reflections for Developing Discrepancy
Four powerful reflections used by MI practitioners to develop discrepancy between the desired future and current behaviors are simple, amplified, double-sided, and shifted-focus reflections. Each can be used in conjunction with an NVC-style empathy reflection, addressing the client’s feelings and needs.
These reflections are like the images seen in a flat mirror. A simple reflection paraphrases and restates what clients are saying, using their own words without exaggeration, interpretation, or distortion. The impact of such simple reflections can be surprisingly powerful.
Katty Well: “I don’t have time to exercise. My friends and my spouse don’t either!”
Coach Steve’s simple reflection: “It seems that you, your friends, and your spouse don’t have time to exercise.”
Katty Well: “That’s true, except for one of my friends who is an avid runner. I don’t know how he does it!”
Coach Steve’s empathy reflection: “When you say you have a friend who is an avid runner, it sounds like you are impressed and may be curious, wondering how he manages to find the time.”
These reflections are like the images seen in a convex or concave mirror. They maximize or minimize what clients say in order to evoke disagreement from them in the direction of change talk.
By reflecting an increased or decreased intensity of a client’s perspective, magnifying both the effect and the outcome, clients may react quickly with new insights and reasons to change.
To avoid being manipulative, the coach should use statements only in the service of client-generated goals. To avoid being mocking or patronizing, the coach should deliver such statements in charge-neutral terms.
Katty Well: “I don’t have time to exercise. My friends and my spouse don’t either!”
Coach Steve’s amplified reflection: “I hear you saying that you don’t know anyone close to you who has time to exercise and that it feels impossible for you to fit exercise into your schedule.”
Katty Well: “It’s not impossible for me to exercise. It’s just hard to find the time. Once in a while I do manage to exercise, and I know there are people out there who exercise regularly, so maybe I could figure out a way.”
Coach Steve: “Sounds as though you are curious and feeling a little energized about finding a way to exercise more regularly, learning from the experience of others.”
These reflections are like the images seen in trifold mirrors; they reveal multiple perspectives at the same time. By encouraging clients to look at different facets, perhaps comparing a current resistant statement with a prior readiness statement, they gain perspective and make different decisions as to if and how they want to move forward.
Katty Well: “I don’t have time to exercise. My friends and my spouse don’t either!”
Coach Steve’s double-sided reflection: “I hear you saying that you don’t have time to exercise and that your friends and spouse don’t either. But I’ve also heard you say that exercise makes you feel better and that regular exercise would be good for your energy and health.”
Katty Well: “That’s the problem. I want to exercise, and it does make me feel better, but it cuts into my time with family and friends. If I could figure out how to do both, perhaps I could make exercise stick.”
Coach Steve: “It sounds like you are feeling discouraged because it’s hard to meet your needs for both exercise and connection, and it would be worthwhile to find a way.”
Katty Well: “I don’t have time to exercise. My friends and my spouse don’t either!”
Coach Steve’s shifted focus reflection: “This sounds challenging, so little time to exercise. I’m wondering about the dance class you started with your partner. You were doing pretty well with that; I remember you saying that you were enjoying the classes.”
Katty Well: “Yes, that’s the best decision I’ve made in quite a while. No more sitting in front of the TV on Thursday nights! It’s been great to do something active together. We may even add a second night to the schedule.”
Coach Steve: “It sounds like you are feeling happy with dancing and the time with your partner because it’s meeting your needs for both physical activity and connection.”
These reflections are like the images we see in a periscope. They redirect our attention away from a resistance-provoking subject in order to focus on another area. Once change talk begins in that area, the resistance-provoking subject can be reconsidered with more success.
It is important to note that when a coach employs amplified and empathy reflections, it is a guess as to what will stimulate change talk and what feelings and needs may live behind a client’s words, body language, or tone.
Whether the guess is right or wrong does not matter. What matters is the integrity of the intention to generate change talk and to connect with honesty and empathy.
Such attempts generate appreciation, awareness, and movement in the client. Because such reflections often bring to the surface strong feelings and deep needs, it’s important to stay with the language of empathy until clients feel acknowledged and heard.
Motivational Interviewing Principle 3: Evoking
The third principle of MI centers on uncovering a client’s reasons for the change. Encouraging the client to explore their autonomous “why” behind a behavior change, especially with an orientation toward the future, can create the energy needed for a shift. As Rumi said, “What you seek is seeking you.”
The Role of Meaning in Motivation
One’s sense of purpose and meaning can also be an important foundation for reasons for the change. The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing, including overcoming adversity.
By nature, humans are meaning-focused, motivated by the desire to understand the world in which we live and to search for something out there that demands our devotion.
In his research, Paul Wong found that having a sense of meaning, life purpose, and life control were predictors of psychological and physical well-being. Wong concludes that meaning is necessary for healing, resilience, optimism, and well-being.
An interesting new research direction concerning purpose led to the Boyle et al. finding that people with Alzheimer’s disease who had a strong sense of life’s purpose were less affected by brain
Katty Well: “Quitting smoking is actually pretty important to me. It’s just so hard to quit, and frankly, I can’t stand being told how to do it by non-smokers.”
Coach Steve: “It is frustrating when you feel you haven’t discovered yet how best to quit. Let’s look at what is under your control here. What about quitting is important to you?”
Katty Well: “Well, it would get my employer to stop nagging me.”
Coach Steve: “That sounds like a good outcome. I’m curious about other outcomes that matter even more. What else do you see that would be an immediate benefit?”
Katty Well: “I’d probably lose this nagging cough that keeps me from getting a good sleep.”
Coach Steve: “And what else?”
Katty Well: “My coworkers wouldn’t look at me like I have the plague.”
Coach Steve: “It sounds like that is hurtful for you. What do you wish was happening?”
Katty Well: “I feel a bit like an outcast around them. I miss out on some conversations and fun when I’m taking smoke breaks during lunch, for example.”
Coach Steve: “You really want to feel like you aren’t missing out on any of the opportunities to connect with them. You want to feel included.”
Katty Well: “Yes, that’s it.”
Even though their brains were similarly physiologically diseased, something about having “purpose” prevented the disease from fully manifesting in cognitive decline.
Coaches help clients examine the larger value and purpose behind any desired change, mining the past for lessons learned, the present for what contributions the change could make to performance and life purpose, and the future related to potential contributions to causes beyond self.
Examining Motivation with Rulers
MI readiness and confidence rulers are useful tools for the exploration of motivation to change. These scoring rulers enable clients to think out loud and quantify qualitative topics that are hard to pin down—their readiness, willingness, and ability to change. To evoke willingness, MI asks clients to rate the importance of making a change right now.
The coach might ask, “On a scale of 0–10, how important would you say it is to change your at this time?”
With all three rulers, it is valuable to explore with a client: “What led you to not pick a lower number?” “What would help you get to a higher number?” Open-ended questions such as these, followed by perceptive reflections, can evoke change talk and support behavior change.
Motivational Interviewing Principle 4: Planning
The MI principle of planning involves collaborating on an action plan supported by increasing self-efficacy. Let’s explore the broader topic of self-efficacy next before addressing the MI planning principles.
Coach Steve: “And beyond the workplace, which is just one aspect of your life, what would it mean to you to be free of smoking?”
Self-efficacy, the belief that one has the capability to initiate and sustain the desired behavior, is one of the most important outcomes of coaching in combination with improvements in self-image (becoming one’s best self) and lasting mindset and behavior change.
A goal of coaching is for clients to achieve and sustain the goals that brought them into coaching and to feel confident in their ability to attain new goals in the future, navigating challenges well as they arise.
In other words, clients should be able to learn how to learn and change so that they can move on from a coaching partnership in self-directed, motivated, and confident ways.
Social Cognitive Theory (SCT)
Simply put, SCT asserts that human behavior is determined by three factors which interact with each other in dynamic and reciprocal ways: personal factors (such as what one believes and how one feels about what one can do), environmental factors (such as support networks and role models), and behavioral factors (such as what one experiences and accomplishes).
SCT is named as such because it emphasizes the primacy of cognitive processes in constructing reality and regulating behavior.
The psychologist believes that self-efficacy increases when one experiences flow—when the challenge of the task and the skills to accomplish it are high and close to equal. When one is engaged in a task that is mismatched with one’s skill, efficacy decreases and anxiety increases.
Self-efficacy is impacted by all three factors (personal, environmental, and behavioral), and masterful coaching works to align those factors.
Physiological/Affective States—Cultivating Eustress, Minimizing Distress
Nothing is more personal than one’s body and feelings, both of which can interfere with self-efficacy. That’s why it’s so important to assist clients in becoming physically and emotionally comfortable with rather than intimidated by the prospect of change.
The reasons for change become motivational only when they engage the whole person, including the person’s physical sensations and emotional reactions, which can signal met or unmet needs.
Simply put, how people feel about the prospect of change impacts their self-efficacy. If they have butterflies in their stomachs or a dry throat while approaching a task, for example, they are more likely to have low self-efficacy than when approaching a task feeling relaxed and confident. That may seem obvious, but the cause-and-effect relationship goes both ways; physiological states affect self-efficacy and vice versa, and coaches work to elicit both.
If stress is defined as stimulation, then distress represents either too much or too little stimulation. As noted earlier, the former provokes anxiety, whereas the latter produces boredom. Both are distressing, and in the extreme, both can generate negative health impacts.
Eustress, literally defined as “good stress,” occurs in the flow zone. We find ourselves engaged but not overwhelmed, in control of our experience but not bored. This is the sweet spot that coaches seek to hit with clients, both during the coaching session—challenging clients to stretch their thinking and feeling while being affirmative and empathetic to avoid distress—and after the coaching session, as clients actively pursue their visions and goals.
Giving respectful attention and understanding to physiological/affective states, both during and between coaching sessions, can assist coaches and clients in finding that sweet spot. For example, during coaching sessions, coaches can offer empathy reflections to elicit and connect with what clients may be feeling and needing at the moment.
Coaches can also ask clients to change body position, breathe rhythmically, move their hands, walk around, trace a labyrinth, look at an object, draw pictures, play music, or connect in other ways with their physiological/affective states as different actions are being contemplated and reviewed.
The same is true for the coach’s own physiological/affective states because they often mirror what a client is feeling and needing. The more aware coaches become of their own sensations and feelings at the moment as a coaching session progresses, the more on-target coaches become with their questions and interventions.
Getting clients to pay attention to their physiological/affective states between coaching sessions is equally vital in assisting clients in moving forward. Noticing and understanding what’s happening on an emotional level while clients are experimenting with behavior changes can assist clients in discovering the things that fill them with or drain them of energy.
Self-efficacy increases as clients do more of the things that fill them with energy. Coaches help clients set aside the pursuit of things out of a sense of obligation or the idea that they should in favor of doing things out of a sense of choice and the feeling that it is what they value and want.
When the locus of control shifts from the external to the internal frame, clients find more energy, motivation, and greater confidence to change.
Verbal Persuasion—Evoking Change Talk
Many different environmental factors impact self-efficacy; two of the most important are the things people say to us (verbal persuasion) and the things people do around us (vicarious experience). Verbal persuasion is not about wearing the “expert hat” and telling clients what they should do. That typically generates both resistance and resentment.
Wearing the appreciative hat and stimulating a client to discover what they can do, however, is an entirely different matter. Inputs such as these tend to enrich life and generate movement as clients become persuaded that they have what it takes to initiate and maintain the desired behavior.
However, the more coaches try to persuade clients of what they should do, the more resistance coaches evoke, which decreases readiness to change. To assist clients to become persuaded with-out provoking resistance, coaches communicate confidence in the ability of clients to reach their vision and achieve their goals.
When that confidence is heartfelt, sincere, and based on client strengths, it helps bolster self-efficacy. Although it may take time and many such verbal inputs from a variety of socially interactive phenomena, client inertia can be overcome. Put simply, the coach’s belief in a client increases a client’s belief in himself or herself.
It is the work of the coach not only to assist clients with the decisional balance of weighing pros and cons but also to support clients in acquiring the belief that they have what it takes to move forward and that life will support them in wonderful ways once they get started.
As we have mentioned, Dave Buck of CoachVille frames the persuasive work of coaching in the terms, “My certainty is greater than your doubt.” Such persuasion involves all aspects of being, including the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual domains. It hinges on the track record and credibility of the coach and the quality of the coaching relationship.
Albert Bandura would caution against inauthentic, or unrealistic, persuasion suggesting that “cheerleading” for behaviors that aren’t realistic undermines a client’s progress and the coach’s efforts.
Bandura’s recognition that verbal persuasion must be appropriately scaled reflects the basic insight of the transtheoretical model’s stages of change as well as Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow. Masterful coaches dance with their clients to set appropriate, stage-specific challenges and to identify the relevant skills to be learned over time.
When this happens, the coaching relationship can remain indefinitely productive because there are always new challenges to tackle and new skills to learn. AI is an especially powerful framework and process for assisting clients to become persuaded that they have what it takes to do what they want to do.
By evoking the stories of their best experiences and exploring their core values, strengths, generative conditions, and heartfelt wishes, clients become empowered to dream, design, and deliver their destinies.
When clients express resistance, the TTM, NVC, and MI models are invaluable. Resistance may come from the coach’s inaccurate assessment of a client’s readiness to change, setting a challenge that does not match the client’s capacity or formidable internal and external obstacles.
Resistance may also develop when coaches speak from the expert position, telling clients what they “need,” should, or “have” to do to reach their goals.
MI uses many tools to avoid provoking resistance, including expressing empathy, silence, attentiveness, open questions, as well as reflective listening statements. These MI tools have the ability to shift the client from resistance talk to change talk, thus increasing the client’s perceived self-efficacy.
Bandura notes that it is far easier to discourage someone with our words than it is to encourage them. The wrong words spoken at the wrong time can undermine confidence and produce disappointing results.
Wearing the expert that can overwhelm and intimidate rather than empower and inspire. It’s better to listen and remain silent than to push the wrong buttons in our attempt to get things moving.
Vicarious Experiences— Observing Similar Role Models
The world’s first commercial bungee jumping took place in November 1988 off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand. The 43-meter drop continues to attract thousands of visitors each year who find it fascinating to watch the process of someone deciding to take the plunge. When people arrive, they first go to the viewing platforms, one high and the other low.
They watch people of different genders and ages get strapped in and dive off the bridge into the gorge. With each successive jump, some become more interested, open, and confident. They develop the belief that “I can do that too.” Their self-efficacy increases through the vicarious experience of watching the others.
Such experiences are yet another vital environ-mental factor when it comes to self-efficacy. The more opportunities people have to witness and relate to others who are doing what they want to do, the more likely it is that they will initiate and sustain that behavior themselves.
Sharing and telling stories are other ways for clients to have efficacy-building, vicarious experiences. Coaches can encourage clients to tell stories of others who have successfully handled their current goals and challenges. Coaches can also tell stories from their own life experiences and the experiences of others with whom they have worked or known.
The more positive change stories coaches and clients share together, the more vicarious experiences come into the coaching conversation—and the more self-efficacy grows.
It’s better to encourage clients to find their own stories of vicarious experience rather than to tell stories, but both can come into play over the course of a coaching conversation. When coaches tell too many stories, it can sound either boastful (“Look what I did!”) or demanding (“All these people got their acts together! Why can’t you?”).
When stories are told judiciously, however, as part of the give and take of the coaching session, they serve as powerful tools to generate the energy for change.
If and when clients are unable to come up with their own stories of vicarious experience, coaches can encourage them to do research and field studies. To use the analogy of bungee jumping, coaches can assist clients in finding a platform from which to watch others do what they want to do.
When this happens, their self-efficacy is likely to increase. The more success stories clients have in their repertoire and the more they tell those stories to their coaches and to others, the more likely it becomes that they will see themselves as able to achieve their desired outcomes.
That’s especially true if the stories describe people similar to themselves. The greater the perceived similarity, the greater the impact a vicarious experience will have on self-efficacy.
Why do some people decide to jump off the Kawarau Bridge while others demur, even though everyone has the same vicarious experience? It may have to do, in part, with how closely one identifies with those who take the plunge.
Mastery Experiences— Successful, Perseverant Efforts
The fourth SCT factor, the behavioral factor, is both the most powerful source and the ultimate outcome of self-efficacy. What we actually accomplish ourselves does more than anything else to cultivate successful, perseverant effort. As the old saying goes, “Nothing breeds success like success.”
Conversely, “Nothing breeds failure like a failure.” Understanding these dynamic, masterful coaches assist clients in achieving quick wins and then staying on the winning path from week to week. Positive outcomes lead to increased self-efficacy, whereas negative outcomes lead to decreased self-efficacy. That’s why mastery experiences can be viewed as both cause and effect when it comes to self-efficacy.
That’s as true in coaching as it is in other areas. Masterful coaches do a better job of dancing with their clients than do uncertain or insecure coaches. As a result, masterful coaches generate better results and attract more clients—both of which serve to enhance their sense of self-efficacy as coaches.
Instead of a destructive downward cycle, mastery experiences generate a constructive upward cycle. To increase the frequency, intensity, and quality of their clients’ mastery experiences, masterful coaches discern where clients are in the TTM stages of change and then guide them to structure stage-appropriate, incremental goals that are both engaging and manageable.
The MI principle of “planning” calls for realistic, well-thought-out plans that consider barriers and challenges. To strengthen goal commitment and the possibility for mastery, the coach and client collaborate to:
Dream to envision the desired future
Explore the client’s intention with motivation and meaning
Create specific, measurable, and meaningful action steps
Examine the client’s level of confidence and adjust the action steps as necessary to increase confidence
Create contingency plans
Imagine success and its positive consequences
Affirm commitment, strengths, and ability
As Csikszentmihalyi observes, biting off either too much or too little undermines self-efficacy because doing so generates either anxiety or boredom; this is where the research studying flow and self-efficacy converge.
People with the high self-efficacy experience flow more often than do people with low self-efficacy, because people with high self-efficacy know how to set goals and design projects that are just within reach.
Masterful coaches help clients transform their experiences in goal implementation into learning. Assisting clients in approaching their lives as science experiments or living laboratories can free clients to try new things and bounce back quickly from apparent setbacks. There are no failures in science, only learning experiences.
Science is a “win-learn” rather than a “win-lose” enterprise. Data are collected and theories are revised until things work and fit together; this is also true when it comes to mastery experiences. If something doesn’t work, we use that data to design new experiments until we find something that does work.
As in AI, coaches come from the perspective that we can always find things that work. It is important for coaches to assist clients in finding things that are important, interesting, enjoyable, and stage-appropriate from the vantage point of the client. There is little value in conducting an experiment for its own sake.
It is ideally related to a larger, positive vision of who clients are, what they value, and where they want to go. It must also be grounded in the reality of what clients know and have accomplished in the past. Masterful coaches enable their clients to frame their goals and projects in these terms. They are masters of meaning-making, learning, and the pleasures in change.
Harnessing Motivation to Build Self-Efficacy
How Coaches Handle a Client’s Negative Emotions
Emotional states and the balance of negative and positive emotions have an enormous impact on the brain’s capacity for learning. Coaches assist clients in developing optimal emotional states to support learning. The first step toward an “organized mind” is to tame an overdose of negative emotional frenzy that many people deal with daily.
Negative emotions reduce the brain’s ability to learn, to take in new knowledge and skills, by impairing the function of the prefrontal cortex, impairing access to working memory which is the raw material for creativity. This hampers curiosity, cognitive agility, and creative and strategic thinking.
A study of physician empathy concluded that patients whose physicians have high empathy scores were significantly more likely to have good control of blood sugar and cholesterol levels than physicians with low empathy scores. A coach’s compassion makes an important contribution in helping clients handle their negative emotions.
Most people, particularly those who have chronic diseases and feel badly about their personal contribution to a disease process, have a vocal inner critic, a voice that says “I can’t do this,” “I’m not good enough,” and “I failed.” Self-criticism is a potent source of negativity that depletes brain resources, making it hard to move forward.
When coaches radiate warmth, patience, and empathy, clients are better able to let go of the past, accept themselves, and feel self-compassion. It can be difficult for health professionals to be patient and empathetic when people are not making progress, and yet acceptance and empathy are essential if coaches are to help clients loosen the grip of negative emotions and self-talk.
Kristin Neff a psychologist studying self-compassion, who started a self-compassion movement, has studied the value of self-compassion as a method of processing negative emotions and suffering well. Self-compassion toward one’s negative emotions leads to a softer, kinder motivation that improves the brain’s ability to learn and change.
Unfortunately, fear of failing and of being a failure is not an optimal source of motivation. In contrast, Neff’s formula for self-compassion is an excellent guide for coaches;
It starts with a mindful acceptance of negative emotions, followed by a heartfelt connection to others who share similar negative emotions, and, lastly, self-kindness, perhaps crossing one’s hands over the heart area for a moment.
Goleman suggests that there are two types of emotional reactions: low road and the high road. Low-road reactions occur automatically, such as when we hear a sudden noise in the night and our heart jumps. High-road reactions occur when we reappraise the situation, halting the further release of stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol.
Reappraisal dampens the overactive amygdala (the inner “uh oh” voice). When we reappraise events, we are more likely to remember the content of those events. When we can mindfully distinguish between an event and our interpretations of it, we are setting the stage for optimistic reappraisal.
The reappraisal process is a matter of becoming aware of often unconscious interpretations, bringing relevant filters (values, beliefs, culture) to consciousness and introducing positive changes in our perspectives.
A task of a coach then is to support clients in making reappraisal a conscious, ongoing process. Optimistic reappraisals are important in building a client’s internal resources. Reappraisal is not about suppressing emotions. In fact, suppression leads to higher levels of negative emotions and worsening disease symptoms.
We are also vulnerable to errors and poor judgments when brain function is impaired by fear.
The coaching conversation can bring this often unconscious process to the conscious mind, where it can be named and normalized. Calming the amygdala by naming the threat enables more constructive activity in the problem-solving portion of the brain.
Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions improve attention, open-mindedness, creativity, and the ability to reach a strategic perspective.
Furthermore, when we are able to attain and sustain a positive emotion to negative emotion ratio above 3:1, our level of resilience rises to enable our ability to adapt and change. Positive emotions are vital for brain learning in the moment and for a client’s change success over time.
In each coaching session, coaches create an oasis for clients, one that is calm, mindful, undistracted, and positive. Coaches also help clients become more self-compassionate toward their negative emotions and inner critics and develop a level of positive emotions needed for curiosity and creativity, leading to new insights and possibilities.
Coaches support clients in learning from their behavioral experiments to substitute curiosity for negative self-talk that can come from perceived failure.
Self-esteem, the belief that one has value and worth as a person or healthy self-respect, is an important basic need of human beings. It drives us to set a high bar for our achievements and then measure how well we are performing.
In the right dose with a positive voice, it is a powerful source of productive motivation, spurring us forward to achieve great things.
However, if performance falls short of one’s internal standard, this drive can turn into an inner critic and a potent source of negative emotions. As a result, it can have a negative impact on one’s ability to improve and maintain well-being.
The benefits of high self-esteem include:
Facilitates greater resilience through persistence in the face of challenge
Leads to the greater initiative
Promotes leadership as those with higher esteem are more willing to speak up in group situations
Has a relationship to feelings of happiness
Those with low self-esteem are “more prone than others to get sick or suffer other physical problems in connection with stressful daily events”. Additionally, those with low self-esteem may benefit more from therapy than from coaching, and an appropriate referral should be considered.
However, there is a growing movement that the focus on fostering high self-esteem, largely emphasized in American culture in the middle of the 21st century, is also not all good. High self-esteem can also lead to more undesirable outcomes:
Narcissism, coupled with aggression
Increased focus on social comparison
An inflated view of how others perceive the person with high self-esteem
A willingness to be more critical of others
A greater willingness to experiment with potentially risky health behaviors
If esteem is based on the social comparison, rather than one’s true sense of value, it is difficult to avoid a judgmental mindset, with a labeling of others as “good,” “bad,” “better,” or “worse.” Additionally, as others progress, the goals of the client would continually need to shift to keep up with the increased competition.
When self-esteem is grounded in a client’s comparison of self to others in their environment, their goals are driven by the success (or failure) of others rather than their own autonomous motivation.
Contingent self-esteem is experienced by people who are preoccupied with questions of worth and esteem and who see their worth as dependent on reaching certain standards, appearing certain ways, or accomplishing certain goals (Ryan & Brown, 2003).
This is especially detrimental in the context of health and wellness behaviors and goals if clients are motivated by external drivers such as the desire to please and appear worthy to others rather than experiencing autonomous motivation.
When external factors are instigators of change, coupled with thoughts such as, “I want to please you” or “I will get in trouble if I don’t do it,” learning, creativity, and task performance are diminished.
In coaching, if a client’s self-esteem is dependent on the perception of the coach, the praise received from the coach, and the success of a goal, the pressure to meet expectations undermine the success and lowers authentic enthusiasm.
Self-Compassion: How to Suffer Well and Calm One’s Inner Critic
Kristin Neff proposes that self-compassion includes three elements: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness requires recognition that the human experience inevitably includes suffering, heartache, embarrassment, disappointment, and failure. When one practices self-kindness amidst such trials, one chooses to be gentle and forgiving rather than angry and self-critical. This kindness may need to be accompanied by a willingness to be vulnerable and be truly seen, imperfections and all.
Brené Brown suggests that shame is bred by harsh, self-critical judgment and is often kept hidden and secret to hide vulnerability. Fortunately, a good coaching relationship founded on trust and authenticity can help a client be more willing to experience and share vulnerability followed by self-kindness.
Having a sense that one is part of the greater common human experience, rather than feeling isolated and individualized, also contributes to greater self-compassion. When a client is aware that he or she is likely not alone in experiencing such negative feelings, it becomes easier to accept those feelings.
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that one’s situation is impacted by the environment as much as it is by individual choice. The social context and environment (people, places, things) in which a client life is equally important to address when considering behavior change and when identifying solutions for improved life experience.
Self-compassion involves openness to experiencing the full range of human emotions so that they are acknowledged and honored without suppression, avoidance, exaggeration, or rumination. The practice of mindfulness allows for a nonjudgmental and observational approach to one’s thoughts and feelings.
Self-Compassion Leads to Self-Determination
The benefits of self-compassion are numerous, especially related to a client’s need for self-determination. First, experiencing a connectedness with others—acknowledging the interconnectedness of all humankind—supports one’s most basic need for relatedness.
When behaviors are driven by love, rather than fear, feelings of confidence and a sense of security are more likely to take hold. Frenzy is tamed, leading to a calmer heart and mind.
When a client is calm, he or she is better able to make wise and intentional choices informed by emotional intelligence. Autonomy is supported when one is encouraged to be reflective and make choices in line with one’s values, needs, and motivations.
Better behavioral choices lead to an increased chance of success, or mastery experiences, which completes the circle in building confidence or a sense of competency for the next task.
Nonviolent Communication: A Model for Expressing Compassion
Several useful tools for supporting compassion— both for the client and coach—can be found in the work of Marshall Rosenberg’s framework of nonviolent communication.
An empathetic connection can bring clients out, helping them acknowledge their feelings and needs, leading to a deeper awareness of the client and a more connected coaching relationship. Once this is accomplished, there’s no limit to the constructive actions a client can take and the behavior changes they can make.
Empathy is the respectful understanding of another person’s experience, including his or her feelings, needs, and desires. It is not a prelude to the work of coaching; it is the work of coaching.
Through the respectful and appreciative understanding of a client’s experiences, the coach supports the client in expanding his or her awareness, creating openness, and facilitating change.
All coaching relationships must begin with the premise that change is facilitated by a calm, safe, and judgment-free relational space in which people are free to honestly share their thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires without fear of judgment, ridicule, or pressure.
This is especially true when clients experience a seemingly irresolvable conflict between what they want and where they currently are. The more a client feels “stuck” and unable to move, the more important it is for coaches to express empathy and to appreciate the discomfort of being on a fence.
Although coaches widely recognize the importance of creating such a generative relational space with clients, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a calm, safe, judgment-free posture in the face of health-risk behaviors. It becomes even more difficult when those behaviors persist in spite of a coach’s best efforts to support self-responsibility and behavior change.
As the coach, it is tempting to push the client hard to make change happen. It is important to remember, however, that this can actually interfere with empathy and provoke resistance to change.
People often confuse empathy with pity and sympathy. Understanding the distinction is important for coaches to learn. In the context of coaching, sympathy means identifying with someone’s experience primarily on an emotional level.
Sympathizing with someone means “I feel your pain” or “I share your joy.” Sympathizing with someone who feels sad can make us feel sad. The same goes for every other emotion, both positive and negative. That’s because emotions are contagious.
Although such “emotional contagion” is a dynamic shared by all animals, using some of the same faculties as empathy, it doesn’t involve listening with the whole being. Indeed, sympathy often interferes with listening because it turns our attention more toward our own feelings, needs, and desires than to those of the other.
The result can be overlooking clients’ needs and desires. That’s why, although expressing pity and sympathy can help at times, it does not have the transformational power of empathy.
Pity is also not useful in the coaching relationship as it means grieving someone’s experience, usually because of circumstantial hardships. For example, we may pity a starving child or an outcast member of society.
Such sorrow can lead to charitable actions, such as giving assistance or showing mercy. Although helpful, these actions, which stem from viewing and relating to people as casualties, usually do not serve to empower them.
A person who pities someone communicates in effect, “I feel sorry for you.” That attitude undermines self-esteem and has no place in coaching. Few people like to be pitied, no matter how difficult the situation.
Coaching comes from the framework of believing in the client’s ability to learn from and grow in any situation. Pitying runs counter to this framework, implying fateful resignation.
Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone; it’s about understanding and respecting where someone is coming from. Empathy necessitates both emotional and cognitive awareness to appreciate a person’s experience, to connect respectfully, and to give voice to what people may be feeling, needing, and desiring.
Empathy requires full engagement and deep appreciation. There is no hurry or judgment in empathy; rather, there is a safe, calm, no-fault zone where people can discover and develop their truths.
Whereas sympathy is typically not discretionary, welling up in us like an intruder in ways that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, empathy treasures emotion as a guest. Its impact is to open clients up to significant learning, growth, and change.
When we are empathetic, we say in effect, “I respect your pain” or “I celebrate your joy.” To do so, we recognize the emotion for what it is and appreciate what it has to teach us. This requires us to learn and use the language of empathy.
Expressing empathy requires us to develop a different language. It necessitates the conscious engagement of emotional intelligence and the intuitive dance of dialogue. It takes real mastery, especially when people are acting out their pain in hostile or destructive ways.
Katty Well: “I am having such a difficult time with my manager. I think I’m going to get fired from my job, and then how will I afford to eat all of the healthy foods we’ve been discussing?”
Coach Steve with pity: “Oh, you poor thing! It is just terrible the way your manager treats you! You should win a prize just for putting up with that!”
Coach Steve with sympathy: “I completely understand. I remember when I worked for someone just like that about 10 years ago. It is so frustrating to not be understood; I remember it just like it was yesterday, but I got through it and so can you.”
Coach Steve with empathy: “It does sound like a difficult time, and I hear how worried you are while also really wanting to keep your positive momentum going.”
Expressing Empathy with Nonviolent Communication
The NVC model for expressing empathy assumes four important distinctions:
Make observations, not evaluations. By limiting our descriptions to what can be perceived by the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) in specific times and places, we stave off the tendency to judge, exaggerate, interpret, generalize, catastrophize, assume, or criticize. For example, “I failed to exercise last week” is an evaluation. “I went to the gym one time last week” is an observation.
Express feelings, not thoughts. Many are in the habit of confusing thoughts and feelings. Although grammatically correct, none of the following sentences express feelings: “I feel like a failure,” “I feel it is useless,” “I feel that my boss is controlling,” and “I feel inadequate.”
These are thoughts masquerading as feelings, and they are not useful in expressing empathy. NVC refers to them as “faux feelings.”
Identify needs, not strategies. The distinction between universal human needs and specific strategies to meet those needs represents the crux of NVC. “Needs are more than the things we can’t live without. They represent our values, wants, desires and preferences for a happier and more meaningful experience as a human.
Although we have different needs in differing amounts at different times, they are universal in all of us,” such as the need for competence, connection, safety, or love.
Although grammatically correct, none of the following sentences expresses universal needs: “I need you to stop at the store,” “I need to work out every day,” and “I need to get going on this project.” These are strategies for meeting universal needs. They do not represent the needs themselves.
Make requests, not demands. Once we’ve become clear about the feelings and underlying needs, it’s time to either confirm our understanding or agree on an action.
Either way, NVC uses the language of request: “Would you be willing to tell me what you heard me say?” or “What agreements would you be willing to make with regard to exercise in the coming week?” It is important to respect both the autonomy of the person and the possibility of the moment.
Undergirding Rosenberg’s method is an awareness of a causal connection between personal feelings and universal needs (i.e., “When universal needs are being met, people feel good. When they aren’t being met, people feel bad.”). These feelings and needs are often below the surface. No change is possible until and unless those needs are fully and respectfully recognized and expressed.
The Role of Empathy for the Coach
An awareness of one’s own feelings and needs is crucial if coaches want to be an empathic presence for their clients. A mindful coaching practice includes the intentional practice of acknowledging one’s own feelings and needs outside of and within the coaching relationship.
When coaches find it difficult to give empathy, it probably means they are not receiving enough empathy themselves.
Both regular self-empathy and mutual empathy among significant others are essential practices for authentic coaching presence because a coach will not be able to be fully present with a client unless he or she can come to work free of distraction from beckoning unmet needs.