How to Have More Coaching Breakthroughs | by Dr Marcia Reynolds, MCC

Most coaches know how to be supportive, encouraging, and curious. However, creating a new awareness takes more than building trust and rapport. As the conversations go deeper, you might need to generate a bit of discomfort to create a breakthrough in thinking.

Transactional vs. Transformational Thinking

Humans are masters at rationalization. They find good reasons for their behavior even when it's destructive.

If you coach clients to take simple steps to change their behaviors, they might thank you and commit to new action. This commitment might not last. When people have been stuck in destructive or unproductive behaviors for a long time, a transactional, problem-solving approach is not that effective. Instead, these clients need the coach to take a stronger, more transformational approach.

In "Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain" (Ecco, 2011), neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we get stuck in our automatic thought-processing and fool ourselves into thinking we're right. To disturb this automatic processing, Gazzaniga says there needs to be a crack in the force field that protects a person's sense of reality before he or she will actively explore, examine, and change strongly held beliefs and behavior.

This requires the coach to reflect the holes in logic and ask questions that reveal the fears, needs, and desires that keep the client's constructs in place. The reaction to bringing these things to light will register somewhere between slight discomfort and an emotional outpour.

Therefore, negative emotions can be a good sign.

Although finally seeing a blind spot can be a cause for celebration, the initial reaction can be stressful. When people realize they have blocked a truth they should have seen, they may feel mortified, angry, or sad. They begin to question their past perceptions and behavior. It is in this moment of uncertainty that behavioral learning occurs. [1] A clearer and broader understanding of the situation can emerge. [2] This breakthrough in thinking creates the new awareness, which is accompanied by a range of possible emotions from embarrassment to relief.

Combine Reflection with Questions to Create Breakthroughs

Coaching isn't just about asking versus telling.

It's also about creating a new awareness which includes the reflective practices of sharing observations and sensory input, and then holding the space so your client's cognitive shifts can occur - even when it feels uncomfortable.

The coach then uses both direct communications and questions to help the client self-reflect and explore their motivations, blind spots, and desires more deeply. The questions come from what the coach is present to, not from remembering good questions from a list. In fact, thinking often gets in the way of good coaching!

Listen with Your Nervous System

The foundation of breakthrough coaching is presence.

The coach needs to be present to the whole person and their experience. This includes acknowledging the emotions the client is feeling in the moment and recognizing the energy shifts that are occurring.

The powerful reflections and questions that change clients' minds emerge when you listen to your heart and gut as well as your head.

Ask about what you sense - what fears, disappointment, needs, and desires are conveyed to you without words. Your clients then stop and question themselves.

When coaches are grounded in the moment and are open and listening with their entire nervous system including the heart and gut, they can receive nuances and shifts that indicate what's most important to the client.

When a coach maintains this presence, the client's defenses drop.

The client feels safe enough to self-reflect, experience vulnerability, and express the awareness that is emerging.

Biologically, it means you're listening to and trusting all the signals you receive from your heart and gut as well as your head. In so doing, you access the critical data you need to fully comprehend what is going on in the human you are conversing with.

To activate your full sensory capabilities, you need to feel grounded in the present moment and visualize opening all three centers in your neural network where you receive input.

  • Feel curious to open your mind.
  • Feel gratitude to open your heart.
  • Feel courage to open your gut.

Then you must trust what you sense and ask your client for permission to share these notions. When you do, you need to bravely accept the response.

Learn to Tune In

Listening with an integrated mind takes conscious and consistent practice.

Depending on your personality, you may find it easier to access one sensory capability over the other.

People who tend to be helpers listen more easily from the heart than the gut. Risk-takers who move quickly on instinct find it easier to listen from the gut than from the heart. As a born risk-taker, I must consciously open my heart when I coach, teach, or argue with my partner. I may feel vulnerable, but it's effective.

If you intentionally practice listening from your various centers every day, you will more naturally access your intuition.

This will help you discover the reflections and questions that  crack the force field protecting your client's sense of self and reality, allowing a new awareness to emerge.

The more you can get the neurons sparking in the brains of your clients, the greater the chance for a breakthrough in awareness to occur. Have the guts to use your heart and guts in coaching.

Here are 3 tips to help you access your intuition and positively challenge your clients:

  1. Sense what your client is experiencing as you listen. Don't just analyze the words. Feel what emotions come up for you and reflect what you notice without assessing if you are right or wrong.
  2. Allow your heart and gut to have a voice. Sit up tall and ground yourself in the present moment. Consciously guide yourself to feel curious (open mind), compassionate (open heart) and courageous (open at your core). Try to keep your head, heart and gut open and balanced while you listen. When you feel uncomfortable, speak and listen more deeply from your gut. When you feel impatient or begin to judge your client, focus on reopening your heart.
  3. Use silence to allow your client to form new thoughts and perspectives. Silence is often an indication that your reflections and questions have penetrated your client's protective barrier. A new sense of self and reality is trying to emerge. It may take some time before your client can articulate what she now understands to be true. Be quiet while their brain is working.

Listening with an integrated mind takes conscious and consistent practice. If you intentionally practice listening from your various centers every day, you will come to more naturally access your intuition. Then, the more you can get the neurons sparking in the brains of your clients, the greater the chance for a breakthrough in awareness to occur.

[1]  Marcia Reynolds. The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. Berrett-Koehler, 2014. Pages 3-6.
[2]  Nessa Victoria Bryce, “The Aha! Moment: A Step-by-step guide to your next creative breakthrough.” Scientific American Mind, July/August 2014, pages 36-43.

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Dr Marcia Reynolds

Contributing Author:

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., MCC works with organizations worldwide, providing Executive Coaching and leadership training with an emphasis on emotional intelligence. She is the author of four books, the Training Director for the Healthcare Coaching Institute and regularly works with coaching organizations in China and Russia. She was the 5th president of the ICF Global Board and is currently a lead trainer for the WBECS* "Breakthrough Coaching" Program. Her doctorate is in organizational psychology. Read more about her work at Covisioning and you can also connect with Marcia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.

Learn more about Marcia & see all their articles here >>

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  1. Saw Ba Moe

    Thank so much and it enhances me with coaching knowledge. I am just starting to study coaching and aim to develop it into career and use it effectively in my workplace.

  2. Hanne

    Thanks so much for this important article! I am an experienced coach, but still I sometimes feel insecure before a session with a client that I don't "get". I started reading a lot of good coaching questions (again!), but your article has made me put them away and trust my gut and my heart. I know that powerful messages come from both! Thanks again! Hanne

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Hanne, Thank-you for taking the time to comment - and so glad you liked this article and found it helpful 🙂 Warmly, Emma-Louise

  3. Natalie

    I LOVEEEEE this article. I was extremely helpful and supportive to me as a Coach.


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