How to Challenge Your Clients For Breakthrough Results! | by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC

Confident Coach (or Client) Who has Breakthrough Coaching Skills

Many coaches think their priority is for their clients to have a positive outlook and a strong sense of self. If your client describes these states as desired results, great. Otherwise, focusing on having clients feel better is not enough.

Being appreciative and positive doesn't always change minds. If all you do is encourage, support, and praise clients, this can prolong self-denial, especially when dealing with a strong ego. It's all too easy to build on what a client is comfortable knowing, but avoid what they are reluctant to see.

So to effectively coach, you also need to know how to compassionately challenge your clients' beliefs and thought patterns.

Insights need strong emotions

According to research in neuroscience, the brain needs to be aroused by strong emotions such as surprise, irritation, discomfort, and even sadness before an insight or new perspective can emerge. More simply said, there needs to be a hole in the "force field" that holds our clients' stories together.

For true shifts in thinking and behaviour to occur, the coach must be willing to challenge beliefs, disrupt routine responses and unnerve a client's conviction - in order to short-circuit their habitual reasoning. Marcia Reynolds

When your challenges prompt clients to explore the gaps in their logic, the beliefs that no longer serve them and their imagined assumptions about the future, you "breakthrough" the frames of their stories. And when their stories change, so does their behavior. They see themselves and the world around them differently. Their brains are rewired.

The brain needs a heavy workout to realize revolutionary and enduring transformation

For the same reason you can't tickle yourself, you can't fully explore your own thoughts. Your brain will block and desensitize you to self-imposed exploration.

Consider your own experiences. The sudden, new and amazing solution to a problem didn't come to you as you hovered over your desk rearranging the details. It's more likely the insight came during a conversation, especially if the person made you reconsider your perceptions and conclusions.

What happens is that when someone you trust reflects your thoughts and emotions and asks the questions that breaks down your protective frame, your brain is forced to re-order data in your long-term memory. For a moment, the breakdown feels awkward. You might feel a pinch of anger or sadness. But then you are just as likely to laugh at what you see… after you gasp.

And you can create this same reaction in others with the right skills.

Essential skills to effectively challenge how someone thinks

Challenging should not be considered a separate skill but fundamental to the coaching process.

If you've had training in coaching skills, you have a good start: you learned to build rapport and show empathy. These skills are critical to good coaching because you must create a space where clients feel psychologically safe with you to process a challenge, especially when their emotions make them feel vulnerable.

Remember that your role is to be a thinking partner with your client. You stay curious to discover what's getting in the way of this smart, creative human from seeing a way forward on their own. Your reflections and questions will help them take the stories out of their brains, and put them out on the table so they can see what's working and what isn't.

How do we do this?

To examine our clients' thinking, you reflect their words, uncover their fears and doubts, reveal the beliefs that don't serve them today, and decipher the assumptions about the future they are making up.

When they see the pieces of their stories, they might feel regret, anger, embarrassment. And if you breathe and allow them to safely experience what they feel, new possibilities will emerge. They figure out what to do on their own without our brilliant advice.

We challenge, but don't push.

Although your client might feel challenged, you aren't pushing them to think differently. Challenging is different from confronting. With a challenge, you allow them to confirm, deny, or change their stories as they recognize what parts of their stories serve them and what parts do not.

I call this using the skills of Active Replay.

Active Replay is not just mirroring what people say and express. You share what you hear them say, what gestures and emotions you notice, and what you sense is behind their hesitation.

These reflective statements help them see how they are acting out the stories they're living by. Then, when they watch themselves, they often sigh as if they are releasing the emotions they've stuffed inside, or they laugh at themselves as if they can now see the tragic comedy they've created.

Here are 6 practices you can use to Challenge Clients with Active Replay:

1) Recap

One of my favorite phrases in coaching is, "So, you are telling me _____"

Then I recap the issue, problem, or outcome expressed and the key factors they stated that make it difficult for them to act. They can either agree or correct my perception.

Use the words they give you; don't analyze the meaning. But don't repeat everything they say. Listen for the core message, then offer back what you heard and ask what they think about what they said.

2) Use Metaphors

Paint a picture of what was said using a different context but connected by meaning.

For example, it sounds like you're swimming with sharks, or you're shackled by shoulds, or you're anxious for the race to start but worried you have the wrong shoes.

Metaphors are great tools to help people SEE their thinking.

3) Encapsulate

Capture the major elements of their story in just a word or two.

These are often the last words of a sentence where they say, "it's like this," or "I think I'm just this." Then repeat what they just said and ask them what the words mean to them.

4) Bottom-Line

Clients often agree on what they want but then declare all the reasons why they can't move forward.

Listen for the word but, then bring the conversation back to the statement made before the but to see if, bottom line, the desire they stated before saying but is what they really want.

You can then assess if the risk they fear is real or exaggerated.

5) Draw Distinctions

Distinctions are usually different options you offer clients to choose from to clarify what they mean, or what's most important to them.

For example:

  • When a client says they are tired, you might ask, "Are you physically tired with your workload or mentally tired of doing a job you don't like?"
  • You might offer a choice, "Do you want to find more joy in your work now or take a different path?"
  • When a client lists out a multitude of problems they're facing, recap the problem list and then ask, "Which of these dilemmas do you want to resolve first?"

6) Explore emotional shifts

Being curious about emotional expressions takes your clients deeper into their stories. And this can often help them face a truth they've been avoiding.

Typical shifts include hesitating and looking away or getting louder when excited or softer when they're sad. And yes, there can be tears, even anger.

Don't judge their reactions. Don't try to fix them. Emotions are not good or bad, they are just energy moving through the body.

Instead, share what you noticed and then ask what the shift means to them and their goals. For example, you might say:

  • "I noticed you had more excitement for one option you shared," or
  • "You got quiet, maybe sad, when talking about how your decision will affect that person. What does this mean to you?" or
  • "How does this relate to the outcome you want?"

Then accept their response. Use silence to let them think. They may need a little time to process what they are angry, sad, or excited about. Give your clients the space they need to understand their emotions, so they better understand themselves.


Challenging in coaching can take courage, but if you stay true to your intention of being your client's thinking partner and don't try to lead them to the answer you want to hear, your observations and questions will stir their thinking.

They might not be ready to explore to the depth you hoped for. They might not be willing to accept what is being revealed. Instead you have to trust the process and allow the awareness to unfold at their own pace.

Remember, you aren't there to make the client feel better; you're there to coach them to see better.

And when you're courageous enough to challenge your clients thinking, your reward goes beyond getting good results to experiencing deep fulfillment when you witness the human before you make a mind-altering shift.

To further develop your coaching skills in challenging:

1) Sign-up for Marcia's Free 90 Minute Masterclass >> (with 1.5 CCEUs) and learn how to:

  • Understand the neuroscience of learning and the critical role emotions play
  • Ask the difficult questions to challenge your client's limiting beliefs without making them defensive
  • Throw out the "coaching rules" if your client doesn’t fit the usual mould
  • And ultimately create more fulfilling and satisfying coaching sessions, ensuring your clients make progress, get repeat business and even referrals

2) Read Marcia's books

If you liked this article on Coaching Breakthroughs, you may also like:

* We are proud to be an official Breakthrough Coaching partner and an affiliate for this brand new WBCES program - we think it's awesome! And the 90 min Coaching Masterclass is completely FREE plus you can earn up to 1.5 ICF CCEUs by attending Marcia's masterclass.

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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    • mturcott

      Thank you, Steven! We're so glad you enjoyed Dr. Marcia's Reynolds' article on challenging your coaching clients! Warmly, Mary


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