This essay is one of three assignments I submitted to the University of Chester for my Postgraduate Certificate in Personal and Business Coaching. The assignment is illustrated with examples from my own coaching experiences with volunteer clients and fellow Barefoot Programme coaching practices, as well as my reflections taken from my Personal Learning Journal and feedback received from supervision and other sources. Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
The terms ‘Barefoot Programme’ and ‘the Programme’ refer to handouts, notes or events from Barefoot Coaching Postgraduate Certificate in Business and Personal Coaching Course #42, which I attended between March and May 2017.
Academic references are provided at the end.
Coaching to enable change
Introduction – Habits, coaching and change
I came to coaching from a career in the personal financial service industry. Dialogue with financial services clients revealed that much economic behaviour, both good and bad, is habitual and related to regular, typical financial cycles such as monthly payrolls and weekend shopping. Often, entrenched financial habits, especially in the context of the purchase of goods or services and saving, became a barrier to better family financial management. Facilitating change became an exercise in suppressing and introducing appropriate habitual behaviours.
Habitual behaviours and context go hand-in-hand. Originally, habits were thought, in behavioural terms, to be a simply repeated association of contextual stimulus and unconscious response such as ‘Its payday, I will go shopping’ (Watson 1913). Now, the contemporary view as informed by the cognitive approach to psychology, sees consciousness and intentionality also leading to repeated and automatic patterns of goal-directed activities (Wood & Quinn, 2005). For example, individuals seeking financial security might allocate a percentage of salary to savings each month, then spend what is left.
Stressful and demanding situations, including time pressure, distractions and limited self-control resources, provide an environment that allows detrimental habitual behaviour to flourish according to Wood and Neal (2009).
Of course, financial behaviour is not the only form of habitual behaviour. Indeed, research indicates that some 45 per cent of an individual’s daily activity is repetitive and context related (Wood, Quinn, Kashy, 2002). Neither is ‘habitual behaviour’ confined to physical activities. An individual’s unconscious thought processes, self or limiting beliefs and reactions to specific contexts can all become habitual and act as barriers to change.
In a coaching context, therefore, unhelpful physical, mental and emotional habits are barriers to change. Neal, Wood and Quinn (2006, p201) conclude their psychological study of habits by stating that ‘the pervasive effect of habits in everyday behaviour is a key to understanding the difficulty people frequently experience in changing their behaviour’.
Consequently, if the aim of coaching is ‘to close the gap between people’s potential and their current state’ (Rogers 2016 p7), there is an argument for bringing about positive change in individuals by instilling beneficial habits in coachees.
In this assignment, therefore, I aim to show how coaching to suppress or reinforce habitual behaviour can bring about more extensive personal change and development. I have divided the assignment into four sections:
- An overview of factors causing resistance to change commonly found in a coaching situation.
- A description of the transtheoretical model of psychological processes of change.
- A staged change process of coaching.
- A description of my developing approach to coaching.
Personal resistance to change
Besides habitual behaviour, I commonly meet other types of resistance to change (habitual and non-habitual) in the coaching environment.
I worked with Katherine to help her to become organised and resilient. She described her life as always running and achieving nothing, in part because self-compassion and self-congratulation were anathemas to her. Subsequent dialogue revealed Katherine felt this ‘stemmed from not feeling wholly accepted when I was a child’ (my case notes).
Katherine exhibited a resistance to change ingrained in her personality, commensurate with the theory of personality developed by Berne (1961) known as Transactional Analysis (TA). Katherine had written her ‘Life Script’ or playbook based on early childhood experiences that Berne argues determines our personality type, attitude and behaviour in later years. According to Berne’s theory, Katherine copied the childhood message she received from authoritative figures that acceptance and praise were not deserved, and wrote this into her life script by habitually refusing to acknowledge her success. In other words, she adjusted her reality to conform to the script that said ‘I am not accepted’.
Berne classified personality types, or ego-states as a Parent, Adult or Child. I would consider Katherine to have a Parent personality, one in which she mimics the attitude of parental figures from her childhood. A Parent personality is a barrier to her attaining an Adult state, one in which Katherine would be more objective in her assessment of her reality, and would enable her to become habitually more organised and successful.
Environmental and cultural barriers/motivators
One of our most basic needs is for connection and to be valued by others (Maslow, 1954; Brown, 2013; Pelham, 2015). However, social interactions are subject to cultural similarities and differences, and so by extension, culture can be a barrier to change. Stevens, Fox-Kirk, Thompson, Fawcett & Fawcett (2015) propose a model in which cultural change is subject to cognitive, behavioural, affective and values-driven resistance.
The authors cite research showing culture to be embedded and taken for granted in a cultural group, inculcated through the processes of a) early childhood socialisation of external unquestioned routines and processes and b) internal emergence of cultural values through individual cognitive processing. They argue that the ability to overcome resistance to change is dependent on individual competencies, which may or may not be adequate. Culture is, therefore, both a barrier to and an enabler of thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Comfort zone, stress and fear
The concept of the comfort zone has become widespread. However, it is seen primarily as a metaphor rather than a model, and there appears to be no documented psychological theory or model of the ‘comfort zone’ (Brown 2008). However, it is akin to the concept of Eigenwelt or ‘being for oneself’ which, along with Umwelt (‘being in nature’) and Mitwelt (‘being with others’) form the three ways which, in existentialist terms, are the individual mental constructs of the world (Binswanger, 1963; Boss, 1963; May 1958). These levels of being can conflict with each other in an individual. Moving out of the comfort zone bears a parallel to moving out of Eigenwelt into the conflicting worlds of nature or society.
To move out of the comfort zone is to experience challenging feelings for which no internal defensive mechanism exists. It may involve fear of being judged, exposed or rejected. Moving out of our comfort zone, therefore, has the potential to create an environment for learning and growth to survive these experiences. Conversely, these stresses and fears can become the barriers to the change they can bring about.
Another approach is seen in the theory of cognitive dissonance, as proposed by Festinger (1962). Cognitive dissonance is the conflict between an individual’s beliefs, thoughts and values. Festinger proposed that individuals will make whatever adjustments are necessary to reduce the stress caused by dissonance. In simple terms, they may act to remain in their stress-free comfort zone rather than move out of their zone into an environment in which the dissonance they may experience becomes the route to learning and growth.
Psychological processes of change
According to Pearsall (2011), there are over 500 different ‘systems’ of psychotherapy, each taking a different psychological approach to the modification of personal behaviour (Norcross 1990). For this reason, the ‘Transtheoretical Model’ of behaviour change (TTM) offers many benefits for coaches. Simply put, TTM recognises that change happens in stages and that different psychological processes are at work in each stage. TTM is also, therefore, referred to as the ‘Stages of Change’ model which Armitage (2009, p 195) describes as ‘arguably the dominant model of health behaviour change, having received unprecedented research attention, yet it has simultaneously attracted criticism’.
In a detailed analysis of psychotherapeutic systems, Prochaska and Norcross (2018) seek to build an integrated transtheoretical model of change from five change processes identified as familiar to most systems of psychotherapy.
Raising awareness (or consciousness) is an integral part of coaching. It cuts through resistance to change by identifying choices and enabling better and informed decisions (Rogers 2016). Feedback raises internal awareness, and education usually raises awareness of external factors (Prochaska and Norcross 2018), a view that fits well with the ‘Spectrum of Interventions’ (Barefoot Programme) ranging from the non-directive approach aimed at eliciting self-discovery to the directive approach of imparting knowledge and providing advice. From a personal perspective, The Barefoot Programme has highlighted my propensity to coach at the directive end of the spectrum and shown me the benefits of moving towards more non-directive coaching, a point I address again in the section on choice below.
When Clare sought help in resolving a problem around the finances of her house, her responses to more profound exploratory questions aimed at raising her awareness revealed that her actual issue was the lack of control over elements of her business and family. For Clare, this was a significant and valuable insight into the real issues that she needed to address. As the session progressed, Clare took the opportunity to reflect on the other people involved in her story. On the face to it, this seemed to raise her awareness of her situation further.
In subsequent feedback, my supervisor suggested that Clare was taking refuge in talking about others instead of taking responsibility for addressing her internal issues. Further, because Clare was not able to ‘look inside’ the minds of the others involved, her comments were speculative and did little to raise her awareness. This feedback, in turn, raised my awareness of coaching issues and provided direction for our next conversation.
The release of pent-up emotions is a powerful driver of change.
Someway into a coaching programme, Daniel revealed his doctor had recently diagnosed a potentially life-threatening heart problem. Daniel asked for coaching in dealing with the immediate and future challenges this raised, in particular his reluctance to talk to his family about the deeper personal and emotional issues precipitated by his condition. I learnt that Daniel’s father had died, possibly unnecessarily, from a similar condition during Daniel’s childhood. This tragedy had precipitated a taboo on emotional reactions such as fear, anger and shame to illness and death.
Given this potentially emotional situation, I used the ICF Competencies (International Coach Federation 2019) as a guide to building the trust and intimacy necessary for painful reflection and potential growth. I created a secure environment, showing genuine concern for Daniel’s welfare, demonstrating respect for him and repeatedly seeking his agreement to discuss these issues in a non-judgemental, open and empathic way.
This strategy eventually triggered a strong emotional reaction. Daniel felt a sense of relief that he had worked through his emotional blocks and began to accept the fear and shame around his condition (and his father’s death). Daniel realised he could stop hiding behind the medical language and childhood taboos. He overcame his emotional resistance and became more open with his family.
The act of asking open questions, pausing and giving Daniel space also provided him with an opportunity for self-reflection, a chance to choose how to react to the new situation. Dijksterhuis and Strick (2017) have identified a process of choice that integrates other psychological processes for change and which Daniel’s case demonstrated. The first step is to explore the situation, obtaining viewpoints and identifying options. Daniel became aware that he could choose to hide behind the treatment or face the emotional and painful new reality of his life. The second stage is incubation, putting the decision on hold, which Daniel did while receiving treatment, including an operation. The third stage followed on naturally, a revelation about his choices which he achieved away from my coaching room.
His reflections led to deeper insights and self-awareness, which in turn enabled him to take personal responsibility for his future life choices. In effect, he re-wrote his life scripts derived from childhood avoidance of emotional aspects of illness and death. After ‘the penny dropped’, Daniel was able to let go of his doctors’ narrative, which focused on treatments and replace it with his narrative about his future life with his family. His language changed from ‘The Doctor says…’ to ‘I / We…’, an existential choice made after exploring alternatives.
The success of this intervention reinforced my commitment to a more non-directional approach to coaching. However, I also reflect that to be effective I should quell my instinct to direct. In short, I am working towards a form of coaching akin to the ‘ask, don’t tell’ approach.
From behavioural therapies come the two change processes of conditional stimuli (Pavlov 1927) and contingency control (Skinner 1971). Conditional stimuli are central to habit change and come in the form of unconscious (Pavlovian) conditioning and intentional (goal or motivational) conditioning.
When Katherine occasionally sent me emails, it was usually between 10:45 pm and midnight, a practice incompatible with the sound sleep she needed to do he job well. On challenging her, Katherine admitted that most evenings she watched News at Ten then dealt with email correspondence, suggesting the presence of both intentional stimuli (keep up with world affairs by watching the evening news) and unconscious stimuli (‘the news is over, I will deal with emails before bed’).
The concept of positive psychology as articulated by Seligman (2000) emphasises the importance of looking forward to the coachee’s welfare and happiness, rather than concentrating on the easing of the pain of past mistakes and incidents. In dealing with Katherine’s sense of self-worth described on page 2 above, I encouraged her to develop the habit of recording three good things each day. She found this quite tricky initially and missed the practice several times. As time progressed, however, the practice became a routine behaviour which enabled her to see herself in a different, positive and self-compassionate light. Though this had started from an intentional motivation to see herself in a better light, over time, it became a habitual activity triggered by the end of the nightly email session.
This learning has relevance to my coaching practice in that it helped me understand that developing new habits takes time and coachees need support during the process, hence my adoption of quick chat coaching to build habits.
Contingency control relates to reward and sanctions. Reinforcing a response with rewards can increase incidences of that response while reinforcing a response with sanctions is likely to decrease the incidence of that response. Rewards and sanctions are the foundation of behavioural psychology, promoted by Skinner (1971). Although somewhat discredited by the later cognitive schools, Katherine’s example of limiting beliefs borne out of her childhood experiences around the attitude of her parents and teachers is an example of how the denial of rewards impacted her behaviour.
Having considered some of the barriers to personal change and growth and the psychological processes underlying change, I now use these insights to illustrate a stage-based model of change, relating in particular to habitual behaviour, and set out a model I am developing for my coaching process.
A model of stage based change – a six-stage process
Working primarily in the health sector, Prochaska and colleagues explored the process and structure by which people intentionally change, and in particular how they overcame habits detrimental to health (Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente 2010). Working with the transtheoretical model described above, they concluded that change happened over time rather than instantly. Further, they concluded that change occurred in stages, and the five main psychological processes of change described above came into play at different stages.
The stages they identified are:
- Pre-contemplation. The individual seemingly does not recognise there is a problem, preferring to blame ‘the problem’ on others and denying any need to change.
- Contemplation. The person recognises the problem, takes ownership and gives consideration to its solution.
- Preparation. The resolve to change is now high; the individual makes plans for change, acquires resources if necessary and publicises their intention to change.
- Action. Unhelpful or unhealthy behaviour is modified.
- Maintenance. A period of consolidation and growing new habits to prevent a relapse.
- Termination. The initial behaviour is in the past, and no effort is required to avoid a recurrence.
Although desirable, maintenance might last a lifetime and termination is never reached.
Effectiveness is the main criticism of TTM. While one study of changing smoking habits (Reimsma 2003) concluded that ‘stage based interventions were no more effective than non-stage based interventions’, the study also suggested that this was in part down to the poor implementation of the process. However, the Cochrane Collaboration (Cahill, Lancaster and Green 2011) into smoking cessation concludes that neither stage-based interventions or individual counselling are any more or less effective than their non-stage based equivalents.
Prochaska and his team devised the model to help self-changers. I believe it will be useful in a coaching environment where the addition of a relationship will improve the efficacy of the model. Relationships in coaching are more critical, in many ways than the process, a point I argue in my assignment for Module IS7 118.
Coaching for habitual change
I have extended the model for use with a range of day-to-day habits. I use the case of Leah to demonstrate this. I will show how the psychological processes of change apply and how I use additional coaching tools and techniques at each stage.
Leah habitually bought food and clothes she did not need and rarely wore, with harmful consequences for her cash flow and hence her life. The urge to over-buy stemmed from time spent in the Canadian wilderness where a fully stocked household was an essential precaution against poor weather and unexpected circumstances. The urge to buy clothes was a way for her to overcome the very public humiliation caused by her husband’s affair and subsequent divorce. Leah sought help in changing these habits and then making improvements to her home, family and work life. Both spending habits conflicted with her strong family values and desire to create a secure, loving and joyful environment for her young daughters.
Stage #1 – Pre-contemplation
By definition, individuals rarely seek help at this stage because they do not accept there is a problem for which they need help, and therefore, I have little experience of this stage. Leah came to me only after she had recognised the problems. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume the process of consciousness-raising is an important part of Pre-contemplation.
My experience of coaching Clare (page 4 above) taught me that the presenting issue (money) is often not the real issue (control). The principle is essential to my coaching practice. I have learnt that I should not take my coachee’s initial description of their problem at face value. I now find it helpful to use coaching exercises such as the Wheel of Life or the Aspects of my Life questionnaire, in which a client ‘scores’ various aspect of their life, to help reveal more deep-seated issues.
Stage #2 – Contemplation
Contemplation begins when the pain of the eschewed problem itself overcomes the pain of recognising the problem. However, this recognition does not yet extend to finding a solution or making plans to solve it.
The psychological change processes of catharsis and choice are at work in the Contemplation stage. Empathic listening to induce and support emotional response and recognition proved to be a useful technique for bringing about catharsis in Leah’s case, as it was in Daniel’s case. The technique advocated by Kline (1999) and summarised in the acronym WAIT (Why Am I Talking), led Leah passionately to express her anger and shame at her husband’s humiliating behaviour. This intervention cleared the air and enabled Leah to start the process of change in earnest. The experience reinforced my earlier personal learning that you cannot think and feel at the same time, and it is helpful, for a while, to be with the feelings and let the thoughts go.
Leah also came to realise she had choices in her life. She could carry on as before, overspending from a mindset cemented in the Canadian wilderness and the humiliating circumstances of her divorce. Alternatively, Leah could develop new mental and emotional habits that would enable her to control her spending and strengthen her finances. In other words, she had a choice of at least two options. The formulation of options raised her awareness and showed her that there were different approaches to life and a way out of the dissonance she felt between satisfying herself and protecting her family.
Unfortunately, a long period of rumination and procrastination preceded this realisation, during which I grew concerned that we were getting nowhere. On reflection, after obtaining feedback during a peer coaching review, I could have asked Leah if she would like to participate in exercises such as Vision Chairs to bring her more quickly to a recognition of the damage her current spending habits were doing to her finances.
With an increased sense of self-worth and the motivation of clear goals and the need for financial responsibility, we were able eventually to move onto the next stage.
Stage #3 – Preparation
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said that if he had to cut down a tree in eight hours, he would spend the first six hours sharpening the axe. In other words, prepare the ground before taking action.
The psychological change processes of conditional stimuli and contingency control are present in the preparation stage, as is consciousness-raising to a certain extent.
Leah did not track her expenses or account for her money. On enquiring how this made her feel, Leah revealed deep anxiety because she did not know where she stood. However, Leah also revealed a conflicting emotion around the fear that knowing her financial position would reveal the weakness of her situation. She also feared running out of supplies for her children and consequently being seen as a poor mother. These fears were all barriers to change.
As I explored these issues, again using open questions and empathic listening, Leah came to understand that she would have to face her fears and start recording her expenditure. Keeping a record would act as a stimulus to change for two reasons. First, Leah would be able to see how much she was spending on food, clothes and household items. When this became excessive, it would act as a stimulus to reduce her spending. The technique of maintaining a Financial Diary would also help her to change her behaviour in the face of her spending stimuli. The monthly paycheque changed from a spending stimulus. Instead, it stimulated a review of the diary to check her spending and cash balance.
Similarly, I suggested to Leah that she take control of her environment by creating an inventory of clothes and household goods already held in her home. She kept and updated this in her notebook and would refer to it when feeling the urge to buy more items. These activities are both examples of the psychological change process of conditional stimuli.
A further benefit for Leah was that her Financial Diary delivered its rewards, a form of contingency control. Leah was able to look at her diary and be rewarded with the information that she was saving money for her daughter’s security and care.
Stage #4 – Action
In the action stage, the development of a few positive habits leads to the desired change.
In Leah’s case:
- Each day, she recorded and analysed her expenditure from invoices she had kept, a way of bringing about change through consciousness-raising.
- Each weekend, she compiled a set of weekly menus and shopping lists, also a form of consciousness-raising.
- Before shopping, she checked her list against her existing inventory to avoid spending money she did not need to, a form of stimulus control.
- She occasionally disposed of items from her wardrobe, a substitute for her habit of comfort buying clothes utilising her growing power to choose whether to buy or dispose of clothes, a robust process of change.
Stage #5 – Maintenance
These positive results were particularly useful for Leah in maintaining her new behaviours. She continues to take full responsibility for her role as a mother and to be financially responsible. As far as she admitted to me, there have been very few relapses. Instead, she has created a new lifestyle in which being there for her children comes first and foremost. The days of feeling worthless seem to be a thing of the past, and Leah calls in from time to time to tell me how it is all going. Her Financial Diary, which she still keeps, and her rising bank balance both continue to act as an aid to ongoing consciousness-raising.
Stage #6 – Termination
Termination is the last of Prochaska’s stages of change, and the author considers two possibilities. First, that our drive to change never actually ends; and second, that closure of the cycle is an integral and essential part of the whole change process. Closure and recognition of a goal achieved is a powerful emotion which can do much to prevent a relapse.
On the other hand, as in Leah’s case, these new changes are just the start of the development of an entirely new lifestyle with its challenges, good habits that need reinforcing and bad habits that need dropping. Moreover, sound household and financial management are not just for today. It is a habit that needs to be maintained throughout Leah’s life, even after her daughters have fled the nest because that will not be the end of her life. It will be the beginning of a new lifestyle, supported by sound habits already well established.
Relapse and failure
Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente (2010) recognise that we can, and often do, go backwards from time to time, where we relapse into the earlier stages of change or back into old habits. My attempt to coach Luke was unsuccessful. The intervention failed for precisely the criticisms of staged change described above, as well as my coaching methods.
Luke is a recovering alcoholic who has been abstinent for some years. He is now a coach using his own experiences to help other alcoholics and gamblers break their habits. Luke approached me for help in dealing with the poor management of his family finances. Luke now lives in the US and works in the US and the Far East, returning to the UK only infrequently, so our sessions were held over Zoom and chat.
Luke told me from the outset that he never knew how much money was coming in and where it was going. I have experienced this before. I am aware that recording and analysing income and outgoings has worked well for a number of my clients as well as myself. I advised Luke to start this habit and offered encouragement and support. Luke’s reaction was not overly enthusiastic, the practice never really happened, and our coaching relationship came to an end within a few weeks.
I reflected that the failure of this intervention stemmed from three sources: my approach, deeper underlying problems in Luke’s family life and poor implementation of the staged system.
On reflection, I should have spent more time exploring Luke’s situation and developing insights that would have helped him come to this conclusion on his own. Had I done so, Luke might well have made better progress on tracking his money and ultimately managing his finances.
Arguably, one of the reasons that my intervention with Luke failed was because I went almost straight into the action stage. Although Luke had come through the pre-contemplation phase (as evidenced by his approach to me for help), it became clear towards the end of our relationship that I had not done nearly enough to take Luke through the second and third stages.
A criticism of the process, as highlighted by Riemsma (2003) is its ineffectiveness, or, more strictly, its neutral effect compared to non-staged interventions. However, Riemsma also points out that this is because the process is often inadequately put into practice. Arguably, this is what happened with Luke. Conversely, Leah’s approach was more structured, including time spent on contemplation and preparation.
If there is one common thread to the many definitions of coaching, it is that coaching is an exercise in personal learning. Parsloe (1995) describes coaching as ‘a process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve’. For Whitmore (1996) coaching is ‘helping (a person) to learn rather than teaching them’, while for Gallwey (1974) the purpose of coaching is ‘helping clients think for themselves and find their own solutions’. Gallwey describes effective coaching as holding a mirror up for clients so they can see their thinking process.
Indeed, Eurich (2017) describes self-awareness as an essential determinant of success or failure and ‘the meta-skill of the twenty-first century’. So, if habits are repetitive, automatic and often unconscious activities that form a significant part of our daily lives, it is reasonable to assume that developing an inner awareness of these processes is an essential first step in identifying and blocking bad habits and getting into good habits.
Neal, Wood and Quinn (2006, page 1) state that contemporary research in psychology shows that it is people’s unthinking routines—or habits—that form the bedrock of everyday life. The authors go on to explain that, ‘without habits, people would be doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action’. In other words, we would never get anything done.
My experience with Leah leads me to believe there is real merit in Prochaska’s staged change process, and I intend to keep adapting and developing this methodology for my coaching practice.
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