The Secret to Good Coaching

By Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC, Executive Coach and Author

The best coaches make us feel unsure of ourselves.

This might sound counterintuitive. It doesn’t mean a coach doesn’t support, encourage and help clients see new possibilities that strengthens someone’s confidence. But in those moments someone is stuck inside their box and can’t see the bigger truth or they are resistant to looking, the best coaches know how to break through this guise of knowing so that the brain actually rewires and forms a new awareness.

Think about your own experiences. Wouldn’t you agree that the best coaches you have worked with made you stop and think about your thoughts, and then their question broke through your wall of resistance, revealing your blind spots and fears? For a moment, the uncertainty felt awkward. And then, when you realized your own thinking has stifled your growth, you might have felt embarrassed, angry, or sad. But then, you might have done what I tend to do…laugh at yourself. This is good coaching!

It is in the moment of uncertainty that radical growth can occur.

Watch this video to see how it works:

This is what differentiates coaching from problem solving. In problem solving, you build on what a person knows. In coaching, you are helping the person reinterpret what he or she knows to reach a new or nonobvious conclusion.

So how do you know what to ask to break down the brain’s protective walls?

The powerful questions that change people’s mind emerge when you listen to your intuition. You ask about what you sense—what fears, disappointment, needs, or desires do they convey to you without words. When you ask about what you sense they are feeling or what is triggering their feelings, they stop, and question themselves.

When researching my book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, I set out to articulate the mechanics for accessing your intuition. It seems that master coaches do this but often have a hard time articulating what they are doing. I found that using your intuition means listening with your entire nervous system, including your heat and gut as well as your brain.  Most of us don’t commonly do this because we listen with our chatty, judgmental, censuring head brain which drowns out what is going on in the rest of your nervous system. All of these together, the head, heart and gut make up your Integrated Mind.

All three of your brains are magnificently complex organisms. Intuition is not from outer space; it’s from inner space. When you learn how to read the signals sent from your head, heart and gut, you access the critical data you need to fully comprehend what is going on in the complex human you are conversing with.

From your head, you hear what they believe that is at the basis of the story they are telling you.
From your heart, you hear what they desire, what they are angry or disappointed about not getting, or why they feel betrayed.

From your gut, you can hear what they are really afraid of, including what they are attached to and can’t let go of.

To integrate your mind and activate your full sensory capabilities, you need to feel grounded in the present moment and visualize opening all the centers in your neural network where you receive input. Use curiosity to open your mind. Then feel compassion, care, and a genuine desire for the person to feel happy or successful to open your heat. Then say the word courage to yourself and breathe it deeply into your belly to open your gut. Do this before you coach to open and align all three centers.

Depending on your personality, you will find it easier to access either your heart or gut over the other. People who tend to be helpers listen more easily from their heart than their gut. On the other hand, risk-takers find it easier to listen from their gut than from their heart. I am a born risk-taker. I have to consciously open my heart when I coach, teach, or argue with my partner. This makes me feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s effective.

Listening with an Integrated Mind takes conscious and consistent practice. If you intentionally practice listening from your various centers every day, you will more naturally access the signals from your heart and gut.

Listening with your Integrated Mind is the most powerful way to help people realize their potential. The courageous words you speak from your head, heart, and gut will confuse, embarrass or make people angry. And then they grow.


Adapted from The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC.


Hi Brian,  I can remember you telling me at the time about that incident in Vancouver. As you recounted the chorus of “But that's not coaching!!” admonitions, I remember hearing the self-righteousness in their voices.   Yes, there is truth to the principle that behavior change occurs when people struggle with something and discover an answer for themselves. However, to slavishly adhere to this doctrine and allow no other options is narrowminded and shortsighted. As a general principle, it is good to be cautious when giving advice. I have found that for most clients, most of the time, it is better to guide them and help them come up with the right answers for themselves in their particular situation. Yet, there are times when well-considered advice is exactly what they need. They appreciate it. And they take action based on it.   Just yesterday, I was coaching an extremely busy, results-oriented executive. When he realizes he is not being effective, he is very open to advice. In fact, he demands it, and has little patience for beating around the bush. Yesterday, however, he was not particularly open to advice, and he stubbornly resisted anything I had to offer him - no matter how obvious it seemed to me.   Yes, giving or withholding advice can be a tricky choice. Timing and knowing what works best with a particular client can make all the difference.    I know that when I am seeking help, I am most appreciative when someone truly understands my situation and provides me laser-focused advice that instantly strikes me as on-target. On the other hand, I find myself extremely resentful when someone dispenses advice in a cavalier fashion, or conveys a sense of superiority that they know what is best for me and I don't. I would take active listening and support over glib advice any day.   Best,   Scott Wimer

Dear Marcia, Thanks for your article. Listening with all your senses and using your heart, gut and head.The best advice for coach and coachee. If people are interested in head, heart and gut `brains` I can recommend the bookmBraining of Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka. mBraining was also one of the webinars of this years WBECS. Very practical and useful information!Just liked to share this reference. Joanita Bonnier 

Great recommendation Joanita. I reference Grant and Marvin's work in my book. There are a lot of resources for people on their website, 

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