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Episode 39

How to Access Optimum Growth States in Coaching

Did you know that common coaching moves such as goal setting can actually be counter productive to growth and learning?

In this conversation, author and professor Richard Boyatzis explains why goal-setting is not as smart as we think it is, what the neurologically proven way to motivate people is, and how we can help our clients access states that facilitate genuine change.

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Why Coaching for Compliance Doesn’t Work

Whether it be helping people learn something new, change something, find a better path in life, do a better job at what they’re doing, our desire is to help, and at its core this involves motivating people to be open to learn and change.

The most common way of helping other people is what Richard calls “coaching for compliance”, and unfortunately, it’s not very effective. This is the kind of goal-oriented approach we’re all familiar with, but which in effect is experienced as an act of oppression.

This is because as soon as you bring in obligation, people get defensive – they go into “should” mode, their energy goes down and their motivation sinks. By understanding the psychological and physiological process we now have a much better understanding of what actually works in coaching.

Coaching with Compassion

Working with dreams or vision has proven to be far more effective. Having a client flesh out their dream and talk about it with you gets them excited and that is the motivation that will get them the necessary long-term dedication to making changes.

Richard calls this approach “coaching with compassion”. He will ask, “If your life were perfect ten years from now what would it look like?”. Opening people up to dreaming also often brings in insights and desires they might not be consciously aware of otherwise.

It’s about exploring context rather than focusing on a negative “problem” or a specific goal (too limited). The process of going into the dream or vision activates the emotional driver required for sustainable effort because it connects people to their bigger why.

Positive versus Negative Emotional Attractors

Change happens when you move from a state of negative emotional attractor (NEA) to positive emotional attractor (PEA) – effectively you go from survival mode to thrive mode. The PEA state is what gives people the energy and motivation to change.

There are three core areas related to PEA vs NEA states:

  • Emotions: positive vs negative affect (positive creates context for openness)
  • Hormones: sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous system (parasympathetic generates renewal)
  • Neural activation: empathic vs task-positive

What we want as coaches is to help people move into a PEA state, and to do this we need to be coaching with compassion; compassion being caring for the other person and their growth, not just empathizing.

Coaching to vision activates all these states (positive emotions, renewing, empathetic). Anything that activates gratitude and compassion is a fast track to a PEA state. You can ask for example, “Who has helped you the most?” to help clients access gratitude in the moment. Purpose, core values, mindfulness, hope and playfulness also all activate the PEA state.

Resources mentioned:
Helping People Change, Richard Boyatzis and others

About Richard

Richard Boyatzis

Author and professor Richard Boyatzis is an expert in leadership development and emotional intelligence whose research on human behavior has revolutionized management education. He is the Distinguished University Professor and the HR Horvitz Professor of Family Business at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Professor in Human Resources at ESADE and Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology and Cognitive Science at Case Western. He has written over 150 articles on leadership, motivation, behavioral change, emotional intelligence, and managerial competencies and is co- author of the upcoming book “Helping people change”.


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