How Coaching Works: A Coach’s Commentary

How coaching works
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Watch How Coaching Works: A Short Movie

Ten years ago, we released a movie titled “How Coaching Works” as a way to explain coaching, using an animated cartoon. Now viewed over 1.5 million times, this blog series aims to share the psychological underpinnings of the cartoon. The first blog provides insight into the approaches used by the coach which are based on the principles and processes of coaching psychology.

Scene One: MEET

In this scene you find the coach in my office with a client. You may expect that it’s the coach’s role to tell the client what to do. Instead, the coach asks the client to create a picture of the vision, symbolized by the mountains off in the distance.

The client is eager to move toward that vision, and has even started doing some of the thinking necessary to get there, but feels overwhelmed by the things that stand between reality and the dream. The knotted path represents the many possible paths toward the vision. It’s up to the client, with the coach’s support, to figure out which path is the best one.

They first agree on how they are going to work together. They shake hands, symbolizing the important boundary-setting conversation and agreement that starts a coaching relationship. For this relationship to be growth-promoting, the coach radiates warmth, empathy, confidence, zest, humor, and courage.

Scene Two: VISION

In the next scene, the coach encourages the client to get very clear about what it is that they want, and why. The coach elicits motivation by getting the client to explore why change is important now. They explore what it is exactly that the client wants to create – noting that all of life is invented – and
that together they will experiment with how to get from Point A to Point B.

Did you know that it’s all invented? According to the Constructionist Principle of Appreciative Inquiry, we construct our reality – what we perceive, what we believe, what things mean, and what we value. In other words, it’s all made up! And, it’s from this frame of reference that the best coaches work with their clients. They playfully support the client in making up the rules to the client’s “game of life” and in experimenting with the ways to play it. An inspiration for coaches comes from the work of Ben and Rosamund Zander in their book The Art of Possibility. Check it out and learn to say “How fascinating!” about all of life’s knots in the road.

Scene Three: THE PLAN

Notice that when the client works on the plan, the coach digs into the toolbox and hands over a tool – a BIG pencil. The client is uncertain that they can handle the pencil, but the coach’s certainty is greater than the client’s doubt. From the domain of Hope Psychology, we know clients have the willpower, and now just need to develop the waypower. And, waypower isn’t best developed by having someone tell you what to do, or doing it for you; it’s best developed by experimenting with the change oneself.

The client gets specific with what they want to have happen –the specific changes that will take place in their life to get to the mountains in his vision. The more specific, the better. The box that the client draws represents the importance of focus and clarity in setting one’s goals. They are exploring the question of what the client is going to take responsibility for creating, and doing, to reach the beckoning goal.


As the coach presents the next tool, a trampoline, the client is beginning to feel more confident in their ability to take that first leap. The trampoline represents the power of setting goals that are appealing, specific, and measurable, and of thinking through all that it will take to be successful, including the ever-important supporting relationships.

The coach invites the client to recall other times when they have been successful in achieving other life or work goals, as well as their strengths and talents. It’s an opportunity to learn from past successes and to apply one’s strengths, rather than focusing on what’s hard.

More building blocks are constructed – the stepping stones to reaching success. The vision of the client’s best self becomes clearer and closer.

But as the client continues to experiment, they fall off of the ladder – missing a challenging step they have taken. This, of course, happens in real life – we lapse and fall back into our old habits. The coach brings a safety net, a non-judgmental space in which to explore what happened and what can be learned from it. How fascinating! This leads insight and a decision to create smaller steps, drawn onto the ladder.

How important it is to move to action at the right time, with the right goal in mind. There is little benefit to clients of working on goals that are beyond their capability. When clients set goals that are well matched to their readiness to move forward, with enough stretch to be engaging but not too much to produce anxiety, they become aligned with their “best self.”

The client rises above his challenge, achieves the plan they constructed, and jumps up, having grown into an image of their best self. The client is excited when they experience what it feels like to be there – and that will propel more successes going forward.

Scene Four: SUCCESS

We end with a celebration – the client has found the best path, outgrown perceived roadblocks, and lived into the vision of their best self. Together the client and coach heartily acknowledge the accomplishment.

The final scene is a cliff hanger, so to speak. Its message of “To Be Continued” speaks to the fact that change is a journey, a process to revisit continually. We know that as the client continues down the road toward the vision, there will be another knot, or a ditch, or a seemingly impenetrable object. Yet, through the coaching partnership that cultivates hope and the acknowledgement of strengths and abilities, the client will continue on the path and further develop their best self.

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