One of the core objectives of coaching is to identify which thoughts and beliefs are obstructing a person’s pathway to improvement. And once such thoughts and/or core beliefs are identified, it is the coach’s role to challenge the client to change his or her thinking.

In this post, we’ll explore some techniques that are used by coaches to help clients overcome their own negative thinking patterns. Most of these techniques are based on the cognitive-behavioural approach in coaching. Techniques used to question the validity and challenge automatic thoughts and core beliefs include:

  • Questioning techniques
  • Replacing false thoughts or beliefs with realistic ones
  • Use of a continuum
  • Positive data logs

Questioning Techniques

The following are questioning techniques used to challenge an automatic thought or core belief:

Examining the evidence

  • What is the evidence?
  • What is the evidence that supports this idea?
  • What is the evidence against this idea?

Looking for alternatives

  • Is there an alternative explanation?
  • Evaluating the consequences
  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Could I live through it?
  • What is the best that could happen?
  • What is the most realistic outcome?

Questioning the effect

  • What is the effect of my believing the automatic thought?
  • What could be the effect of changing my thinking?

Action planning

  • What should I do about it?

Double standards

  • What would I tell _______ (a friend) if he or she were in the same situation?

Adapted from: Beck, J. (1993). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond.  New York: Guilford Press.

For example:
Mitch is in the process of learning how to play golf as he believes it is an important way to network with clients. However, whenever he heads toward a golfing range he feels exhausted and annoyed.

Through the process of coaching, Mitch, identified that he has an automatic thought that says, “don’t try because you will fail” whenever he approaches something new.

The coach attempts to question Mitch’s automatic thought by using Questioning Technique 5 from the list above [Evaluating the consequences].

Below is a transcript of part of the coaching session with Mitch.

Coach – Mitch, I want you to think about the automatic thought we have just identified, “don’t try because you will fail”. Tell me… what’s the worst thing that could happen if you tried?

Mitch – Well, I guess I could fail miserably at golf and make a complete fool of myself in front of clients, or worse, my colleagues.

Coach – And, if this were to happen, could you live through it?

Mitch – Ha, ha. I guess I would live through it. But I might be the brunt of a few jokes for a while.

Coach – (Smiling) Yes. Well how about you have a think about what might be the best that could happen if you tried?

Mitch – Well… the best that could happen would be that I realise I am a natural golfer and I immediately play rounds well under par.

Coach – Uh huh… and tell me Mitch, what do you think is the most realistic outcome?

Mitch – Well, I suppose the most realistic outcome is that I will be okay. I won’t be great at the game, but I probably won’t be dreadful either.

Replacing False Beliefs

This technique focuses on replacing the false belief (or automatic thought) with a more realistic or rational belief. For example, for the belief “it is necessary to be approved and loved by all people”, you could replace it with, “it is not possible to be approved and loved by all people. I will just be myself and if people do not like me, I am ok with that.”

It is the role of the coach to assist the client in replacing false (sometimes called “irrational”) beliefs with beliefs that are more realistic.

For example:

False (or irrational) Belief: It is possible and necessary to control the attitudes and affections of other people.

Realistic (or rational) Belief: It is not possible for everyone to love and approve of us. Often what one person likes another dislikes. I’m better off being myself and letting compatible friendships develop naturally, rather than worry about pleasing everyone.

Use of a Continuum

“Core beliefs are often constructed in all-or-nothing terms (such as ‘If I’m not a success, then I’m a failure’). The use of a continuum (i.e. a scale from 0% to 100%) introduces shades of grey into client’s thinking, thereby helping them to develop more balanced and realistic appraisals of themselves, others and the world (to arrive eventually at the mid-point on the continuum…” (Neenan & Dryden, 2000)

For example:
Imagine a client has a core belief that she is incompetent. The coach can consider the alternative belief… ‘I am competent’ and ask:

Coach – “In percentage terms, how competent are you?”

The client may respond:

Client – “Ahh, I don’t know, probably about 10%”

The remainder of the coaching session may be used to discuss recent experiences that have contradicted the feeling of incompetence for the client. At the end of the session, the client may be asked if she would like to reassess her original percentage score.

The continuum can be used as a regular reference point to monitor the client’s progress toward the middle of the continuum (i.e. to a more balanced appraisal of themselves).

Positive Data Logs

“Keeping logs or diaries encourages the client to collect information over the weeks and months to support their adaptive beliefs; this method reduces their tendency to discount the positive information and focus only on information that endorses the old belief (information processing errors)” (Neenan & Dryden, 2000).

For example:

Through coaching Gemma has discovered that she has a core belief -”I’m incompetent.”  As Gemma works in a sales and PR role, this core belief is impacting on her ability to develop rapport with her clients.

Gemma’s coach suggests keeping a Positive Data Log. The Data Log is used to reinforce a more adaptive belief for Gemma. That is, there are many occasions in which I am competent.

This means that Gemma will be asked to record every event that is counter to her core belief. That is, anytime Gemma perceives she has acted competently, she notes the experience down. Here’s an extract from Gemma’s Positive Data Log:

10/11: I ran into Jacob from the sales team. He said that he had heard (through the grapevine) that my new clients found me to be very personable and friendly. It sounds like they will sign the contract.

13/11: Delia asked me to about the best way to handle a disgruntled client. It seemed she really valued my input.

14/11: Reached weekly sales targets.

17/11: Scouted for clients and added three new clients to my portfolio.

21/11: Surpassed weekly sales targets.

Initially, clients may find it difficult to extract experiences from their life that are counter to their core beliefs. The core belief acts as a strong filter through which experiences are perceived.

It is the role of the coach to be alert to the time that the daily experiences clients report about their life supports an adaptive belief.

Information on Use of Continuums and Positive Data Logs extracted from – Neenan, M. & Dryden, W. (2000). Essential cognitive therapy. London: Whurr (pg. 114 – 115).