Pathway to Sustainable Change by Naomi Dishington

Most coaches would probably agree that bringing a client to a point of actionable awareness is a key coaching competency. The idea of moving to action is so central to coaching that many models build decisional work into the conclusion of each session.  They use questions such as:

  • “What will you do with this new learning?”  
  • “What one change are you committed to make today?”  
  • “What are you willing to give up now in order to get what you want later?”  

It is precisely this focus on action and accountability that differentiates coaching from traditional approaches used in therapy.  

Because action lies at the heart of coaching, coaches may mistakenly measure their skill levels by the rate at which their clients act. It could be tempting for a coach to gauge success by the client’s initial commitment to change, but research shows that “[Sustainable] change actually happens in a series of predictable stages rather than in one giant leap” (Zenger 173).  A coach should feel free to celebrate a moment of discovery or a new initiative with her client, but she should also remember that the least successful outcomes occur when we expect “giant leaps.”  

James Prochaska, a prominent researcher from the University of Rhode Island in the US, collected data on over 6,000 cases of addiction, and came to the simple yet powerful conclusion that change is not one moment, nor one decision, but rather a series of successive steps. He identified key stages in the change process, which are covered in detail in John Zenger’s The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, (p. 173) and here:

Prochaska’s research concluded that counselors [or coaches] who saw their task as moving someone in a giant leap … had the lowest rates of success. Those with greatest success saw their role as helping people to move from one stage to the next, while always showing great respect for where the person was in the change process.  Although Prochaska’s research focused on addictions, the concepts are easily transferrable to coaching, and his Stages of Change model is useful in all areas of human development, including parenting, education, and management.

If coaches bring grand expectations of change to coaching engagements, they risk subtly cueing  their clients that they’re waiting for a big “ah-ha moment.” But such moments can’t be forced, and both the coach and the client may become discouraged if the ambitious change doesn’t stick.

The role of a coach is to manage and facilitate a reframe around expectations, whereby growth can happen; however, lasting change doesn’t happen quickly or in great leaps. Perhaps our best course of action is to invite clients to move toward actionable awareness while simultaneously reinforcing that small steps are the surest path to sustainable change.