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You have seen what kind of psychological approaches to coaching there are. Now it’s time to look more closely at the most common one: cognitive behavioral coaching. Hang in there.

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What is Cognitive Behavioral Coaching?

So, how does cognitive behavioral coaching work? As we saw in the overview about coaching psychology approaches, cognitive behavioral coaching is the most common approach to coaching psychology (and perhaps, implicitly, to coaching in general). One of the core characteristics of this approach is that it is very goal oriented: You come with a specific goal and your coach helps you achieve it with the minimum necessary intervention (Occam’s razor), so you won’t be going into “the depth” of your problems (even less so in coaching than in therapy), but examine them just enough so that you may find a more productive and functional way of dealing with them. Typically, such a coaching process would last up to 8 sessions.

This approach combines the principles of two schools of psychology: cognitive psychology and behaviorism. Let’s look at both aspects separately.

Behavioral coaching

Behavioral coaching is perhaps the most intuitive form of coaching (in my coaching education we are using many of these principles without labeling them “behavioral coaching”): you set a goal and define the strategy to get there. You then use incentives and other behavioral principles to maximize the probability that you will behave in the manner required to achieve your goal. Here are a few acronyms (cognitive behavioral folks love acronyms) used to describe the coaching process:

  • GROW: define a Goal, assess the current Reality, evaluate your Options and then define a Way forward
  • PRACTICE: describe the Problem, set Realistic (SMART) goals, brainstorm solution Alternatives, evaluate Consequences (advantages/disadvantages) of the alternatives, Target most feasible solution, Implement the Chosen solution, Evaluate it.
  • STIR: Select problem, Target a solution, Implement a solution, Review outcome.
  • PIE: Problem definition, Implement a solution, Evaluate outcome.

You get the idea. Also important is to have a maintenance phase where the coach and coachee make sure the new behaviors aren’t lost.

Being strongly evidence-based, this practice can draw from a host of tools that can help train helpful behavior such as time management, self-relaxation, assertiveness and communication. A typical tool used is the in-between session assignment, where you are encouraged to do something from one session to the next.

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Cognitive psychology

The cognitive model can enrich the behavioral approach by helping the coachee evaluate the thoughts and beliefs that come in the way of his/her goals. The main principle in cognitive coaching is that, as Epictetus said:

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”

Cognitive coaching helps you improve your problem-solving skills. It encourages you to examine the ways you think about your problems:

  • Perhaps you have certain beliefs that are stressing you (SIT, stress inducing thinking). With this type of coaching you learn to replace them with stress alleviating thinking (SAT).
  • Perhaps you have thoughts that are coming in the way of your goals (PITs: performance interfering thoughts). The cognitive coach helps you replace them with performance enhancing thoughts (PETs).
  • Perhaps, in certain situations, unhelpful thoughts arise without you wanting them to (NATs, negative automatic thoughts). With this type of coaching you could train to recognize them quickly and react productively.

Here, too, the coach can draw on many tools to analyze your beliefs and their consequences, identify thinking errors, develop thinking skills, motivate yourself. Once your thinking doesn’t get in the way anymore, you can focus on defining strategies and behaviors to implement. This enriched model is described by the acronym G-ABCDEF:

  • define Goals
  • describe Activating event
  • discover Beliefs about the activating event and the
  • Consequences of these beliefs
  • Dispute and modify unhelpful beliefs and
  • find an Effective new approach
  • finally focus on the Future

Another goal of this approach is to help you understand the whole process so you can become your own ‘self-coach’.

This is cognitive behavioral coaching

Cognitive behavioral coaching helps you achieve satisfaction by ironing out the thoughts that stand in the way and by making sure you take focused action towards your goals.

Cognitive behavioral coaching is very effective, but has been accused of being superficial. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!


Hi, I’m Nick Redmark, your Meaning-Centered Life Coach. Want more meaning in your life? Get it now on nickredmark.com and subscribe to the Nick Redmark Newsletter to get more of it in the future!