What to do when a coaching client has strong beliefs that limit their thinking

Everyone has some beliefs that they hold onto, even when logic suggests that this is irrational. For the most part, these are harmless and are simply part of our identity. For example, the theories of reflexology and homeopathy have both been thoroughly debunked as nonsense. However, unless the practitioner puts the client in danger by steering them away from other, evidence-based treatments, they do no harm and the relationship with the practitioner may have therapeutic benefits.

Irrational beliefs come in many forms. It is the intensity, with which people hold on to them, that distinguishes the beneficial and “normal” from the harmful. So, for example, religious belief provides people with life purpose and meaning; but religious fundamentalism leads to multiple damaging outcomes. The belief that politicians work to hidden agendas might be regarded as a justifiable precautionary perspective, but extreme conspiracy theories lead to violence such as that demonstrated by Trump supporters storming the Capitol.

When strong, irrational beliefs become dysfunctional or damaging to a client or to others, it raises ethical issues for coaches working with them. Is it our responsibility to challenge their beliefs? Is it even appropriate to do so? What irrational beliefs might we bringing? Are our perceptions of reality genuinely more valid than theirs?

A helpful concept here is consequence of beliefs. Rather than challenge a belief, we accept that it is genuinely held and explore the questions, such as:

  • What does this belief enable you to do and what does it prevent you doing? (How does it empower and disempower you?)
  • What does it enable and prevent others from doing? (How does it enable or prevent others being their best?)
  • How does it affect how you relate to others?
  • How does it affect how others relate to you?

The power of this approach is that it avoids the instinctive fight/flight response that arises whenever someone feels their beliefs are assailed. It also helps them step out of missionary mode (where they feel bound to convert you) and to begin to acknowledge other perspectives, even if they are not yet ready to accept or endorse them. Helping them to listen to themselves is a starting point for listening to others.

It’s also valuable to use the opportunity to question our own assumptions and, in particular, the assumption that our roles as coaches is to “help the client see reason”.  An alternative assumption is that our role is to support the client in becoming curious about other perspectives than their own – and that changes in their beliefs are their responsibility, not ours.

Epiphanies do happen, but they are rare compared with a person’s gradual recognition that an existing belief set isn’t working for them. A coaching conversation is typically only a small step in that long journey.

© David Clutterbuck 2023




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