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Understand the flow model of lifestyle wellness coaching

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition, by James Gavin and Madeline Mcbrearty.


Flow Model of Coaching

The flow model of coaching characterizes the client’s journey as one of flowing toward the sea from a high source above the clouds. When someone announces her intentions for a coaching relationship, it is essential to appreciate the source of her wishes. It is not that a coach is so interested in why the client has these desires; rather, he needs to understand whether initiating motivations will sustain the journey over time. What if the client has many wishes and dreams that she aspires toward? What if a particular aspiration comes amid the dry season?

In the previous chapter, we reasoned that the initiation of a change process is not a random or whimsical event. It derives from deep places of desire and intentionality that may have been more or less evident for long periods. Clients in coaching, unlike those in counseling and psychotherapy, arrive with an objective in mind; they rarely show up with a wish as vague as the desire to do better or be happier. Before the first conversation occurs, it is likely that the client has identified his desired direction and potential outcomes. These initial intentions are often transformed through the process of coaching to even clearer articulations of the dream, of the desired state of being that has manifest and measurable properties.

In the broad realm of coaching relationships, client dreams may be as concrete as buying a new house, getting a new job, or finishing a doctoral degree. Equally so, client wishes may be represented in an ongoing commitment to a course of action, such as eating more appropriately, managing stress effectively, or exercising in a way that gives joy and vitality to life. In all cases, the interior world of the client will change significantly throughout the coaching process.

The flow model is divided into two major phases: engagement and goal pursuit (see figure 4.1). Within each phase are three critical areas of focus. In the engagement phase, the areas are insight, patterns, and resources. In the goal-pursuit phase, the areas are planning, committing, and continuing. In the engagement phase, the areas of focus may occur more or less simultaneously, whereas in the goal-pursuit phase, the areas tend to be more sequential. Let us begin to explore the model to understand how coaches cocreate with their clients an experience of flow toward dreams and visions.

Engagement Phase

The waters spill over in a new direction today! What has happened to create this shift? What is it about today that is different from yesterday? A client may have had your name for weeks or just found it today. A call is made; a connection begins.

Coaching is still an emerging profession, and it is therefore important to ask what the client knows about coaching. What are her expectations? Are her desires appropriate for a coaching relationship? Are the two of you a good match? Because the success of coaching often hinges on the strength of the relationship between coach and client, a good fit between the two partners is essential. Honestly answering questions such as “Can I see myself working with this particular client?” and “Is there good chemistry between us?” will increase the chances for successful outcomes.

There are preliminary details to address in order to begin on a professional footing. In the first meeting with prospective clients, you need to ensure that they understand what coaching is and what it is not. In particular, they need to know that it is action oriented rather than a protracted analysis of their issues. You then want to determine whether the client’s topic is appropriate for coaching and whether you are the right coach to work with this specific client. Following this, terms and conditions are carefully reviewed until an agreement is reached (see appendix B). Among other elements, the introductory session includes discussions of fees, meeting structures, time frames, and mutual expectations. Assuming all these aspects of business contracting and role clarifications are agreed upon, you will now enter the first area of focus.

Throughout the early work of the relationship, the coach’s task is to open up the conversation to gain as much understanding of the client as possible. Correspondingly, through the engagement phase, with its focus on creating insight, uncovering patterns, and discovering resources, the client will likely gain new appreciations of himself in relation to his aspirations. Unique solutions may spontaneously emerge. The goal itself may evolve so that it is both more easily achieved and more fulfilling.

Focus on Insight

What is the client’s larger story? Who is this client in the context of her life? How does the wish that she presents mesh with her other dreams, visions, needs, and realities? What else is her life energy feeding? How well does she understand herself at this juncture in life?

Each client begins with a wish or intention. It may be broad or circumscribed, short or long term, concrete or abstract. This intention cannot be separated from the rest of the client’s existence, and as a coach, your role will be to understand this desire in context. The great advantage of this phase of the flow model is that as the coach expresses genuine curiosity in deepening his understanding of the client, awareness is also created within the client. In the safe space of the coaching relationship, the client begins to put together the pieces of her own puzzle.

Let’s turn to our two coaching clients as they begin their journeys in coaching.

Creating Insight With Bob Bob says that he is puzzled about why he just doesn’t take action. He knows that recreational sports have been a source of joy and excitement in the past, yet he let them go shortly after he retired from his demanding executive position. He says he now has more time than ever, though his days are still quite full. He notes that his routines have changed considerably. He doesn’t go to an external office for work but rather consults from his home office. When asked about his network of friends with whom he played basketball, skied, and cycled, he looks downcast and says that many of them have moved away to sunnier climes. He sighs as he adds that some of them have just gotten old.

He mentions nothing about his own age, 65, as an impediment to playing the sports of his past. To the contrary, he reasserts that he is in great shape and could get back into the game without a lot of additional training. You notice some extra weight around his waist and explore his training regimen in greater detail. It amounts to 20 to 30 minutes on three or four days a week. Sometimes he walks fast on his treadmill or outdoors; at other times he engages in a limited weight training program.

Then, you ask Bob an essential question: “Has anything happened that has made this topic more important today than it was over the past couple years when you were doing the same thing?” He muses about how his world seems to be getting smaller. He pinches his gut, pulling at a couple inches of skin and fat trapped between his fingers as he reminisces about being on the basketball court in his glory days. Then he mentions his recent birthday celebration that left him feeling somewhat depressed.

It would be easy to skip this step or speed through it, but that might not allow Bob to fully access his deeper motivations and the degree to which his intention may represent a mix of agendas, including ones for companionship, intensity, and reliving the past. Though he has framed the issue as one of getting back into his favorite sports, might there be other avenues for revitalization? Further, the questioning in this stage would allow him to learn what the core ingredients for success need to be and how to make them all work in his present state of physical being. We can also witness Bob’s growing awareness when, in spite of his assertion of being fit, he nonverbally acknowledges the extra weight around his waist. Are there other things happening in his life that are pushing this agenda? Is this the only change he is contemplating right now, or is his lake spilling over into other streams, so to speak? What other insights might you want to generate at this point in the relationship?

Creating Insight With Amy Amy presents a potentially more complex portrait than Bob. She wants to find a way to relax, and she wants to get serious about exercising. She drifts back and forth between reflections about her job and her family, notably her ex-husband. You learn that the divorce was just finalized, though they separated a little over a year ago. She tells you that she did see a therapist for a while when first separated, and she has that person’s phone number in case she needs it. You also deem it important to learn about her medical history, so you sensitively inquire. The good news is that she had a physical recently and is generally fine. Her weight is a bit high, but more critically she notes that she has little muscle tone.

When asked why she chose coaching, she tells you that she lacks knowledge about exercise and also about how best to relax. She further notes that work takes priority over everything these days, so she believes she needs someone to monitor her and hold her accountable to do what she says she will do in terms of increasing her physical activity. She volunteers that her ex was the family motivator, always organizing her and the children to do things like going on trips and embarking on new nutritional plans. He also did most of the cooking.

Her response to that essential question, why now, brings in another piece. Amy feels lonely, and she believes she will have to get rid of the extra 15 pounds (7 kg) she’s been carrying around for a decade before she can start dating again. Also, she thinks the wolves in the office can smell fear, so she figures cultivating a Zen attitude toward life is her best defense against someone taking her job.

Questioning Amy could be tricky. You don’t want to be invasive, yet you need to know about some potentially sensitive matters. Amy volunteers that she has seen a therapist, and she provides a broad picture of her life at the moment. It is reassuring that her medical markers are within the normal range. If someone hasn’t had recent medical workups, making an appointment for medical assessments may be an early action step in the coaching process. There might be other things you would want to find out from Amy as well, such as what a typical workweek looks like. Examining her schedule more closely might help you codesign ways she could begin creating practices for stress reduction and exercise.

Of course, Amy opened up another agenda by talking about dating. This might lead to a line of exploration about relationships and family support. You might also wonder how much you need to know about the threats at work. Given that her goals would be positive additions to most people’s lives, there is a question about the degree to which you get into her story as opposed to moving directly toward action. What other avenues of inquiry might you want to explore with her before proceeding?

A focus on insight is about generating awareness. It is meant to provide strength and clarity for the journey. However, it is not an end in itself. This stage is intended to ground clients’ dreams in the practical realities they will likely face. As is discussed in chapters 10 and 11, when the distance to the goal seems far, it is helpful to create intermediate goals that can signify progress along the path. Helping clients appreciate their intentions within the broader frame of their lives facilitates action planning that accounts for all relevant elements. For instance, Bob knows how to exercise but realizes that his current fitness plan may not have kept him in as fine shape as he had originally asserted. Through artful and sensitive questioning from her coach, Amy seems to have uncovered an important source of motivation, her budding desire to explore new relationships.

Creating insight does not imply finding out all the little ways in which clients may be lying to themselves; rather, it is about standing on firm ground beside clients as they launch into the future. To do so, it is important to fully comprehend the terrain.

Focus on Patterns

We all flow differently. What are clients’ patterns of engaging their worlds and getting things done? What styles do they prefer? What are their habits of mind, body, and spirit? What makes them tick? What are their needs, inclinations, and sources of motivation? How do they go about pursuing their dreams and their daily lives?

Take something as common as your waking rituals. What do you do first? When do you eat? What’s your preferred way of starting your day? All these patterns are uniquely yours, and that’s simply the way it is. You have developed your ways of doing things over many years. They are habitual for you—so much so that when some of the steps are out of sequence, you feel slightly off.

One of the gifts of a coaching relationship is how it enables people to appreciate their current patterns so as to approach things in novel ways. Our patterns show up in how we address new projects, and they are accentuated when we are under stress. Coaches need to appreciate how their clients go about change and what happens when things don’t work as planned. Some aspects of clients’ patterns may have fostered success. Some aspects may have resulted in unsuccessful outcomes when applied in certain situations. For instance, a client may have a pattern of making jokes when life gets too serious. This can be helpful in reducing stress, but he may need to be more serious in a work situation. The implication is not that he has to become completely stern and somber, but rather that he needs to discriminate between times when it’s okay to be funny and when a more focused attitude is required.

When exploring clients’ patterns, coaches try to uncover ways in which they make decisions, move forward with their plans, get things done, or create joy in their lives. Sometimes they discover useful patterns that can be readily transferred to the coaching agenda. More likely, they find aspects that don’t fit and that something elusive is keeping them from achieving the outcomes they desire.

Uncovering Bob’s Patterns Bob had been the chief financial officer in a biotech firm until he retired. He had a strong command and control style in work relationships. At play, he was the leader of the pack. Everyone relied on him to get things rolling, and he did this well. He was always reliable and liked to stick to the routine in whatever he did. He tells you that adjustment to semiretirement was a challenge at first, but now he has it down. He gets up early and, on the days he exercises, he has it taken care of before he jumps in the shower. Then it’s breakfast and right down to his home office. He’s not big on surprises or trying new things. In fact, he expresses pride in how he keeps his clothes forever and dresses pretty much the same way he always did.

You ask him to tell you how he was so successful in managing all the things he did while keeping up a highly active sport life. He happily tells you that it was all about scheduling. He considers himself a master at making time work for and not against him. On his busiest days, he had arranged his sports so they rarely conflicted with his work and family responsibilities. He notes, “Usually, this meant the boys and I would have a 10 p.m. basketball game on Tuesday and Friday nights.” You are aware from other things Bob has said that he now heads for bed by about 10 p.m. each night. You also know that many of “the boys” aren’t around anymore. When you inquire into his excitement about his earlier athletic days, he offers examples of all the postgame socializing (“Having a few beers after a good game!”) he took part in and the magical moments when everyone was playing, skiing, or cycling in sync.

Bob seems to be a creature of habit, enjoying routines and rituals. He also likes to be in charge of things: He’s the boss, the go-to guy, the one who makes things happen. You also appreciate that some of his excitement about sport is linked to social connection and teamwork.

Bob certainly is capable of change, but he’s not big on experimentation. The challenge will be working with him to shift his patterns without undermining his need for control and predictability. Although he never stated this, you might also be aware of his pattern of being the decision maker. How do you think he feels spending time with a coach, who in certain interpretations of the role is the one who calls the shots?

Uncovering Amy’s Patterns You ask, “Amy, you’ve no doubt had to make changes before. How did you go about making them happen?” She responds by first talking about her ex and how he was always the one to take the initiative. She then tells you that in other instances, friends or experts told her what to do and she pretty much followed instructions. You inquire about how well this worked for her, and she shrugs, saying, “Sometimes fine . . . but then, what may have been good for someone else wasn’t always my thing. After giving it my best, if it didn’t fit for me, I just dropped it—or if for some reason I had to do it, I probably felt resentful.”

You are aware of Amy’s job anxiety and want to probe more around her motivations for change. She has trouble going beneath the surface, even though she offers you lots of information about her life. Without being fully aware of her own words, Amy lets you know that fear is a strong motivator. You hear that she is afraid of losing her job, afraid of being alone for the rest of her life, and afraid that her children are going to be mad at her if their economic situation changes so that they have to switch to a local university and come back home. What you surmise is that fear works for her—it gets her out of her comfortable ruts and into action, such as hiring you as her coach.

You explore other motivations with Amy. In answering, she surprises herself in discovering that her success at work has been largely driven by the fact that she has fun doing what she does. She also realizes that her sons keep telling her that she’s the one who creates fun in the family. Her ex may have gotten things going, but then her fun-loving inner child kicked in. As you explore fun with her, Amy provides another insight to how she functions: She says that fun is an attitude and that once she starts something, no matter how hard it is, she always tries to find the places where joy can be created. She notes this is particularly true at work.

You remember her remark about her mind resembling a runaway train in regard to her job and ask her about her patterns under stress or when things aren’t going her way. She admits that she can spin in states of worry, but talking to certain people helps her gain perspective. She says she has a short but reliable list of go-to people in her life when she needs to stop the train. Here, she refers again to missing her husband.


Read more in Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, Second Edition edited by James Gavin.



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