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Making Successful Change

By Jen Frank

One of the greatest contributions we can make as coaches is to support our clients as they make changes that help them grow and reach their goals. Change can also be one of the toughest things we work on together.

But there are things we can do as coaches to help increase our clients’ chances of success. Here’s a model of change proposed by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.” They borrowed parts of their model from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

This model consists of three parts:

  • Our rational side, which the authors refer to as the “rider,”
  • Our emotional side, which they call the “elephant,” and
  • The environment or “path.”

The Heath brothers suggest that all three of these must be addressed in order to make a successful change. For example, our rational minds (the rider) may know the reasons we want to make a change, but unless we have our emotional side on board (the elephant), we won’t succeed. The rider can only use willpower for so long to “steer” the elephant; after a while the rider will tire and the elephant will do what he wants. So we must find an emotional connection that appeals to our elephant so that he, too, is excited about the change and brings his energy to it. Then, we want to shape our environment to give us the best chance of success.

Here’s an example. My client, Penny, wants to lose ten pounds. When I ask her why this is important, she (the rider) says that it’s for her health and she needs to cut out the junk food. To engage her emotional self (the elephant), I ask how she’ll feel when she’s lost that ten pounds. Her upbeat response is that it would be nice to wear some clothes she grew out of and look great for a reunion; in fact, if she loses the weight, she’s going to buy a new dress. I encourage Penny to imagine herself ten pounds lighter and wearing that new dress. How does that feel? Terrific, of course, and we work on locking in that feeling and image. To address the final part of the Heath’s model, I ask Penny how we can change her environment to support her; she commits to ensuring there are no Oreos or Doritos in her pantry.

By simply combining the techniques we already know as coaches (e.g., finding the deeper agenda, asking empowering questions, visioning, etc.), with this simple model we can help our clients make successful changes. But what if this is over-simplified? What happens when Penny emails me mid-week that she wasn’t able to entirely stop eating junk food because her elephant decided it wanted a cookie from the kitchen at work?

I get curious about why Penny wanted the cookie. What need was she trying to meet? Was she hungry? Was she lonely? Bored? Once we identify the need, we can brainstorm healthier ways for her elephant to get the feeling it’s after—it could be a healthier snack, something interesting to do, or a friend to talk to for a few minutes.

Making changes successfully requires that our clients have a certain level of awareness and that they plan ahead for the occasional setback. The coach can support them in this as well as provide accountability and help celebrate smaller achievements that will keep our clients’ elephants motivated. While I believe that my clients are resourceful, change can be really difficult; the supportive environment I create can make a difference in whether or not my client makes a successful change.

Of course, weight loss is just one example. What happens when a client wants to make a big shift like a career change? That much uncertainty can be overwhelming and cause limiting beliefs to surface (e.g., I’m too old/young, don’t have the time, can’t be an artist/doctor/engineer, etc.). Our clients may also have fixed mindsets that say they don’t have the required skill or talent.

So what might this model look like for a career change? Let’s use my client Bill as an example. Bill has decided it’s time to start his own company . When I ask Bill what’s important about being his own boss, he lights up; emotionally, he loves the idea of having more autonomy and flexibility in his schedule. When I ask him what will help him to be successful, his rational mind readily reports that he’s disciplined, has a lot of expertise in his field, and can already identify his first few likely customers. When we look at how Bill can shape his environment to support his success, he commits to creating a plan and working on his business at night before he quits his day job.

Is it really that simple? Yes and no. If I work with Bill to break down the change into a manageable plan of individual actions, the change is less overwhelming; most big changes are actually a series of small steps—and not one major leap. But let’s face it, in any given week I anticipate Bill will display some doubt, indecision, or anxiety.

Through the coaching process, Bill and I will work with each fear as it arises, ensuring his needs are met, debunking limiting beliefs, choosing new perspectives, hearing out any shadows that need reassurance, and identifying next steps. My role as a coach is to help Bill stay motivated, work with his fears, and support him in working his plan successfully.

Every change is as different as the person making it; each client has a unique set of strengths and experiences as well as limiting beliefs and fears. As coaches, we have the privilege of helping our clients develop awareness and connect with the resourcefulness inside themselves so they can make the changes they choose to—ensuring that their lives are the richest, fullest experiences they can be.

About the author:
As a life coach, Jen Frank's passion is to help people become the greatest, fullest, most colorful version of themselves: using their gifts and talents while honoring their deepest desires. Through her training as well as the experience from her own personal and professional transitions, Jen helps her individual and workshop clients as they move to the next great thing in their own lives - whether it’s changing careers, creating work-life balance, adopting new habits, or adjusting to a new life stage. For more information, see www.jenfrankcoaching.com


Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

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