NLP-Based Coaching: An Overview

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“Coaching is a twenty-first century methodology for empowering people through profound questions so they can take charge of their own lives, take ownership of goals and outcomes, and enable people to fully operate as one’s own expert regarding meanings, values, lifestyle, and empowerment.” — L. Michael Hall and Michelle Duval

In the past decade, coaching has found its place in the “helping professions” as a means to help people enjoy a rewarding work-life and a deeper sense of personal fulfillment. Whereas coaching was once mainly associated with sports, today coaches abound for a variety of endeavors such as public speaking, writing, managing finances, changing careers, running a business, or finding a life-partner. Coaches guide individuals and organizations in defining a purpose or mission, creating a vision, considering options, defining priorities, formulating goals, plans, and timetables, making decisions, taking action, and completing tasks and projects. Coaches support people in moving up to the next level of accomplishment in business success and personal development.

NLP practitioners and trainers have made a major contribution to the advancement of coaching by providing the philosophical underpinnings, language, and methods that promote practical, flexible, and solution-oriented approaches to self-improvement as well as the betterment of corporations. As an inevitable result of the merging of coaching and NLP, NLP-trained coaches have shared their thoughts, discoveries, and enthusiasm in books about the business and process of coaching.

This article examines the current status and scope of coaching and NLP through a combined review of some worthwhile books on the subject, published in the past decade. The books, each offering a unique perspective, are:

  • Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People toward Success in Work and Life by Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House and Phil Sandahl: 1998. The authors describe the principles, components and skills of the Co-Active Coaching Model, based on interactive participation and collaboration between coach and client.
  • Coaching with Spirit: Allowing Success to Emerge by Teri-E Belf: 2002. Through a compilation of essays by over 40 coaches, Belf explores the spiritual nature of coaching.
  • The NLP Coach: A Comprehensive Guide to Personal Well-Being and Professional Success by Ian McDermott and Wendy Jago: 2002. This self-help NLP manual addresses the dimensions of personal success for self-esteem, good relationships, maximum brain power, rewarding work, and health, wealth, and happiness.
  • Coaching Conversations for Transformational Change by L. Michael Hall and Michelle Duval: 2003. The authors analyze various types of coaching questions and coaching conversations, each serving a strategic purpose in the coaching process and in fostering the coach-client relationship.
  • Performance Coaching: A Handbook for Managers, H.R. Professionals and Coaches, by Angus McLeod: 2003. The author examines the strategies of work-place coaching for employees, managers and executives, teams, and entire corporations.
  • Mastering Mentoring and Coaching with Emotional Intelligence by Patrick E. Merlevede and Denis C. Bridoux: 2004. This book focuses on the relationship between a mentor and protégé in which the mentor is both teacher and coach.
  • Coaching with NLP by Joseph O’ Connor and Andrea Lages: 2004. The authors present an NLP handbook on the philosophy and practice of coaching.

My purpose in this article is to show how NLP has shaped the practice of coaching, and summarize where coaching began, where it is, and where it could go in the future. Drawing from these seven books, I provide an overview of NLP-based coaching, beginning with a brief history of coaching: its major influences and its venues. I’ll then examine various coaching models as well as the intangible elements that make for coaching success. Getting into the “nuts and bolts”, I’ve included information about coaching methods: linguistic skills, assessment tools, and conceptual frameworks. Additional topics include the ethics and pitfalls of coaching. The article ends with thoughts about the future of coaching and NLP.

A History of Coaching

The word “coach” was first used in the UK in the mid-nineteenth century to refer to a private tutor (Merlevede and Bridoux, 2004). By the end of the century, the word was in common usage as a title given to trainers of sports teams. The term retained the sports distinction until the 1980s, when it was introduced as a business metaphor as a way to develop employees. In 1984, management expert, Ken Blanchard wrote a best seller, Putting the One Minute Manager to Work, recommending coaching as a leadership style that advances from directing to delegating as an employee’s competence increases. In the 1990s, “coaching” took on a wider meaning as “a process where hidden resources and tacit knowledge of an individual are brought to the surface…in the service of achievement of a particular target.” (McLeod, 2003).

In 1992, accountant and financial planner, Thomas Leonard founded Coach University, offering coaching services and training programs by phone. Due to the rapidly expanding popularity of coaching, Leonard founded the International Coach Federation (ICF) in 1994. The ICF has taken center stage as the world’s leading organization for establishing uniform criteria for the training and certification of coaches. In 2000, he established Coachville, a vast web-based repository of coaching resources.

Additional coaching schools have been established world-wide, based on various models, most of which have been developed only in the past ten years. They include the UK Coaching Academy, the US Coaching Institute, and the US Comprehensive Coaching U. In 1987 Teri-E Belf founded the Success Unlimited Network (SUN), an ICF-approved coach training school (as of 2000) and coaching community. In 1998 Angus McLeod and Steve Breibart founded the Coaching Foundation in the UK. In 2003 L. Michael Hall and Michelle Duval created the Meta Coach Foundation under the International Society of Neuro-Semantics. NLP trainers Joseph O’Connor and Andrea Lages recently founded Lambent do Brazil and the International Coaching Community (ICC).

Major Influences on the Practice of Coaching

Carl Rogers (1967), a major proponent of humanistic psychology in the mid-twentieth century, is often cited as a major influence on the field of coaching, with his notion that human beings possess an “actualizing tendency” to develop their potentials to the fullest extent possible. Through his client-centered counseling, Rogers taught that clients have the answers to their questions and the solutions to their own dilemmas, and that those answers and solutions will emerge in a supportive atmosphere of unconditional positive regard, rapport, and empathy.

Former tennis champ, sports coach, and business consultant, Timothy Gallwey (1974), author of The Inner Game of Tennis, is often regarded as the father of modern coaching. He coached his students…and eventually businesses…by respecting and valuing individual strengths, and seeing people as capable. He asked questions to make people learn from their own experiences and discover their own hidden resources. Drawing on Gallwey’s ideas, John Whitmore (1992) (honorary president of the Coaching Foundation) wrote the best-selling classic Coaching for Performance.

Hall and Duvall (2003) credit the following theorists for their contributions to coaching: ? Richard Bandler and John Grinder for the Meta Model approach to communication. ? Robert Dilts for his work on belief change and neurological levels of experience. ? Howard Gardner (1983) for his work in multiple intelligences. ? James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClimenta (1994) who developed the Trans-Theoretical Model of change, consisting of six stages: Pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and relapse and recycling. ? NLP trainer, Richard Bolstad (2002), for his RESOLVE counseling model, that delineates the NLP practitioner’s steps in facilitating change: 1) Access a Resourceful state, 2) Establish rapport, 3) Specify an outcome, 4) Open the client’s model, 5) Lead to change, 6) Verify the change, and 7) Ecological check. ? Gregory Bateson (1973) for defining the levels of learning; the highest level being learning that revolutionizes one’s ways of operating.

McLeod cites additional approaches that served as a backdrop for his own approach: ? Shelle Rose Charvet’s (1997) work with Roger Bailey’s LAB (Language, and Behavior) Profile, which assesses Meta-Programs in the workplace, to enhance commitment to goals. ? Provocative Therapy, by Farrelly and Brandsma (1974), in which the practitioner engages in free association, humor, exaggeration, interruption, confrontation, and challenge to disrupt the client’s non-productive thinking patterns. ? John Whitmore’s GROW process of Goal-setting, Reality-checking, considering Options, and deciding What, When, Where, and Who.

Venues for Coaching

Today, personal development coaches, under titles such as “life coach” or “success coach” help individuals master major life transitions and projects, often in business, professional, and academic pursuits. Individual coaching is often conducted by phone and email, which gives the coach a world-wide reach; a distinct advantage over clinically-oriented professionals who must operate within the geographical jurisdictions of their licensing boards. Executive coaches help business executives achieve corporate goals by honing managerial, supervision, decision-making, and leadership skills.

Corporations benefit from coaching, through increased productivity, improved recruiting, employee retention, and succession planning. McLeod (2003) writes that corporate coaches work with individuals, managers, teams, and entire organizations in achieving competitive excellence. Corporate coaches work from within corporations as group facilitators, mentors or trainers, and from outside corporations as organizational consultants. Merlevede and Bridoux (2004) delineate the roles of the coach-mentor in the workplace. The coach-mentor is a senior employee who takes on one or more protégés for the purpose of passing along professional expertise and fostering the protégé’s professional development.

Coaching Models

Coaching is essentially a conversation. The client chooses the subject, agenda, and the outcome of that conversation. The coach guides the conversation to steer the client in the direction of accessing resources, solving problems, knowing self more completely, evaluating progress, making choices, and staying on the path toward the outcome. What happens in the conversation is often based on the coach’s model. The authors offer a wide variety of coaching models, the most significant of which are summarized here:

  • Hall and Duval present an “Axes of Change” model based on four Meta-Program distinctions: Direction of Motivation, Reflecting versus Acting, Frame of Reference, and Sameness versus Mismatching. Using these Meta-Programs as “leverage points” the coach initiates various solution-oriented conversations.
  • Dilts and Lage describe a coaching process that proceeds through various stages. The initial session begins with building rapport, managing expectations, laying a ground work and practical arrangements, assessment and information-gathering, identifying concerns, and designing the alliance. From there coaching advances to addressing immediate issues, examining goals, values and beliefs, finding resources, re-evaluating habits, assigning tasks, and providing ongoing support.
  • McDermott and Jago draw exclusively from NLP for their self-coaching handbook that teaches readers how to achieve personal well-being and professional success. They view NLP as a “set of tools” for self-improvement within a “Structure of Success” model, in which failures are an inevitable part of the learning process and result from “maladaptive patterns”. When approached with curiosity, these patterns can be analyzed and corrected, leading to success. Their framework follows these steps:
    • Identify the goal.
    • Define the outcome.
    • Identify the resources needed. o Represent the goal in thinking, feeling and action.
    • Maintain progress and gather feedback as you go along.
    • Make necessary adjustments based on feedback.
    • Reward yourself at each stage.
  • Merlevede and Bridoux (2004) describe two models of problem solving approaches and one for mentoring.
    • Drawing upon Dilts’ (1993) SCORE model, (a problem-solving procedure that considers the Situation, Causes, Outcome, Resources, and Effects) their COMET process discovers and models the patterns in another’s competency (or mistakes)—particularly useful in mentoring. The method analyses Context, Outcome, Method, Effect and Tasks.
    • Their “Itinerary of Change” model describes the multiple layers of thinking and action necessary for the successful completion of long-term projects that require sustained effort over a definite or indefinite period of time. The individual continually recycles through a chain-like process of desire, intention, wanting, self-belief, self-permission, decision-making, plan implementation, sustaining the effort, and arriving at completion. This process-oriented model indicates what questions to ask to determine where the client gets stuck, and what kind of intervention is needed.
    • Their seven step mentoring models follows these steps: 1) Choose a protégé, 2) Establish connection, 3) Outline the relationship and outcomes, 4) Identify processes and roadblocks, 5) take action, 6) follow-up, and 7) Bring the relationship to a close.
  • McLeod advocates his STEPPPA model of coaching, consisting of these steps for the coach and the client (to McLeod, the coachee):
    • S: Choose the subject of the conversation.
    • T: Target objectives. o E: Address the emotional context.
    • P: Check perceptions and re-evaluate the target.
    • P: Formulate plans and procedures.
    • P: Pace by checking for understandings and ramifications.
    • A: Adjust the strategy or act.

These models are solution-oriented and process driven, yet flexible in meeting client objectives, honoring client values, and accommodating individual traits and circumstances. They allow for self-directed learning and view change as a trial and error process in which mistakes are treated as feedback for making adjustments in the strategy.

The Intangibles of Coaching

Much coaching literature is about the intangible aspects of coaching: the attitudes, philosophy, beliefs, values, understandings, tenets, and presuppositions—in short, the mindset—of effective coaching. Many of these intangibles mirror the philosophical underpinnings of NLP as well as those of related professions such as counseling, social work, training, and teaching. Some of the tenets: ? The client is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. ? Human behavior is purposeful. ? Clients have the capacity to discover their own answers to their questions and their own solutions to their problems. ? Transformation is a natural human dynamic and people desire to excel. ? “Reality” is subjective for each individual and in constant flux. ? Mistakes and setbacks are opportunities for sustained learning. ? Large goals can be broken down into smaller, achievable steps. ? Learning is a lifetime activity. the purpose of As with NLP, coaching brings out the best in people and empowers them to achieve goals and outcomes, while acquiring secondary learnings such as: ? Making informed choices and take responsibility for those choices. ? Balance and satisfaction in all areas of one’s life. ? Increased ability to act on decisions and choices and carry out plans. ? Self-celebration. ? Continuous and accelerated learning. ? Peak performance via actualizing as much of one’s potential as possible by fully engaging one’s talents and skills. ? Fulfillment via the passionate pursuit of one’s purpose and life vision.

Coaches are most effective when they congruently demonstrate the highly-valued traits of successful agents of change: humility, curiosity, openness, empathy, patience, tolerance, trustworthiness, genuineness and authenticity, and unconditional positive regard for the client. These traits create rapport and give clients an emotional environment in which to freely explore limitations and grow. To create connection and empathy in conversations with clients, coaches do well to offer: ? Mindfulness: Understanding the situation and conversation from multiple perspectives. ? Being present: Fully attentive to the here and now and responding purposefully. ? Passionate intentionality: Clarity about outcomes. ? Mutual alliance: The capacity to be equal with the client. ? Tactfulness: Asking permission, asking questions instead of making assumptions and judgments, and voicing a willingness to be wrong. ? Systemic thinking: Seeing interactions, connections and interdependencies in the client’s life context.

Teri-E Belf (2002) writes that when these intangibles coalesce “in a space of unconditional acceptance”, coaching takes on a spiritual aspect. She describes the spiritual nature of coaching as a connection with the essence of the divine and the sacred, in moments of bliss and oneness. When “spirit” emerges in the coaching session, the coach and client operate from an “intuitive inner knowing” guided by an unseen presence that creates a synchronicity of events and a synergy of ideas.

The Methods of Coaching

Coaches use a variety of skills and tools in their work. Their linguistic and communication skills support conversational processes that help clients in a variety of ways. Coaches also employ assessment tools, such as diagrams and questionnaires, and give their clients at-home exercises as a means to learning and self-discovery. Finally, coaches maintain conceptual frameworks that facilitate client outcomes. These are the topics of the following paragraphs.

Linguistic Skills and Processes

Coaches communicate through strategic selection of linguistic tactics. Questions are at the heart of coaching. Questions lead to discoveries that change meanings and create transformation. Hall and Duval (2003) note that questions do more than elicit information; they can direct awareness, evoke insight, change beliefs, promote strategizing, suggest choices, and call forth emotions and memories. Meta Model questions, for example, ask for specificity, while “Meta Questions of the Matrix” ask about higher order thought process; “Appreciative Inquiry” asks about strengths and resources, and “Outcome Questions” clarify outcomes. Questions occur within the context of various types of conversation. Hall and Duval catalog 11 types of coaching conversations such as the outcome conversation, resource conversation, possibility conversation, metaphorical conversation, and the time-line conversation.

Additional conversational skills for coaches include reflective listening, silence, giving feedback, tactfully challenging a client’s limitations, articulating, clarifying, acknowledging, and taking a meta-position to the conversation. McLeod peppers his book with numerous “linguistic tips” drawn from NLP, such as changes in verb tense, reframing, metaphor and analogy, future pacing, anchoring, perceptual shifts, exploring submodalities, swish patterns, and the use of presuppositions. Corporate coaches make use of additional group facilitation skills such as brainstorming, values clarification, consensus building, and conflict resolution.

The books advise coaches to learn the skills and procedures for working with NLP domains, concepts, and processes such as calibration, anchoring, Meta Programs, Time Lines, Perceptual Positions, Values Hierarchies, Belief Change Patterns, conversational frameworks, chunking up and chunking down, neurological levels, mental rehearsal, parts work, and the Well-Formed Outcome. NLP imparts to coaching an understand of learning and change, and a sensitivity for the impact and influence of language. McDermott and Jago’s The NLP Coach is essentially an NLP manual, showing how NLP strategies apply to five “dimensions of success” in one’s potential, style, life balance, interactions with others, and relationship with self.

Assessment Tools and Exercises

Coaches promote client self-discovery through the use of assessment tools, paper-and-pencil exercises, interactive exercises, and between-session assignments. A frequently-used assessment tool is the “Wheel of Life”; a pie chart for comparing level of satisfaction with various facets of life, such as work, family, social, health, finances, spirituality, and self. Co-Active Coaching features the “Coach’s Toolkit”: checklists, questionnaires, self-rating forms, tracking logs, worksheets, and visualization exercises to assist enhance self-awareness, decision-making, values clarification, and prioritizing. Denis Bridoux has developed a self-assessment protocol, The Meta-SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) Analysis, that allows one to evaluate self-effectiveness in spirituality, identity, beliefs and values, capabilities and skills, behaviors and activities, and environment (Dilts’ neurological levels). The NLP Coach offers questionnaires, worksheets, and mental exercises for personal insight and improvement. Any of these tools can be given as between-session assignments, along with other activities such as journaling, essay-writing, conducting research, reading, keeping a log, or doing something out of character in order to break through a limitation.

Conceptual Frameworks for Change

Coaches work within conceptual frameworks that promote success and accomplishment. The major ones are:

Outcomes: Coaching is solution-oriented and moves the client toward specific and well-formed outcomes.

Possibility: Coaches invite clients to move beyond limitations into new possibilities, to consider options and evaluate choices, and experience self and the world in new ways.

Empowerment: Coaches realize that each client possesses unique needs, values, talents, skills, and aspirations. Therefore, coaches encourage clients to discover their own paths to success and choose their own definitions of fulfillment.

Responsibility: Freedom means choice and every freedom brings responsibility. Coaches enhance the client’s awareness of choices, guide the decision-making process and empower clients to take responsibility for their decisions.

Action, Risk and Learning: Outcomes require action. Coaches expect clients to plan and carry out the plan. Action entails the risk of mistakes and failure. Coaches help clients evaluate and mitigate risk, while seeing failure and mistakes as opportunities for learning more about how to accomplish the desired result.

Accountability: Accountability enhances motivation, because coaches hold their clients accountable for keeping agreements and for doing what they say are going to do.

Balance: Coaches value balance in all areas of life. They see the client as a whole person who functions in many roles. They help the client take a systemic view of life’s interactions and interconnections.


The Ethical Guidelines of the ICF (Whitworth et al, 1998) cover the coaching relationship and contract, client protection, confidentiality, conflicts of interest, referrals and terminations, and the treatment of ethical violations. The Coaches Training Institute recommends additional rules for professional conduct. The ICC has adapted the ethical principles of trust, respect for the client, honesty, and professional respect, as well as standards for competence and core competencies (O’Connor and Lages, 2004). McLeod (2003) recommends a code of conduct for coaches and consultants who conduct mentoring via the Internet.

Pitfalls of Coaching

As with any profession, coaching has its pitfalls. According to Dilts and Lages (2004), the major traps are one-upping, judging, analyzing, and commanding. Coaches can avoid advice-giving or playing “expert” by operating from curiosity and “not knowing”. Thus, they empower clients to be experts on their own lives. Instead of telling clients what to do, coaches can engage clients in experiential learning processes. When clients do not keep agreements, or cancel appointments, or fall short of their goals, the coach should not take these as a personal affront, but instead maintain detachment from the client’s choices or results, focusing instead on the process.

Coaches benefit from clear professional boundaries, ego strength, and self-management, setting aside personal opinions, preferences, pride, and defensiveness during coaching. McLeod (2003) cautions coaches to avoid projection, sexual attraction, and counter-transference. He warns that coaches should not form “special or exclusive” relationships with clients, nor seek to impress by way of possessions, lifestyle, or manner of dress. Coaches should not set themselves up as better than or act in a parental or condescending manner toward clients. Merlevede and Bridoux (2003) advise coaches and mentors to adjust their communication patterns to the skill levels and Meta Programs of their clients and protégés.

Coaches must clearly distinguish between coaching issues and clinical issues, to avoid doing therapy. The ICF Ethical Guidelines note: Because there’s a potential overlap between coaching and therapy, coaches must be cautious in aspects of their practice that might invite confusion in the mind of the client…and…see the potential risk of offering coaching when therapy is called for, and to talk about it openly with the client.

Coaches can avoid many misunderstandings with clients by having a well-written contract that clarifies issues of responsibility, confidentiality, and the parameters of the relationship. The agreement addresses how to handle payment, cancellations, scheduling, and between-session contacts.

A number of actual and virtual coach support communities and forums exist to help coaches examine their ethical dilemmas, work habits, and uncomfortable issues that arise with clients. Through these support mechanisms, coaches can obtain peer coaching, supervision, and feedback to identify blind spots, avoid burn-out or stagnation, and to continue feeling alive, excited and invested in the work of coaching.

The Future of Coaching

What’s on coaching’s horizon? Whitworth and colleagues see coaching gaining widespread acceptance, in societies where having a coach is as commonplace as having, say, a dentist or a barber. They wish for “a world where the fundamental skills and approach of coaching (are) widely used,” not only by coaches, but by managers, parents, and teachers, promoting the principles of fulfillment, balance, and process as a basic way of living. Wouldn’t it be gratifying to see coaches as trusted advisors to world leaders and diplomats? For coaching to reach a larger audience, coaching will become multi-cultural, and no doubt members of minority and ethnic groups will soon enter the ranks of coaching. Belf (2002) envisions “coaching community circles” for all areas of society: schools, prisons, retirement communities, civic organizations, singles, families, unions, and business concerns. Through these forums, trained coaches will facilitate learning and personal discoveries for participants. Eventually the circles will transition to self-management, as more and more people understand how to coach others.

I foresee that more corporations will embrace in-house coaching and formal mentoring programs as a means to retain quality employees and executives. I expect that coaches will form companies to contract services to corporations or as subcontractors to Employee Assistance Programs, wellness programs, and health management organizations in much the way that mental health counselors do now. I predict that as coaches vie for another piece of the pie, more mental health professionals will acquire coach training to transition to the coaching field or to expand their services to encompass coaching and clinical work. It is even conceivable, in an age of increasing specialization, that individuals will simultaneously have more than one type of coach, just as they now have more than one type of doctor.

Eventually, we might see wider venues for coaching such as instant messaging, walk-in or email coaching, teleconferencing, chat rooms, call-in radio shows, or perhaps coaching via television. As therapists do, coaches must continue to examine issues of client privacy, confidentiality, and professional liability associated with these types of venues and in light of advances in communication technology, computer networking, portability of information, electronic record-keeping, data storage, and data transmission.

NLP is an integral part of coaching and continues to enrich the practice. NLP’s contribution to coaching consists of methods for rapid change, pragmatic approaches to human problems, simple techniques, an appreciation of the interplay of goals, beliefs, and values, and the structure of rapport and trust (Dilts and Lages 2004). Since coaching has so many possible venues, coaches and NLP practitioners will do well to determine which NLP applications are better for face-to-face contact and which can be conducted via distance, and which NLP processes are better suited for individuals and which can be modified for groups.

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