No Image Available

Stephen Walker

Read more from Stephen Walker

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Coaching: Making them listen


Stephen Walker examines the coaching and mentoring process to explore the issues of permanent behaviour change.

We all know that any training, coaching or mentoring is a two-way process. Regardless of how the training is delivered, face-to-face or internet-based, the learning outcomes depend on both the trainer and trainee.
Some training is to do with the transfer of knowledge. How to type in bold is a piece of information that is teachable, demonstrable and is quickly accepted.
Coaching and mentoring are more to do with changes of behaviour than learning simple skills. Learning new behaviours is a very different process to learning how to type in bold.
"New behaviour has to supplant the old behaviour and this is very difficult with interpersonal skills that are used in a social context."
New behaviour has to supplant the old behaviour and this is very difficult with interpersonal skills that are used in a social context. It is always possible to argue that the social context, not the behaviour, determines the outcome.

Why don't people listen?

We all carry around in our heads a memory of everything that has ever happened to and around us. What you are saying or doing is added to that mass of memories, of experiences. Your voice is louder because it is in the here and now but there are thousands of other voices competing for the listener's belief.
I call this The Barrier. Any behaviour change intervention has to get over The Barrier to succeed. These accumulated memories and experiences lead us to have expectations. Hoodie-clad youths have been banned from some shopping malls because the expectation is of anti-social behaviour. Experience gives rise to expectations and we create stereotypes to direct our decisions.
There is a strong survival basis for this. The avoidance of dangerous situations is a good basis for a long life!
If you feel your current situation is dangerous you are not going to be receptive to new ideas. Your body and brain are geared to fight or flee, not to consider the finer points of dining etiquette.
Primitive man was not particularly fast or strong but emerged as the dominant species. We did that because of our brain development. Our brains allowed us to store experiences and use them to make better decisions: to avoid the water hole at dusk.
Our brain and senses are particularly sensitive to change. We are not very precise at guessing temperatures but extremely accurate at comparative judgements, eg hotter or colder. This survival mechanism lets us survey the scene and take in the activity. We see the grass blowing in the wind and the birds diving for fish. Now imagine some grass moving against the wind or the birds taking flight. What does that signal? Does that spell danger? I can feel the adrenaline surge just from writing it.

Overcoming The Barrier

Fortunately there are ways to overcome The Barrier and instil new behaviours. The innate sensitivity to change can be used to demonstrate the benefits of new behaviour.
Starting in a small way the new behaviour can be shown to produce new and desirable outcomes. Repeating the behaviour and noticing the outcome allows the individual to see the benefit of the new behaviour. 
Accepting the new behaviour as the standard takes a considerable time and varies by individuals. My experience is that major culture change programmes take two years to permanently change the behaviour of 95% of the people.
You can reduce this time by increasing the power/threat of the change imperative but the consequent behavioural changes are much more unpredictable.

Making the change permanent

The memory of the outcomes of new behaviour must be reinforced consistently. Anyone who has tried to give up smoking for their health knows how difficult that is. After a few days a cigarette makes you feel a lot better!
Change is often described as a three stage forming, storming, norming process. Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance puts it more helpfully. In my words, the theory says that people can hold dissonant ideas for some time but it becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Sooner or later the ideas will change so they are then logically consistent.
"You can see that overlapping change interventions are difficult. One set of behaviours and outcomes has to be reinforced at the same time as new behaviour and outcome couplets are being tested."
To use the smoking example again, you may know your health is suffering through smoking but you continue. You want to stop smoking but you can't. You will need to resolve the inconsistency eventually.
When you stop smoking your mind can return to consistency and peace.
To make change permanent you must consistently show the new behaviour and new outcomes are beneficial.

Making The Barrier work for you

When the new behaviour is established it will be protected by The Barrier. Once you reach this wondrous place the need for consistency and coherence is diminished.
This allows experiment to begin to discover new behaviours and outcomes that are superior to our recently learned ones. You can see that overlapping change interventions are difficult. One set of behaviours and outcomes has to be reinforced at the same time as new behaviour and outcome couplets are being tested. This is why a behaviour change programme has a natural timescale.

Top tips to make them listen

  1. Be trusted/trustworthy
  2. Be recommended
  3. Be consistent
  4. Be steady not too fast
  5. Be in a calm threat free situation
  6. Be aware of different communication preferences
  7. Be coherent across all communication channels
  8. Be ready for that cognitive dissonance flip
  9. Be aware of all the other voices in your clients' ears


Major changes in society are underway around the world. The benefits of coaching and mentoring could be huge, could be the key to a successful century. Changing people's behaviour is not easy but it is important. I hope this article helps you succeed.
Stephen Walker has over 30 years of hands-on business and academic experience. He is the founder of Motivation Matters, a management consultancy focused on changing behaviour at work to inspire achievement. You can follow Stephen on Twitter and Facebook.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!