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Why the secret to great coaching lies in motivation

Everyone knows an effective coaching program relies on motivation. But you may be surprised to learn that the most motivating coaches don’t actually motivate people… at least, not in the way we think.

Why The Secret To Great Coaching Lies in Motivation

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A brief introduction to motivation science

3D model of motivation

Becoming a more motivating coach

The most successful coaches foster the intrinsic motivation already within their coachees. 

While many coaching clients might seek out a life coach for extrinsic motivation, discovering their intrinsic motivation is what leads to the success they’re looking for. That’s why I’ve developed a powerful method to help coaches tap into their client’s natural desires and drive.

In this article, we’ll explore how the key to a successful relationship between a coach and coachee is understanding, sparking, and strengthening a person’s own motivational skills.

A brief introduction to motivation science

A lot of the science behind motivation focuses on fixing a problem. That research suggested that using extrinsic motivation was the ideal way to motivate people. 

From there, programs based on rewards and recognition were adopted as the best way to inspire employees.

But, this didn’t just happen at work. Many personal coaches looked for ways to reward and acknowledge their clients, hoping that the recognition would shore up someone’s confidence enough to motivate new behavior. These techniques focused on encouraging coachees to give themselves more rewards for good actions.

While incentives are nice, the latest studies show that intrinsic motivation is more powerful than we previously thought. Rather than searching for what external factors motivated people, we started to explore what desires could drive coachees to develop new habits, even in the face of struggle.

Thanks to the Positive Psychology movement and Self-Determination Theory, coaching approaches have evolved to focus on boosting intrinsic motivation and providing positive reinforcement. These approaches help people not just return to baseline, but to flourish. 

Before, motivation researchers thought that building new skills and strengthening weaknesses could improve confidence and motivation. 

Now, research shows that the effort we put into our talents and strengths, along with enriching relationships and making meaningful contributions, encourage feelings of success and fulfillment. This combination of factors is referred to as PERMA. 


Visual representation of the Positive Psychology PERMA model

(Image Source)

This groundbreaking movement has helped people change their relationships, advance their careers, lead more fulfilling lives, and more. Plus, this movement serves as an inspiration for my coaching framework for motivation called the 3D Model of Motivation. 

3D model of motivation

Successful coaches understand that if a coachee’s motivation comes from their coach, the client won’t create lasting change and get the results they want. That’s why I developed this coaching philosophy and framework to help coaches make a bigger impact with their clients.

This framework is based on Motivational Interviewing techniques, too. These focus on working through feelings of apathy and connecting each person to their individual goals and desires. 

Essentially, understanding what drives each person to change leads to creating sustained behavior change on a personal level first, and on an organizational level second.

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One of the most important things I’ve learned as a coach and a psychologist is that the most critical question a coach could ask is, “For what IS this person motivated?”

Behavior change comes from getting to the root of a coachee’s view of and relationship to motivation, then triggering that motivation through small, incremental steps. 

Once a person can see what they’re committed to and how positive actions can get them closer to their goals, it’s easier to tap into the motivation they need to move forward.

Many coaching clients come to a coach believing some common myths about motivation. For example, someone might think motivation is something they either have or don’t have. 

These coachees may be telling themselves that since they aren’t a motivated person, they can never be motivated.

Shifting how a coachee sees themselves can fire up their intrinsic motivation. When they stop seeing motivation as something that reflects who they are and begin looking at motivation as something they do to support their goals, they’re more likely to experience success.

Coachees can learn to regulate their motivation by tapping into the reasons that inspire them and discovering how to spark their innate drive. This helps them develop autonomy and competency so they can accomplish their individual goals. 

In some cases, a coach can foster this by encouraging coachees to take small steps toward increasing their energy levels and working toward the goals that hold personal value for them. This is where the 3D Model for Motivation comes in. 

Two kids playing soccer demonstrating intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

(Image Source)

The 3D Model of Motivation has three components:

  1. Discover and Decide: What is the person’s motivational makeup? How can coaches use that information to create a development plan?
  2. Develop Discrepancy: How does a coach spark motivation in the coachee?
  3. Deepen the Drive: How does a coach help a person practice maintaining their motivation when things get tough?

Step 1: Discover and decide

The first step of the 3D Model of Motivation is an important part that many coaches overlook. Before a coach can dive in and begin supporting a coachee, they need to understand the person’s motivational makeup. 

This includes the client’s view of motivation in general, their view of their own motivation, and the myths they believe about motivation.

Often, coaches assume that if someone is in their office, they’re already motivated to change. 

There are many reasons clients seek out coaching. However, most coaching approaches don’t consider understanding a client’s unique motivation before getting started. Many processes automatically assume a coachee is making an empowered choice to get support. 

However, in some cases, external factors may be leading them to coaching. 

For example, they may think getting coaching is the “right” thing to do, or they may feel their motivation needs to be “fixed.” While addressing the root of a person’s motivation can help, this client may not be ready to make the mindset shifts necessary for change. 

People must be willing, able, and ready to transform themselves to create lasting change.

Willing and able are the ingredients that make up readiness. These qualities help coachees access the autonomy they need to recognize their desires and tap into intrinsic motivation. 

If the change feels significant enough to the person, and they have the confidence to achieve it, they’ll feel more ready to give it a go.

However, if a coachee appears motivated by fear or pain, procrastination can get the best of them and cause a harmful cycle. 

Some of these people may not seem open to coaching if they feel they’re getting coached to do more things they don’t enjoy, like improving their performance at a job they don’t like. 

Breaking through that cycle and discovering your coachee’s purpose can help them make meaningful changes in every area of their lives. By examining a person’s willingness, ability, and readiness, a coach can offer powerful behavior change coaching.

Step 2: Develop discrepancy

Building out a vision for the future is the key to creating the spark a person needs to pursue change. But how does a coach motivate someone to build their vision? 

Research shows that people are highly motivated to relieve cognitive dissonance. That means if someone has two conflicting beliefs, they’ll prioritize closing the gap between these beliefs as soon as possible. 

Holding incompatible beliefs is intensely uncomfortable, which is why creating a new vision for the future works.

Help your client build out an ideal future based on what drives them. This could look like getting a promotion at work, spending a week-long vacation with their family, or learning a new language. These futures are all realistic, but they may take substantial change for someone to achieve them.

Then, work with your client to highlight the differences between their current state and their future vision. This can help your coachee see the shifts in belief that can help them go from where they are right now to where they want to be. 

The discrepancy serves as the spark that keeps a coachee moving toward their goal. 

Addressing what a coaching client cares about and the commitment underpinning their individual goals will become the intrinsic motivation that inspires action.

Step 3: Deepen the drive

Once a coach understands a person’s motivation and has showcased the gap between their present state and future vision, it’s time to get them to dig into that vision of the future. And while a-ha moments are important, we don’t have to have an epiphany to make a change in our lives. 

Small progression is all it takes to create major changes over time. Demonstration of how small step changes lead to incremental change.

(Image Source)

For coaching to work, coaches need to build out self-efficacy slowly and consistently. This approach is called scaffolding

A coach reinforces the thinking patterns that capture the coachee’s view of the future through how they communicate. 

Detecting the difference between change talk (which reflects a desire or commitment to change) and sustain talk (which indicates arguments for the status quo) can help you gauge your coachee’s progress. 

Change talk is the lifeblood of deepening the drive, and effective coaches listen and engage in conversation grounded in change talk, even if it’s subtle.

Discovering the source of motivation for a coaching client is the key to shifting sustain talk to change talk. But, the motivational source always needs to come from the coachee. 

A coach’s ultimate goal isn’t to argue for change, but to help coachees vocalize their own motivation for change.

Once the real motivation for change is discovered, a successful coach can reference this deep-seated inspiration as the catalyst to get a coachee past struggles and slip-ups.

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Becoming a more motivating coach

Taking your coaching practice to the next level involves knowing what you can and can’t do for your clients. While no coach wants to be the source of a coachee’s extrinsic motivation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to push a client toward change. 

Getting to the root of a coaching client’s motivation leads to more successful coaching. The 3D Model for Motivation can help you better understand your coachee’s motivation and help them take small steps inspired by their intrinsic motivation. 

At BetterUp, we take these coaching principles and help employees find their intrinsic motivation at organizations worldwide. If you’re passionate about coaching, apply to become a BetterUp coach today! 

This blog post was adapted from the original, which appears on the ICF blog.

Original art by Theo Payne.