Client readiness to change

{Van Coller-Peter & de Vries, 2022. Towards building theory on coachee readiness. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol. 20(1)}

Client readiness

Lack of client readiness impacts negatively on coaching effectiveness. Readiness is linked to commitment. Client readiness must be assessed at the commencement of a coaching assignment. The client should possess certain insights for the change process to advance.

Change readiness is informed by Self-determination theory; the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991); Efficacy (Bandura); Motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick); Transtheoretical model of behavior change (Prochaska & Velicer).


Client change readiness implies an intention for self-improvement, and intention preempts the adoption of a specific behavior. The intention comprises three independent components: attitude toward behavior, perception of control, and subjective norms.

An individual’s assessment of the behavior as having positive or negative consequences certainly informs the attitude towards a behavior. 

An individual’s assessment of her ability to perform the behavior will inform the perception of control. 

Subjective norms refer to the perceived social influences or feelings of moral obligation to perform a specific behavior or not to do so. Subjective norms influence behavior to a lesser degree than attitude and behavioral control.

The theory of planned behavior links all the indicators that enhance and inhibit client readiness for change.

Motivational factors

A decision by the client for self-improvement based on a convincing reason to change may be followed by taking responsibility for change and a commitment to change. Commitment will drive follow-through. The consequences of change must be positive, or the perceived threat of change and the perception of one’s ability to adapt to change could create apprehension toward change.

An adequate self-esteem level is required for the client to be open to feedback and self-reflection. Self-reflection creates space for self-assessment and correction to the extent that the coach becomes obsolete.

Self-efficacy influences the effort an individual is willing to demonstrate toward an outcome. Self-efficacy beliefs towards goal-directed behavior influence an individual’s openness, the amount of effort they expend, and the extent of their persistence when facing obstacles.

The social environment, such as the organizational culture or family and friends, can enhance or inhibit change.

Readiness and change as a progressive process

Change readiness is an antecedent for change and is not the actual change. Willingness to embark on the change process can be supported by giving sufficient autonomy to the client to form intrinsic motivation and build self-efficacy. Relatedness is evoked by affirming the client and building her confidence in her ability to change, imparting the courage necessary to make change happen. Guiding the client through the ambivalence in her mind to gain clarity on the way forward is a positive factor in readiness for change.

Determining the client’s readiness stage at the outset of the coaching initiative allows the coach to apply the right intervention at the right time, thereby improving coaching effectiveness. Each stage consists of a series of change processes and principles to be followed systematically. A client at a specific stage of readiness must first achieve the outcomes of that specific stage before she can move forward. Each stage has specific and distinguishing characteristics that can be determined by asking the appropriate questions.

Intention converts into action as a progressive process whereby the individual transforms the abstract intention gradually into a practical guide for action by generating an intentional cascade. Envisioning the enactment of the intention, rationalizing the intent into a practical plan, considering the possible conflict between the intention and the real world as perceived by the client, and matching her intention with opportunities in the real world helps crystalize the process of enacting the intention in the world. Practical action follows.

The preparation stage: Planning for change

{(Prochaska & Velicer, 1997; Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005), (Miller & Rollnick, 1991), (Theeboom, Van Vianen, & Beersma, 2017), (Triberti & Riva, 2016)}

The client displays readiness to action. Feelings of ambivalence may accompany the intention. The purpose of the stage is to cement the change intention into a concrete commitment to the proposed change. At this point, the client should be encouraged to set goals, determine her priorities, and develop an action plan.

Start the planning by assisting the client in envisaging her future life, verbalizing her intrinsic goals in detail, and converting the goals into action plans.

Mental representations of the client’s intentions reflect her engagement with the world. Verbalizing these in goals and action plans reveals possible misrepresentations. The correction of such misconceptions assists in converting intention into action.

Assess the client’s confidence level to realize the anticipated change; self-efficacy beliefs relate directly to the effort and perseverance the client is likely to exert when facing challenges (Bandura, 1999). Obstacles will present themselves, and resilience to persevere can be developed by considering and anticipating pitfalls and setbacks in advance. To strengthen self-efficacy, discuss previous failed attempts and identify potentially valuable lessons learned; the gold is in the client’s life experience waiting to be extracted.

Let the client verbalize the benefits the change offers compared to retaining the status quo to understand and strengthen the intention towards change.

Obtain commitment from the client to follow through with the chosen plan.

To restate, the purpose of coaching in the preparation stage is to cement the client’s intention to change into a concrete commitment toward change.

The outcomes to be obtained are a clear sense of commitment and a clear action plan toward change.

The client’s characteristics to observe and look for are that 

the client intends to take action soon, 

change in the client is focused on action and no longer on the possibility of change, and 

the client might already be involved in self-regulating behavior toward change.

Coaching guidelines are to 

encourage verbalizing the vision of a future life, 

guide the client in developing goals and action plans, 

verbalize intrinsic goals and align with the action plan, 

assist the client in identifying and addressing any misrepresentations in the plan, 

explore confidence level to realize the action plan,

apply learnings from past failed attempts.

Client change readiness framework

We talk about stages of change and progress toward change readiness; it is common to see someone get stuck in a stage without progress or a setback to a previous stage.

Different coaching interventions might be more effective and relevant at different intervals during the change process.

Client characteristics and Markers of the pre-contemplation stage:

The person is oblivious to the change.

The person deliberately avoids any information about the need for change and what change involves.

The person is not open to reevaluating herself and does not wish to spend time or energy doing so.

The person shows little emotional concern for her lack of change and does not adequately process information regarding her problem behavior.

The person has low self-efficacy levels toward change.

The person has limited insight into the consequences of not changing.

Overall, the person appears to be unmotivated toward change.

The purpose of the coaching in the pre-contemplation stage is to move the client towards having some intention to change.

The outcomes to be obtained are openness to assess herself and her environment, taking ownership of the need to change, and showing concern for the status quo and signs of an intention to change.

Coaching guidelines for the pre-contemplation stage are to 

create awareness of the ambivalence experienced, 

avoid arguments, 

roll with resistance, 

show empathy, 

provide information, 

recognize and give full autonomy to the client, 

provide support and encouragement, and 

affirm the client.

Moving the client towards motivation to change entails creating safe and open communication for the client to reflect and reevaluate her situation, acknowledge the need for change, and show a willingness to take ownership of change. The primary task is to encourage the client to acknowledge the need for change.

It may be valuable for the client to discuss her current circumstances before any change talk begins. This will reveal the factors responsible for the client’s (resistance) reluctance and assist the coach in choosing the most appropriate strategy to overcome reluctance.

The client will make her own decision, and the coach must acknowledge the individual’s autonomy irrespective of the consequences of such a decision. An empathic and non-judgmental coach fosters a sense of freedom for the individual to consider a change. The coach will choose what to reflect to the client, what to highlight, and what to ignore. Questions that prompt the client to contemplate her stance on her values and goals help create awareness. Gaining a more informed perspective on her current circumstances presents the opportunity to link a bigger purpose to the proposed change and assist the client in visualizing a better future that could potentially result from the change.

The primary obstacle may be low self-efficacy beliefs and the difficulty in “seeing” any change happen.

Client characteristics and Markers of the contemplation stage:

The person intends to change soon.

The person shows openness to new information.

The person has some information on the benefits and disadvantages of change with somewhat more emphasis on the disadvantages.

The person has high ambivalence and/or low self-efficacy, which frequently results in inaction.

The purpose of the coaching in the contemplation stage is to overcome ambivalence in favor of change and strengthen self-efficacy.

The outcomes to be obtained are to overcome ambivalence, the client to gain confidence in her ability to accomplish the required change, and the readiness to develop goals that are self-concordant and intrinsically motivated.

Coaching guidelines for the contemplation stage are to 

consider the benefits and disadvantages of change, 

get clarity on needs and values, 

link change to intrinsic goals, 

create a discrepancy between values and the status quo, 

detangle and remove barriers to change, 

elicit self-talk in favor of the change, 

recognize the autonomy of the client, 

display a non-judgmental approach, 

draw on personal mastery achieved in the past to build efficacy, build generalized skills, consider role models in the client’s social context, and use affirmation of the client and her progress.

For change to occur, the client must alter her thoughts and feelings and reconsider her values. This includes a reassessment of the self and the environment.

This stage entails carefully considering benefits as opposed to the concerns associated with the change, building the perception that change is intrinsically essential and the consequences of change will be positive. Aligning the need for change with the client’s core values elevates self-evaluation.

The client will be ready to move to the next phase of preparation when she exhibits a clear intention to change, confirmed by the targeted outcomes being obtained and the client’s characteristics shifting.

Self-efficacy beliefs in the contemplation stage

The development of sufficient self-efficacy is required for the client to embark on the change. Self-belief in her ability to realize the change influences the degree of effort the client expends and the coping mechanisms the client adopts. Weak efficacy expectations result in less effort, and strong efficacy results in stronger and more persistent effort. Low self-efficacy levels may influence the negative appraisal of information and the conditions in general, leading to disproportionate emotional arousal by demoralizing thoughts.

The coach should use every opportunity to convey trust in the client’s ability to achieve; reinforce personal accomplishment, build generalized skills and awareness thereof, draw on previous mastery of change, affirm observed progress, and allow the client to observe others who have managed to overcome obstacles and adopted new behaviors, encouraging the client to achieve by exerting the necessary effort and persistence.

Generalized skills may be considered behaviors that facilitate a sense of efficacy beyond a given situation, such as self-regulation, sustained mindful concentration, increased affect tolerance, compassion, learner identity or growth mindset, hope and optimism, and resilience.

Discrepancy and discontent

Observing current behavior may reveal discrepancies with values and goals that ultimately creates discontent with the status quo and prompt momentum toward change.

Ambivalence and the decision balance tool

Ambivalence is a natural and necessary process during the contemplation stage and must be acknowledged and accepted by the client. The decision balance tool can shine a light on ambivalence; the client explores the perceived benefits and costs of maintaining the status quo compared with the perceived benefits and costs of change. This raises the client’s awareness of her current situation and environment; due consideration and comparison of both options will tip the intention toward a specific course of action.

Self-talk in favor of change and the scaling question

Self-talk must orient toward change so that motivation for change can build up. Ask the client to measure her readiness to change on a scale of zero to ten. By asking the client why she did not choose zero on the scale, self-talk toward change is encouraged. By exaggerating reflections, the client can be urged to defend her stance through self-talk toward change. Use reframing where necessary.

The scaling question requires the client to linguistically construct new understandings and experiences for viable solutions.

Building the motivation toward change

Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2007) states that individuals experience high levels of motivation when sufficient competence levels to perform a specific behavior are present, when they experience relatedness with others in performing the behavior, and when they possess the autonomy to decide on whether and how to perform the behavior.

A sense of autonomy can be fostered by allowing choice, encouraging creativity, providing a safe space to try ideas, and providing considerate and meaningful feedback.

Relatedness can be enhanced through caring, consideration for varying perceptions, and recognition of efforts and achievements.

A sense of competency can be increased by providing clear expectations and realistic challenges, followed by giving constructive feedback.

Individuals have an instinctive capacity for self-direction and a propensity for personal growth toward integration and cohesion. This principle is held by SDT as well as Motivational Interviewing (MI).

Motivational interviewing provides an application for creating the elements of competence, relatedness, and autonomy as described by self-determination theory.

Motivational Interviewing encourages autonomy by recognizing the individual’s views; avoiding a confrontational approach; raising awareness of discrepancies in the client’s present and ideal future self; considering behavioral options with the individual, and providing the client with the freedom to choose a preferred way forward.

The need for relatedness is satisfied by a coach expressing empathy, demonstrating genuine interest and understanding, establishing a trusting relationship through attentive listening skills, and providing meaningful and constructive feedback.

Competence is enhanced by adopting a non-judgmental attitude and keeping the individual in high regard, providing facts and information while maintaining a neutral state, assisting clients in having realistic expectations, inspiring clients to set their own appropriate goals, and affirming their attempts, and acknowledging the progress that has been made.

Motivational interviewing consists of five overarching principles: expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, avoiding arguments, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy.

Expressing empathy is a reflective listening process to comprehend the emotions and perceptions of the individual without any judgment or assumption. It involves showing respect and openness toward the client and a sincere intention to understand the client’s experience.

Developing discrepancy involves magnifying the discrepancy between the status quo and the client’s perceived goals. Ambivalence will become apparent, and by dealing with ambivalence, the client will gain a better understanding of the complexity of her dilemma.

Attempting to convince the client to change will induce defensiveness and resistance to change in the client and should be avoided.

Rolling with resistance involves reflective listening, where what is said by the client is slightly reframed and offered back to the client to create new insights that will move the individual toward change.

Finally, believing in the possibility of change is a critical motivator; instilling hope and demonstrating belief in the client’s ability to change support building self-efficacy.