Stages of Change: A Temporal Map for Coaching Interventions

Working from the Trans Theoretical Model

{Theeboom, Van Vianen, & Beersma, 2017. A Temporal Map of Coaching. Front. Psychol. 8:1352.}

Coach Tasks and Client Skills

It would be useful to have a map that can help determine which intervention will be most fruitful to help the client in the change process at any given time. The contextual coaching model requires the client to be ready, able, and willing to do the work of change. The transtheoretical change model (TTM) introduces change readiness and the idea of change happening in stages, requiring a different attitude and behavior to be engaged successfully.

A different focus is needed at each stage to facilitate the change process, which is reflected in the contextual coaching model as the requirement for the coach to be able and willing to facilitate the change process.

The TTM stages of change are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation (referred to as planning in the coaching context), action, and maintenance or termination. Each stage involves tasks for the coach to be focused on and skills for the client to be employed.

Trans Theoretical Model of Change, or Stages of Change model (Prochaska & DiClementi, 1982):

Pre-contemplation, “Why should I change? I can’t be bothered.”

Contemplation, “Perhaps I could make an effort to change?”

Planning, Preparation, Decisions, “Let’s work out a strategy so I can regularly exercise.”

Action, “I’m starting today.”

Maintenance, “It’s hard work, but I can do exercise daily.”

Relapse, “I just can’t find the time to exercise. It’s tough doing it daily.”

In the preparatory contemplation stage,

the coach’s main task is to foster the client’s awareness of both (a) her own needs and drives for change and (b) the needs and drives for change in the environment;

the related skills for the client to be employed would correspond to (a) enhancing mindfulness or self-awareness and (b) enhancing environmental receptiveness or contextual awareness.

Main goal: Developing awareness.

Focal competencies: Mindfulness; Environmental receptiveness.

In the contemplation stage,

the coach’s main task is to help the client to explore both (a) the client’s willingness to adapt and (b) the client’s perceived ability to adapt;

the related skills for the client to be employed would correspond to (a) enhancing the focus on intrinsic, self-concordant goals and (b) enhancing self-efficacy.

Main goal: Exploring the willingness and perceived ability to change.

Focal competencies: Intrinsic goal orientation; Self-efficacy.

In the planning stage,

the coach’s main task is to help the client prepare for action;

the related skills for the client to be employed would correspond to (a) setting goals according to the principles of Goal-setting theory and (b) developing implementation intentions that can help her foresee and proactively cope with potential obstacles.

Main goal: Planning for change.

Focal competencies: Goal-setting; Implementation intentions.

In the maintenance and termination stages, 

the coach’s main task is to help the client integrate her learnings;

the related skills for the client to be employed would correspond to reflecting on her experiences and learnings to increase the chance that coaching has a lasting impact.

Main goal: Integrating learnings

Focal competency: Reflection

The development and strengthening of focal competencies in one stage are prerequisites for coaching effectiveness in follow-up stages.

Mindfulness & environmental receptiveness support exploring one’s willingness and ability to change and developing an intrinsic goal orientation and self-efficacy.

Intrinsic goal orientation & self-efficacy support planning for change, setting goals and developing implementation intentions.

Setting clear goals & developing implementation intentions support reflection and change transfer.

The Outcome of Sustained Self-Regulatory Capacity

The competencies are the foundation of an individual’s sustained self-regulatory capacity, which is the ultimate goal of coaching.

Questions Arising

How do we assess where a client is in the change process?

Can diagnostic tools help assess where the client stands in the process?

How does a client move through the different stages of change?

What coaching approaches and interventions are particularly suitable in the different stages?

Which specific coaching interventions are best suited to target the focal competencies outlined for each stage of the coaching process?

How do we identify, develop, and investigate tailored coaching interventions?

Stage-Appropriate Coaching Interventions

In accord with the Conservation of Resource Theory (COR; Hobfoll, 2002), several guiding principles in designing coaching interventions can be proposed:

(a) Target resources that are malleable to interventions.

(b) Identify resource caravans, the ecological system of resources and their interrelationships to develop a series of coaching interventions.

(c) The reciprocity of resources and outcomes into gain spirals is particularly important for the timing and phasing of coaching interventions. For example, create a gain spiral by using an intervention that promotes competencies of intrinsic goal orientation and self-efficacy in the contemplation stage, which leads to immediate success, and then apply follow-up interventions that build on this success. Use the same principle for the other stages accordingly.

(c’) The “build”-component of Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions (B&B, Fredrickson, 2001) also includes a reciprocal mechanism similar to the gain spirals described in COR theory. Successful competency development in one stage of the coaching process induces positive emotions, leading to broadened thought-action repertoires in a next stage.

Determining what the client needs

Assessing where the client is along the stages of change or change readiness continuum is a coaching skill to be mastered. The coaching is a journey for the client self, moving from the present to the ideal self vision. Sometimes, the ideal self vision may temporarily disintegrate due to frustrations, setbacks, or vulnerabilities getting in the way of progress. The present self may fall into despair, helplessness, or hopelessness, such that the change process stops being a positive change and reverses to become a negative change (metaphorically speaking). The “positive-negative” distinction is made about the inner condition of finding “life-giving” energy and ideals to build on versus being “consumed” by energy-draining mental states, emotionally or ideationally.

What does the coach’s skill entail? What micro-skills need to be developed?

Adapting existing questionnaires for use in a coaching context may be useful, such as the Readiness To Change Questionnaire.

Determining what the client needs is an important issue for the successful progress of the coaching process and coaching effectiveness:

the client may have gone through discoveries (in the preparatory contemplation stage) about (individual and environmental) drives for change and seeks now help for translating these into action (by developing suitable goals and forming implementation intentions in the planning stage);

the client may have gone through discoveries (in the contemplation stage) about the alignment of their drives for change with intrinsic, self-concordant goals and their self-efficacy beliefs in pursuing the desired change and is now ready for translating these into action;

the client may have gone through discoveries (in the planning stage) to prepare for action and has set suitable goals and formed implementation intentions and is now ready to move into action and seeks support of a coach for goal attainment;

it is also possible that a client seeks the help of a coach in the maintenance stage, to allow themselves to reflect on previous experiences and integrate learnings for lasting impact and learning transfer.

The question of what the client needs also points to another question; whether it is time to target moving forward through the stages, which one can meaningfully answer if one has an inkling of where the client stands firmly at present. When and to what degree might it be appropriate to take a step back? Might there be something to gain by rehearsing some steps through previous stages?

This parallels the postulate of Intentional Change Theory (ICT) that change is often a non-linear and discontinuous process.

For example, consider a client who has been unsuccessful in attaining a goal (in the action stage), such as finishing a project, and fails to fix this problem by (stepping back to the planning stage and) vigorously setting goals and forming implementation intentions.

In this case, a potentially fruitful direction for a coach could be to assist the client in stepping back into the preparatory contemplation or contemplation stages to find out whether the client is aware of all relevant environmental factors (Development of awareness: Mindfulness; Environmental receptiveness), whether their goals are self-concordant (Exploring the willingness to change: Intrinsic goal orientation), and whether they are self-efficacious (Exploring the perceived ability to change: Self-efficacy) in undertaking effective action (before [moving to Planning for change and] setting goals and forming implementation intentions).

Integrating TTM and ICT

TTM Contemplation stage: Exploring the willingness and perceived ability to change: Intrinsic goal orientation; Self-efficacy –>> ICT Discovery of ‘ideal self and personal vision’

TTM Planning stage: Planning for change: Goal-setting; Implementation intentions –>> ICT Discovery of ‘learning agenda and plan,’ ICT ‘personal balance sheet’

“What are the coaching approaches and interventions that are particularly suitable in the different stages?”

For example, consider a client in the contemplation stage; the focal competency of self-efficacy could be enhanced by exploring their perceived ability to adapt. According to Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1977), self-efficacy beliefs are acquired via four informational sources: personal performance accomplishments, vicarious learning, social persuasion, and physiological and affective states. How can coaches address these information sources to enhance a client’s self-efficacy?

A coach could emphasize personal performance accomplishments by asking a client about previous success experiences related to the problem or assisting a client in seeking opportunities for successful accomplishments.

A coach with expertise in leadership can provide examples of successful leadership behaviors to inspire vicarious learning.

A coach could engage in social persuasion by giving compliments and encouragement, e.g., “you have been a key employee in this team for years; I am sure you’ll do great as a manager.”

Similarly, for each stage and related focal competencies, the coach could identify, develop, and investigate tailored coaching interventions, such as mindfulness practices to enhance mindfulness and perspective-taking exercises to enhance environmental receptiveness in the preparatory contemplation stage; setting SMART goals and forming implementation intentions in the planning (preparation) stage; and reflecting on experience by using diaries and written reflections in the maintenance and termination stage.

Timely targeting of competencies enhances coaching interventions’ effectiveness in subsequent stages.

Preparatory Contemplation: Developing Awareness

(Name of the Stage of change: Main goals in each stage of the coaching process; Focal competencies for the client to be developed or strengthened at each stage)

Preparatory contemplation: Developing awareness; Mindfulness & Environmental receptivity

Contemplation: Exploring the willingness and perceived ability to change; Intrinsic goal orientation & Self-efficacy

Planning: Planning for change; Goal-setting & Implementation intentions

Action: Flow, Commitment; Overcoming Obstacles & Challenges: Closing Skill Gaps, Hope & Optimism, Resilience, Strengths Use

Maintenance and Termination: Integration of learning; Reflection

The first stage in TTM is pre-contemplation, in which no intention to change develops into an intention to change.

In the context of coaching, individuals contact a coach because they are motivated to start the coaching process; the label for the first stage in the coaching process is proposed as preparatory contemplation.

“What individual and context (organizational) factors are the impetus for the coaching?”

“Is there a need for change?”

The answers to these questions identify the individual and organizational drives for change, raising the client’s awareness of the drives for change and the realization that there is a need for change.

Raising awareness of the factors that led to coaching enhances a client’s intrinsic motivation to change and engage in the coaching process.

Coaching interventions aim to develop or strengthen the clients’ awareness competencies of mindfulness or self-awareness and environmental receptivity or contextual awareness; these enhance awareness of individual and environmental (organizational) drivers of change.

{Help the client explore her wider values, beliefs, and others’ impact on her own behavior.

In a work context: help the client become aware of her own needs and those of the organization through a 360-degree feedback intervention.}

Focal Competency of Mindfulness

Two basic components of mindfulness are self-regulation of attention and an open, curious, and accepting orientation toward present-moment experiences.

Self-regulation of attention is directed to present-moment experiences in three practices: concentration, open awareness, and equanimity.

Mindfulness enables individuals to openly observe and reflect on their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors; to explore their values and motivations, needs, and desires; to discern issues they can potentially solve and issues they can’t influence; and to stay focused on solvable issues.

Knowing their values and motivations increases the chance they set self-concordant goals in the subsequent stages.

The attentional control component of mindfulness is an important precondition for reflection and an important antecedent of learning; mindfulness sustains learning from previous experiences in the maintenance stage.

Focal Competency of Environmental Receptiveness

Environmental receptiveness is a contextual awareness of organizational and social needs, opportunities, and constraints. It has two elements positively related to self-regulated change, wellbeing, and functioning, namely openness to experience with interest in varied experiences for its own sake and epistemic motivation, the willingness to actively seek information to develop a rich and accurate understanding of the world.

Information-seeking may be directed to receiving environmental information about the thoughts and behaviors of significant others, what is needed and expected to function on a job, the extent to which job requirements are met, and the quality of the relationships with others.

Information-seeking enables individuals to make sense of organizational information that is hidden or ambiguous rather than open and clear; to deal with uncertainty in newly entered environments; to adapt more easily to a new job environment; to gain more role clarity and social acceptance (as they are seeking out information about what is required to function on the job and on how they are functioning); to seek alternative coping strategies for dealing with stressful situations helping them to feel more in control of these situations, apply a wider variety of strategies, and adapt more successfully.

In highly dynamic and complex environments where rules for correct decisions frequently change, openness to experience influences decision quality.

Environmental receptiveness enables the timely detection of significant changes and compensates for selective attention and change blindness.

Relevant models for the preparatory contemplation stage

awareness building

Outcomes for the client to be obtained

openness to assess herself and her environment; mindfulness and environmental receptiveness

taking ownership of the need to change

showing concern for the status quo, and signs of an intention to change

Experiences for the client: skills, competence, mastery

awareness of ambivalence

psychological safety to reflect and reevaluate in open communication

seeking information and gaining a more informed perspective

trying out something new and interesting

seeing a better future and the possibility of achieving it

Obstacles, challenges

low self-efficacy

complexity, confusion, resignation

Contemplation: Exploring the Willingness and Perceived Ability to Change

In the previous stage, the client has identified individual and organizational drives for change and developed their awareness competencies of mindfulness and environmental receptiveness.

In the contemplation stage, the client reevaluates the identified drives for change and the pros and cons of change. The first step is to clarify their needs and values as the foundation for developing self-concordant goals and action plans in the following stage. Congruence of needs and values with goals and action plans ensures an intrinsic goal orientation, supporting them in making a firm commitment to action.

Furthermore, the client explores and develops self-efficacy in this stage.

Focal Competency of Intrinsic Goal Orientation

Intrinsic goal orientation is positively related to change, wellbeing, and functioning; it fosters effective self-regulation and supports task-oriented coping (dealing with the problem at hand) in contrast to emotional coping (through disengaging from stressors), positively affects adjustment, identity development, and academic performance.

Intrinsic goals are aligned with basic needs satisfaction, leading people to focus attention more on the content of the activity itself rather than on the contingencies following it, fostering their commitment and persistence and, ultimately, their performance and wellbeing.

Extrinsic goals are driven by external sociocultural norms associated with coercion, fear, or shame.

Focal Competency of Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is defined by Bandura (1977) as the belief in one’s ability to succeed in a specific situation; it is domain-specific.

Generalized self-efficacy refers to an overall estimate of a person’s ability to mobilize cognitive and motivational resources needed to deal with challenges in life (Judge et al., 1998).

Self-efficacy supports the clients’ ownership of and responsibility for the adaptation process.

Coaching is aimed at stimulating self-enhancing causal attributions and building feelings of competence. The client ascribing success to their effort or skills rather than external circumstances forms the basis for approaching problems from a new perspective, developing creative solutions, and experimenting with new skills and behaviors.

Relevant models for the contemplation stage

Motivational interviewing for exploring the willingness to change

SDT for intrinsic goal orientation; the “what” of goal content; developing self-concordant goals

Social cognitive theory for enhancing self-efficacy

Outcomes for the client to be obtained

overcome ambivalence

gaining confidence in her ability to accomplish the required change

developing self-concordant and intrinsically motivated goals

Experiences for the client: skills, competence, mastery

considering benefits and disadvantages of change; visioning, outcome thinking

getting clear on needs and values

linking change to intrinsic goals

exploring the discrepancy between values and the status quo

detangling and removing barriers to change

self-talk in favor of change

experience autonomy, connectedness, and competence

build self-efficacy

Obstacles, challenges

competing projects

previous failed attempts

too many different views of stakeholders, too little common ground

Planning for Change

With the client having identified drives for change and developed their awareness competencies in the preparatory contemplation stage;

clarified their own needs and values, enhanced their focus on self-concordant goals, and enhanced their self-efficacy in the contemplation stage; 

in the planning stage, the client further specifies intrinsic goals and formulates implementation intentions that specify how they will deal with potential obstacles to ensure goal attainment.

The coach helps the client to review and select chosen options and clarify and refine goals leading to commitments concerning new behaviors and readiness to change.

Focal Competency of Goal-Setting

In the contemplation stage, while exploring the willingness to change, the focal competency of intrinsic goal orientation was derived from Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci and Ryan, 1985, 2008) which provides empirically informed guidelines and principles for motivating people to explore experiences and events in light of the three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and make adaptive changes in goals, behaviors, and relationships in accord with intrinsic motivation. According to SDT, intrinsic goals are aligned with satisfying basic needs. SDT specifically focuses on the content of goals and the degree to which this content aligns with basic human needs and an individual’s interests and values.

Goal-setting Theory (Locke and Latham, 2002) focuses on how goals are set and framed after goal content has been determined. Goal-setting refers to the conscious guidance of moment-to-moment behavior toward a (consciously or unconsciously) desired end-state.

Coaching is, in essence, a goal-focused activity. The coach’s task is to help the client set workable and effective goals, which are essential in making changes needed to narrow the gap between a current situation and the desired end state.

Goal-driven coaching effectively improves self-regulation, coping, wellbeing, and performance.

Coaching helps executives increase goal specificity, elicit more feedback regarding their progress, and have more explicit strategies for achieving their goals.

Goal-setting is most effective when goals are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-targeted) and when goals are challenging, proximal in time, and focused on mastery (“I want to become better than before”) rather than performance (“I want to outperform others”), and when goal-setting is accompanied with seeking feedback about the progress that is made in realizing the goals.

Focal Competency of Implementation Intentions (Commitment)

The mental act of planning involves proactively thinking about how one can translate one’s goal intentions of the contemplation stage into behavior and how one can deal with potential obstacles that could hinder goal-striving; these two aspects constitute the forming of implementation intentions. Translating goal intentions into behavior includes pre-planned details of action implementation as concrete responses to future situations (action planning), and dealing with potential obstacles includes detailed strategies for coping with anticipated obstacles (coping planning) (Sniehotta et al., 2005).

“If situation x is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response y.”

Obstacles can be in the social or practical realm, as well as inner generated.

Adding implementation intentions to goal intentions contributes to goal achievement.

Coaching is about fostering actual changes. Combining strong goal intentions with implementation intentions contributes to better progress toward short-term and long-term personal goals. It benefits clients’ wellbeing because it increases self-efficacy in dealing with setbacks and shields them from feelings of anxiety and ego depletion during goal-striving.

Ego depletion is the loss of mental resources necessary for self-control and willpower.

Setting goals and forming implementation intentions are necessary for making and maintaining actual changes. Coaching interventions aimed at enhancing clients’ competencies to set goals and form implementation intentions in the planning stage increase the effectiveness of coaching interventions in the next stages of the coaching process.

Relevant models for the preparation stage

Goal-setting theory: How to set and frame goals

Action planning and coping planning

Outcomes for the client to be obtained

a clear sense of commitment: implementation intentions

a clear plan of action

Experiences for the client: skills, competence, mastery

verbalizing the vision of a future life

developing goals, action plans, and coping plans

verbalizing intrinsic goals and aligning with the action plan

identifying and addressing any misrepresentations in the plan

exploring confidence (self-efficacy) level to realize the action plan

applying learnings from past failure attempts

Obstacles, challenges

Active movers-against

overloaded schedules

resource availability

coping planning: strategies for coping with anticipated obstacles

Example Application: Implementation Intentions and Mental Contrasting

  1. Goal (x1)

Is there an aspect of your ___ habits that you find a problem with? (Yes : No) Details: ___

If (Yes), why is this aspect a problem? Details: ___

Is there an aspect of your ___ habits that you would like to change over the next week?

What would you want to change specifically?

Please write down this specific goal for the next ___ days.

  1. Most Positive Outcome

What is the most positive outcome you would experience if you achieved your goal? Let your mind wander, and imagine the best thing that could happen.

Please write down this positive outcome.

  1. Obstacles

What obstacles make it hard for you to achieve your goal?

Please write down the obstacles.

  1. Implementation intentions

What would be the best way to overcome these obstacles?

Let your mind wander, and try to imagine the best thing to happen if you overcome the obstacles.

Please write down an if-then plan relating to your obstacles.

If (Obstacles), then (Implementation intentions).

Maintenance and Termination: Integration of Learnings

The action stage involves making changes. These changes will generally require some effort to maintain until new behaviors have become automatic and have replaced the old behavior patterns. Maintenance is when there is still some effort required to prevent relapse to the old ways. Termination is the later stage, where new behaviors are integrated into the day-to-day, and individuals disengage from effortful change.

The coaching task is to help the client solidify learnings and integrate new behaviors into their daily lives to ensure coaching transfer.

Help the client to plan for coping if falling back.

Focal Competency of Reflection

Reflection is one of four moments of the learning cycle in Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning theory and a key element in Mezirow’s (1997) Transformational Learning. All genuine and profound adult learning is the result of reflecting on experiences.

Reflection comes in the form of reflection-in-action as one is thinking on one’s feet in uncertain situations and reflection-on-action, which happens after the event as defined by the reflective practitioner model of Donald Schön (1983).

Reflection ensures the client “sees” what they have learned from the coaching experience “with their own eyes”; that their self-regulatory capacities are enhanced and that they can solve similar problems in the future (by themselves). Reflection also helps clients to develop a positive attitude toward learning and self-directed inquiry.

Coaching interventions to enhance clients’ competencies to reflect on their experiences in the maintenance and termination stages increase coaching transfer.

Relevant models for the maintenance and termination stage

Experiential learning theory, Kolb

Transformational learning, Mezirow

Reflective practitioner, Schon

Outcomes for the client to be obtained

becoming a lifelong learner and reflective practitioner

Obstacles, challenges

shifting priorities