How to help coaching/mentoring clients achieve powerful insights

The Aha! moment is something that all coaches and mentors relish – the point when there is a sudden and seismic shift in a client’s perception about an issue. It’s almost impossible to predict when it will happen. Sometimes it happens within the coaching/ mentoring conversation; sometimes it is the result of further reflection by the client days, weeks (and in a few cases I have encountered) years afterwards. But suddenly, a new understanding dawns, bringing with it new possibilities and different choices. As Harvard psychologist and author Shelley Carson describes it: “During moments of insight, cognitive filters relax momentarily and allow ideas on the brain’s back burner to leap forward into conscious awareness”. She references research at Northwestern University that observed brain behaviour as subjects reached the Aha! moment. First there is a period of alpha wave activity (which they suggest turns attention inward), then a sudden burst of alpha waves as a solution bursts into conscious awareness.

So how do we help this process along? Many coaching and mentoring approaches, including CLEAN language, constellations and the use of narrative and metaphor are aimed at helping the client shift from one mental perspective to another. It’s as if people need a mental jog at just the right time to take them from one tramline to another.

However, all of these helpful processes rely on the client’s ability to be creative in the moment. We have to help them achieve an appropriate state of mind for creativity. Fortunately, recent research in both behavioural science and neuroscience is giving us clues on how we can be more effective in doing so.

A lot of coaching theory focuses on the need for a strong focus on goals. But it seems that creative problem solving tends to occur when we are not focusing on the problem. It’s partly because thinking about other things gives the subconscious time to work on the problem. (Hence the period immediately before and immediately after sleep is one of our most creative times.)

Experiments with problem solving show that people are more creative when they take a short break to play games. However, “play” and “games” are in fact two very different activities. Games have rules, which have to be followed. Play does not have rules and so allows for more creative responses to stimuli. Play has no obvious function, and particularly, no goal. Research on play finds that it is strongly associated with socio-emotional development in both children and adults. In particular, it develops social skills, persistence and resilience, language skills; promotes higher brain function in areas of the cortex related to emotional management and social learning; and reduces stress and the danger of burnout. Current thinking about the nature of work and play is that they are not opposed, but complementary – effectiveness in work is closely linked to quality and scope of play.

A similar turnabout is occurring in our understanding of the role of daydreaming. From early school years, we are told off for daydreaming. Yet people spend an average of 30% of their time “wool-gathering”, in one of two modes: positive-constructive (being imaginative and creative) or dysphoric (pessimistic thinking about failures or likely negative outcomes). It seems that positive-constructive daydreaming is helpful in problem solving. Experiments at the University of Lancaster indicate that doing a moderately challenging activity with no particular purpose (like reading something that mildly takes our interest) makes us more effective in tackling complex and difficult problems shortly afterwards.

Practical approaches that coaches and mentors can take to stimulate Aha! include:
• Start the conversation with humour. Laughter follows a similar pattern to insight, especially when it involves leading the mind down one track before diverting it suddenly to another, unexpected perspective. The relaxation that comes from laughter predisposes us to more creative solutions. An approach I often use is to ask a tense client at the beginning of a session: What’s the most ridiculous thing that’s happened to you since we last met?
• Don’t overuse techniques and processes that focus intensely on the problem. If you use techniques such as solutions focus, or scales of 0 to 10, take time out to give the brain an opportunity to come at the issue obliquely.
• Invoke the mechanisms of play and daydreaming by asking the client to use their imagination. For example, What’s the most outrageous thing you could do in this situation? If you were to turn this situation into a script for a comedy, what would you say about the main players?
• Allow the client time to follow their own inner meanderings and make it clear that it’s OK for them to do so. In extremis, even let them take a short nap! But help them to focus on positive rather than negative daydreaming, by suggesting a starting point that involves positive emotions.
• When the client does achieve an Aha! moment, do nothing that might impede their immersion in the new understanding. Either say nothing at all, or encourage them to articulate and structure what they have learned, with questions such as What’s different in the way you see this now?
• Above all, remember that the insight they have achieved is their success, their breakthrough, not yours. All you have done is help them find the space and mood, in which their own creativity can work its magic.


Carson, S (2011) The Unleashed Mind, Scientific American MIND, April
Pellegrini, AD, Dupuis, D & Smith PK, (2007) Play in Evolution and Development, Developmental Review, Vol 27, 261-276
Singer, JL (1975) The Inner World of Daydreaming, Harper & Riw, New York
Ut Na Sio & Thomas C. Ormerod (2009) Does Incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychological Bulletin Vol. 135, No. 1, 94–120

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