How to Effectively Challenge How Someone Thinks

Many coaches avoid directly challenging their clients’ thinking because they confuse it with confronting. They end up coaxing the client to think a specific way instead of using a challenging reflection or question that shifts their thinking without leading.

On the other hand, a coach or leader might use a pushy question saying, “I was just challenging them” to coax clients to think their way or to commit to an action the client didn’t choose.

When coaching, challenging a client’s thinking means to offer a concise summary or paraphrase of what they said with an invitation to choose their focus or direction. Challenging can quickly clarify how they see their problems or unmet needs, can jolt them into facing beliefs and fears they alluded to while explaining their predicament, and identify the choice they must make if they want to move forward.

You might ask the question they have resisted asking themselves.

You are firm and concise, but deliver your reflections and questions with compassion and commitment to their development.

You don’t challenge because you are irritated. You challenge because you care.

Those who avoid challenging miss the opportunity to pin down a rambling client. Sometimes you need to drill down to the decision or commitment that must be made to move the client forward even if for only one step. If you are dealing with a strong ego, giving your client options to choose from or bottom-lining what they must decide may be the only way to match their energy.

Knowing how to compassionately challenge is an essential coaching skill.

According to research in neuroscience, for shifts in thinking and behaving to occur you must be willing to challenge beliefs, disrupt routine responses, and weaken the grasp they have on their old stories to short-circuit their habitual reasoning. When your challenges prompt clients to see the gaps in their logic, the beliefs that no longer serve them, and their imagined assumptions about the future, you “breakthrough” the frames of their stories. They then make the decision they avoided or at least, declare what they are not willing to do now.

Your client might react with irritation or sadness; then they usually sigh and accept the challenge. In the end, they usually appreciate that you made them face a truth they would still be avoiding without your challenge.

Shifting from coaxing to coaching

You must build rapport with your clients first so they feel psychologically safe with you to process a challenge, especially when the emotions that come up make them feel vulnerable. Ease into challenging after the conversation starts and you’ve heard their story. Then you can use reflections and questions to rattle their brains. Breathe and allow them to safely experience what they feel as they process the challenge.

Allow them to confirm, deny, or expand on what you share. Don’t try to coax them to see things you think are right for them. Identify how they see things and use your reflections and questions to expand their perspective.

Here are some examples of Coaxing vs. Challenging statements:

COAXING: “They need to know the impact they are having on you. Do you have the courage to tell them?”
CHALLENGING: “You have named a number of negative reactions that could occur if you share what is bothering you. What makes you believe only the worst will happen? Does the past always dictate what will happen now?”

COAXING:  “But you just said the reason for not making a change now is this…and NOW you say it is this….  What is it really?”
CHALLENGING: “Your story keeps changing to support your inaction. Yet you claimed that you need to make a change so you can honor what has now become your highest value. Do you want to explore what taking a step forward looks like or do you need to figure out how to to let go of what used to be more important?”

COAXING: “You have to choose. Why can’t you just go for what you want?”
CHALLENGING:  “Do you want to make a change or do you feel you need to stay where you are for now?

COAXING:  “You know that is a bad idea.”
CHALLENGING:  “What will be the impact on your job or the people you care about if you make that choice?”

COAXING:  “I know you can do this. Why don’t you just go for it?”
CHALLENGING:  “You said you have done this before. What is stopping you now?”      

Essential skills to challenge thinking (from Coach the Person, Not the Problem)
  1. Recapping – Briefly summarize the issue, problem, or outcome expressed. Start with, “So, you are telling me . . .” and then use the words they give you. Don’t analyze the meaning. Don’t repeat everything they say. Listen for the core message, then offer back what you heard for their consideration.
  2. Exploring emotional shifts – Notice their emotional expressions. Don’t try to fix them. Typical shifts include hesitating, looking away and getting softer when they’re sad. Ask what the shift means to them and their goals. Use silence to let them think. They may need a little time to process what they are angry, sad, or apprehensive about.
  3. Using Metaphors – Paint a picture of what was said using a different context but connected by meaning, like “sounds like you are swimming with sharks or you’re anxious for the race to start but worried you have the wrong shoes. Metaphors are great tools to help people SEE their thinking.
  4. Bottom-Lining – Clients often agree on what they want but then declare all the reasons why they can’t move forward. Listen for the word but, then bring the conversation back to the statement made before the but to see if, bottom line, the desire they stated before saying but is what they really want. You can then assess if the risk they fear is real or exaggerated.
  5. Drawing Distinctions – Distinctions are options you offer clients to choose from, such as when they say they are tired, you might ask, “Are you physically tired or mentally tired of doing a job you don’t like?” You might offer a choice, “Do you want to find more calm in your work or find a different job?” When they list out many problems to address, recap the problem list and ask, “Which of these dilemmas do you want to resolve first?”

When you challenge not coax your clients’ thinking, your reward goes beyond getting good results to experiencing deep fulfillment when you witness the human you are with make a mind-altering shift.

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