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The Science of Becoming the Person You Want to Be

The ‘two faces of coaching' can help you achieve your dreams.

Key points

  • Coaching is an empirically validated method for facilitating personal and professional growth.
  • There are two primary methods for coaching: content and process.
  • Repeated use of questions, whether posed by the coach or by oneself, can not only change behavior but may also change the brain itself.

This post is co-authored by George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., and Gina Brelesky, MPA, MEd.

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into others. – Pericles, 5th century BC

Tumisu/ Pixabay
Source: Tumisu/ Pixabay

Coaching is big business. The “life coaching” industry has been estimated to be around $1.4 billion in 2022. “Business coaching” has been estimated to be around $14.2 billion in 2022. And the coaching industries continue to grow. Despite the claims made by many purveyors of these services, coaching is not new. In an effort to truly advance the field, rather than merely reinvent it, there may be value in looking from whence we have come and where we can go. Let’s take a closer look at this medium for personal and professional growth.

Coaching Defined

According to Grant (2006), “Coaching is essentially about helping individuals regulate and direct their interpersonal and intrapersonal resources to better attain their goals” (p. 153). Whether it is personal or professional coaching, the process of coaching, at its most fundamental level, entails providing guidance. According to celebrity life coach Tony Robbins, it is providing support and advice. Variations on this theme would be tutoring and mentoring. While some argue there are significant distinctions among coaching, tutoring, and mentoring, a critical analysis reveals largely arbitrary or unconvincing efforts at semantic neofunctionalism. But perhaps Wikipedia provides the most useful definition applicable to the current discussion: “The word ‘coaching’ thus identified a process used to transport people from where they are to where they want to be.”


The oldest generally accepted references to processes of interpersonal guidance (i.e., helping people get from where they are to where they want to be) arise from Greek mythology. Athena was the goddess of wisdom. Across numerous myths, she can be seen providing guidance. But perhaps the most famous example of providing interpersonal guidance is from Homer’s Odyssey. As Odysseus, King of Ithaca, was leaving for the Trojan wars, he asked a trusted friend named Mentor to provide developmental guidance to his son Telemachus while he was gone. Thus, the term “mentor” became associated with being a wise and trusted adviser.

Fast forward to the 20th century, MIT professor Edgar H. Schein was one of the founding fathers of the field of organizational development and was influenced by humanists such as Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor. In 1969, he published the book Process Consultation. This book serves as the foundation of what we now call “business coaching.” In fact, he uses the term “coaching” as a means of describing his intervention. From the processes described therein later emerged what we now think of as “personal life coaching.”

Maximizing the Power of Coaching

There is evidence that processes of guided change can be effective. “If there is one 'best practice' that cuts across almost all of the advice and research-informed information…, it is that every…program must have a theory of change” (Mentor, 2015, p. 8). Herein we provide an integrated theory of change using the adapted work of Schein as a foundation.

Schein correctly asserts there are two fundamental mechanisms, “two faces” if you will, to the provision of guidance: (1) content and (2) process. Maximizing desired change in another entails understanding both mechanisms as well as when and how to use them.

Content-guided coaching entails having the coach play the role of a “content expert” providing specific operational information that the coachee (mentee) can then act upon with the intention of improving progress toward some predetermined outcome or goal. The content could be information generated by an in-depth personal assessment or an organizational “diagnosis” conducted by the coach with specific follow-up recommendations for action. This may be thought of as change arising from outside using a “guidance through content” model.

On the other hand, process-guided coaching focuses on interpersonal communications and relationship building as the mechanisms by which the coach can assist or facilitate the desired change, thus “guiding through process” rather than content. Here the coach helps the coachee mobilize intrapsychic and interpersonal skills to achieve the desired outcome or goal. Two useful tools for process guidance are (1) active listening and micro-counseling as advocated by the humanists of the 1950s and 1960s such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Allen Ivey, and more recently by the insightful and empowering work on inquiry by David Cooperrider; and (2) the neurologically based SCARF model developed by David Rock.

Based on Ivey’s work, the active listening mechanisms consist largely of attending skills, questioning, gentle confrontation, focusing, and reflection on meaning.

David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University and the father of Appreciative Inquiry believes that through our questions we create our world. His work is focused on crafting generative, life-giving questions to be used when working with both individuals and groups.

The SCARF acronym is a brilliant construct for maximizing interpersonal communications and conflict resolution. It reflects Rock’s assertion that there exist five neurologically mediated interpersonal domains reflecting neurologically based needs: interpersonal status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The coach maximizes their interpersonal effectiveness as well as that of the coachee by identifying threats to these five social domains and acting in a manner to support and collaboratively exploring ways to strengthen them.

In both approaches to process guidance, the “magic” resides in what Harvard icon Henry Murray once referred to as the “well-phrased question.” Both Rock and Cooperrider strongly believe in using the empowering aspects of inquiry as the basis for the coaching process. Questions cause the brain to recruit diverse brain regions into activity, activate reward neurons, increase the likelihood of subsequent action, and may even slow the progression of processes associated with dementia compared to using direct suggestions. The coachee is pushed to formulate their own answers to the questions asked by the coach and, in essence, create and move toward the coachee’s desired future. By the way, this form of cooperative inquiry, even gentle argumentation, can be employed by anyone, anytime, to challenge oneself before making important life decisions. It can help you come closer to being whomever or whatever you want to be.

© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2022


Grant, A. M. (2006). An Integrative Goal-Focused Approach to Executive Coaching. In D. R. Stober & A. M. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients (pp. 153–192). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

MENTOR (2015). Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring, 4th Ed. The National Mentoring Partnership.

Salinas J, O'Donnell A, Kojis DJ, Pase MP, DeCarli C, Rentz DM, Berkman LF, Beiser A, Seshadri S. Association of Social Support With Brain Volume and Cognition. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Aug 2;4(8):e2121122. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.21122. PMID: 34398201; PMCID: PMC8369356.

Tamir, DI & Mitchell, JP (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. PNAS: Biological Science, 109 (21) 8038-8043

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