Coach to Reinforce Flexibility and Prevent Rigidity

What is your intention when coaching or mentoring a new client or junior employee? Will they commit to the path that keeps them moving toward what matters when uncertainty or discomfort arise?

In a recent post, I shared my thoughts about how improving psychological flexibility can help us break up rigid behavior patterns that no longer serve us (e.g., ineffective, habitual coping strategies) and promote resilient and adaptable behaviors.

In everyday language, psychological flexibility refers to noticing and accepting our thoughts, feelings, and emotions for what they are (without judgment or avoidance), and acting in a way that moves us toward our longer-term goals (our values) despite the uncomfortable urges, thoughts, and feelings (you read more about this concept at Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, 2017).

In this post, I want to challenge you to consider your own methods of coaching. Does the way in which you coach or mentor or advise others unintentionally cultivate psychologically inflexibility? That is, do you reinforce a very rigid or narrow way of responding (set of behaviors)?

When we are psychologically inflexible, we are less likely to notice with curiosity, pause to create space, and commit to values-aligned action. In times of distress or discomfort, we are more likely to fall back on our default coping strategies, which are often rigid attempts to control and align our behavior with both the present context and what is important to us.

I would encourage coaches to be familiar with behaviors associated with psychological inflexibility so that they can both adapt coaching methods in order to prevent promotion of rigid thinking and behavior patterns, as well as be mindful of whether clients or mentees begin to show signs of rigidity. Ultimately, rigid attempts to control and align behavior keep clients and mentees “stuck” in a vicious cycle, and this is when we may observe things such as short-lived improvements, yo-yo behavior, and burnout.

Harris (2009) outlines six core processes of psychological inflexibility:

  1. Dominance of the conceptualized past or future; limited self-knowledge. This is the idea that one lacks self-awareness and is not fully present NOW; remaining “stuck” over-thinking or worrying about the past or the future.
  2. Cognitive fusion: One is fused with their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs when they identify their self as the thought they are having (e.g., “I am anxious” vs. “I am having feelings of anxiety”).
  3. Experiential avoidance: This describes whether and the way in which one attempts to avoids private experiences (thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc.).
  4. Attachment to the conceptualized self: This relates to the story one tells oneself, how one describes themselves (e.g., broken/flawed, unlovable, superior, strong, perfectionist), and how attached they are to that narrative.
  5. Lack of values clarity/contact: One might be unsure of who or what really matters to them or may act in ways that are neglectful or inconsistent with their values.
  6. Unworkable action: This describes actions and behaviors that are typically identified as self-defeating, avoidant, self-destructive, or impulsive; unworkable behaviors are typically effective in the short-term but do not lead to sustainable change.

Harris provides a really useful free worksheet with questions to help assess psychological inflexibility that I recommend taking a peek at.

At this point, I’d like you to think about your current clients or mentees. In my experience, the clients who are most likely to fall into a “rigidity trap” are those who have a strong desire to excel and/or follow coaching plans, programs, advice, or guidelines to a “T”, without allowing room to be creative or flexible in their approach to getting the results they are working toward. Don’t get me wrong, these types of individuals are often considered the “perfect” client, employee, mentee, as they will often “get it done” with “no excuses.”

However, in my opinion, it is these individuals who we, as coaches, need to keep an eye on and proceed carefully, especially in the way we acknowledge and manage ongoing progress. Here are a couple tips to try out when working with high-performing, results-achieving individuals:

1. Ask the client or mentee to “relive” their achievement by sharing HOW they met their goals and provide appropriate verbal and/or tangible recognition that reinforces flexibility.

As they are telling you the story of the process they used (i.e., the behaviors they engaged in), provide positive, verbal recognition of their results AND specifically congratulate them for any flexible adaptations they made throughout that process. For example, you might choose to highlight how a client choose to listen to their body and take a rest day on a scheduled training day (if the rest day was warranted), or how a client was able to make healthy choices and enjoy a meal out at a restaurant with family or friends without worrying that they weren’t “sticking to the plan”, or how an employee was able to successfully navigate a difficult conversation with a customer ‘on the spot’.

If you are providing a tangible item as a form of recognition (e.g., gift cards, books, cards, be sure to include a verbal or written message to highlight why they are receiving it, and also be mindful of the way in which the item may be perceived by your client or mentee. For example, you might send a gift certificate to their favorite healthy restaurant to celebrate the progress a weight loss client has achieved and to encourage them to enjoy a healthy meal out with family and friends, indicating that being able to eat out is part of a sustainable approach to healthy living. Books, especially those related to personal or professional development, could be great, but be aware of those that might send a message that “something is wrong with you, and you need to improve”.

2. If a client or mentee has been maintaining progress for a while with relative ease, and they express that they are confident in their new-found abilities, consider guiding them toward a more challenging goal.

Note that it is critical to ensure that the individual has been maintaining for a sufficient amount of time before asking them to do more or make a change. We don’t want to send the message that reaching one goal simply results in getting another, more difficult goal. We also want to ensure the individual both desires and feels they have the capacity to “step it up”, whether this means changing the process in a way to make it more flexible (e.g., introducing less structure or asking them to be more creative; relaxing the “rules”) or increasing the level or intensity of the outcome goal (e.g., taking on a new, more complex job responsibility or working toward a new personal best or “PR” in relation to sport or fitness activities).

Ultimately, as coaches, we need to adapt to the needs of our clients or mentees, and we need to be aware of how our coaching behaviors influence our clients or mentees. We need to be able to notice our own behavior, that of those we coach, and how both sets of behavior interact. While new clients and mentees might need more structure and guidance on the front-end, our goal should be to help them identify and develop a toolbox of strategies that allow them to be flexible in their approach. That way, when the hurdles that try to deter them show up, those we coach will be more likely to choose to act in a way that is values-aligned, even when that action isn’t specifically spelled out in their coaching plan.

So, my friends and readers, here is my challenge for you:

Design coaching plans and processes that are intentionally flexible.


Want to learn more about the core processes of psychological inflexibility? Check out the resources below:

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

ACT Mindfully website:

In my own work as a personal and executive coach, I work to guide individuals toward their goals as they develop skills to help them stay on track more often, meet current and future goals, and live a life that is values-aligned.

If you are looking to develop your own coaching skills in any of areas listed above, I’d love to discuss the opportunity work with you!

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