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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Helping People Change

Q&A on the Book Helping People Change

Key Takeaways

  • Coaches, managers, physicians, nurses, teachers, and parents inspire others in the pursuit of their dreams and the achievement of their full potential.  
  • We call this coaching with compassion because the emphasis is placed on helping and caring for another person, rather than imposing an agenda.
  • Helping others to truly achieve sustained, desired change requires developing a resonant relationship with them.
  • Asking someone a positive question awakens the positive emotional attractor (PEA), activating the parasympathetic nervous system and facilitating the learning process.
  • Our brains use two dominant neural networks: the analytic network (AN) which helps us focus, analyze, and make decisions, and the empathic network (EN), which helps us to be open to new ideas and others and to be creative, both of which suppress each other.


The book Helping People Change by Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten describes how you can coach people with compassion for sustained learning and change. It explains how connecting to people's vision and dreams and using the energy that that brings can help people grow in a meaningful way.

InfoQ readers can download chapter one of Helping People Change.

InfoQ interviewed Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten, about coaching with compassion, intentional change, inviting positive emotional attractors in people, personal visions, cornerstones of coaching, and establishing a culture of coaching.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Richard Boyatzis: When I was working as an aerospace research scientist in the 1960s, I recognized a big problem: managers weren’t very good at helping their direct reports to perform and grow.  As I looked into other professions – K-12 teachers, therapists, and corporate trainers – I found similar failings. So, in the 1980s I joined the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and began to study how effective coaching really works via dozens of longitudinal, hormonal and fMRI studies. Partnering with my friends and colleagues Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten, we have distilled those decades of research into this new book.

Melvin Smith: Writing a book has been a "bucket list" item for me since before I became a university professor. When I joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University and started working with Richard (and then later Ellen) teaching and writing about coaching to help people make sustained, desired change in their lives, I saw the significant impact it had, and knew that I wanted to work with the two of them to write a book on the topic.

Ellen Van Oosten: I’ve always been someone who is curious about what distinguishes effective, talented people from others and a believer that every person has unique gifts to contribute. What I observed over many years is that most people aren’t dialed in to who they really are, or the gold that lies within them that enables them to be distinctive and successful. People also aren’t often aware of their emotions and how they come across with what they say and the tone they use, yet both have an impact on relationships, results, and to a great extent, our happiness.

I’ve been working with Richard and Melvin for years as a professor, researcher and executive coach helping managers and leaders deal with these human struggles.  Using the ideas discussed in the book, I’ve witnessed people becoming more self-aware, developing better relationships and imagining a future filled with hope.  Writing this book has been incredibly meaningful because I know from experience and studies that our ideas have the power to truly help people to grow and develop. If even one person is inspired to make a positive change, it will have been worth the effort.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Smith: Although our focus as authors, researchers, and teachers happens to be on the coaching profession (executive, career, life, and peer coaching), we intend this book for many different audiences: executive coaches, managers, mentors, counselors, therapists, clerics, teachers, parents, athletic coaches, colleagues, friends, etc. Essentially, we have written this book for anyone who wishes to help others change. We truly feel that there are powerful messages in this book for almost everyone.

InfoQ: How do you define coaching?

Smith: We define coaching as a "facilitative or helping relationship with the purpose of achieving some type of change, learning, or new level of individual or organizational performance." [1] An alternative and useful definition comes from the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which defines coaching as: " … partnering with an individual or group in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." [2] Quite simply, however, we define coaching as helping people articulate and move toward the attainment of their ideal future.

InfoQ: How does coaching with compassion look and how does it differ from coaching for compliance?

Smith: Coaching with compassion involves setting the coaching context around a long-term dream or vision. People tend to draw energy from that vision and are then able to sustain their effort to change, even through difficult times. It also involves a genuine sense of caring and concern, focusing on the other person, providing support and encouragement, and facilitating the discovery and pursuit of their dreams and passions.

With coaching for compliance, on the other hand, the coach attempts to facilitate the person’s movement toward some externally defined objective. This is especially the case in business coaching and all too often for executive coaching, where a coach is hired explicitly to guide the executive or employee to meet specific criteria for success within an organization. Too often, when we try to help people, we focus on correcting a problem. That is a mistake, even when the person is the one bringing the problem to the coaching. This approach typically does not work well to truly motivate sustained learning and change.  

Boyatzis: When most people try to help others learn or grow, they try to fix the other person. It comes from the desire to help and a sense of urgency. But the way they go about it has the opposite effect. By focusing on a person’s problems and telling them how to act, think or feel, you make the other person defensive. Literally, you activate a network in the brain and hormonal system that closes the person down to new ideas and other people. The change or learning stops or has a short life (i.e., is not sustainable). We call this coaching for compliance because the intent is to get the other person to comply with your wishes, not their won. Regardless of the intent, it does not work, and behavioral change and learning research shows abysmal results, proving the low efficacy. The good news is that there is a better way, and our 30 years of longitudinal behavior research studies, fMRI and hormonal studies, proves it!

Van Oosten: Many managers make the mistake that they are coaching, when in reality they are giving advice or solving a problem, and in the end it’s coaching for compliance. It falls short of helping people change because as adults we don’t want to be told what to do. Mandated change never sticks. In coaching with compassion, the coach’s focus shifts to drawing out the other person’s ideas, reflections and suggestions.

InfoQ: In your book you described a model for intentional change. What does this model look like and how can we use it to help people change?

Smith: The model is based on the realization that significant behavioral change is not a smooth, linear process. Instead, it tends to occur in bursts or spurts, which are labeled in the model as discoveries. When helping people change, you essentially facilitate their journey through these discoveries, of which there are five. Coaching someone through the first discovery involves helping them get in touch with their Ideal Self, ultimately resulting in the articulation of a personal vision statement. This becomes the inspiration and motivation for the individual’s sustained efforts at making change. 

Helping someone with the second discovery entails assisting them in assessing where they are today relative to their vision of their ideal future. This is what we call the Real Self. Areas where the person is already aligned with who they want to be in the future are flagged as strengths. Areas where the person’s current and ideal future state are not in alignment are flagged as gaps.

The third discovery involves the creation of a Learning Agenda, ways in which the person is excited to learn and grow. This essentially becomes a plan for leveraging strengths and closing any gaps that exist, in an effort to move closer to the attainment of the Ideal Self. This Learning Agenda also incorporates the fourth discovery in the process, which involves Experimenting with and Practicing New Behaviors. In this discovery you help the person realize that in order to make change they have to begin to do some things differently than the way they have done them in the past. And, once they identify successful new behaviors that support their change efforts, they need to then practice those new behaviors until they have mastered them.  

Finally, coaching someone through the fifth and final discovery of the process, Leveraging Resonant Relationships to support the Change Effort, involves helping them realize that their change efforts will be greatly facilitated by seeking support from a network of trusting and supportive individuals who can assist them in each stage of the change process. We suggest thinking of this as a Personal Board of Directors.

Boyatzis: The "state" that allows a person to move from one discovery to another is called a tipping point. We have found from our research that arousing the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) more than the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) makes this forward movement possible, and enhances the sustainability of the learning or change.

InfoQ: In what ways can we invite positive emotional attractors in people?

Smith: There are a number of ways to invoke the positive emotional attractor in people. These include:

  1. helping them envision their ideal life in the future.
  2. helping them connect with their deepest and most important values that define who they are and want to be as a person.
  3. having them think about and focus on their strengths or areas where their life is currently in alignment with the vision they have for their ideal future.
  4. have them reflect on who has helped them the most in their lives to become the person they have become.

This tends to draw on a sense of gratitude, which invokes that positive emotional attractor.   

Boyatzis: Invoking hope, gratitude, and mindfulness works wonders in activating the PEA. The most direct way to invoke hope is to discuss a person’s dreams (i.e., their personal vision). The most direct way to invoke gratitude is to ask a person about who helped them the most in their life to become who they are. And to build a resonant (i.e., caring) relationship with them. The most direct way to invoke mindfulness is to ask people about their core values.

Van Oosten: Adding to what my colleagues have shared, we can also invoke the PEA by giving a person our undivided attention. At a fundamental level, people want to be understood and appreciated. They want to know that you’ve not just heard what they said, but have understood their point of view. So, listening with all of our senses to what’s being said and not being said and reflecting back that we respect what their perspective conveys, you show you care and that meets a basic human need.

InfoQ: How does discussing a personal vision differ from setting goals, and what's the effect of that?

Smith: Articulating a personal vision requires a person to think well into the future (i.e., at least 10 to 15 years). Ideally, this enables them to dream and not limit themselves due to current constraints or perceptions regarding feasibility. Dreams that are connected to values we hold dear, our deepest passions and purpose in life, are always there. Helping people identify their personal vision allows them to remember their long-held dreams and provides a platform from which they can take flight and become reality. When a person can allow themselves to dream in this way, they tap into the positive emotional attractor (PEA), unleashing passion and energy that fuels sustained pursuit of the vision.

Setting goals is normally shorter-term in nature and tends to be stress-inducing, invoking the negative rather than positive emotional attractor. This can actually close people off to new ideas and pathways to achieving what they hope to achieve, thus decreasing the likelihood of actually attaining the goals. Goal setting can also constrain our thinking. This is why we stress the importance of focusing on dreams, not just goals.  

Boyatzis: When you ask people about goals, and they set specific targets, they immediately move into having to prove that they can do it. This sets up a defensiveness. Research over the last 30 years, as well as more recent neuro-imaging research, shows that this defensiveness results in less sustainable progress toward any change, like setting New Year’s Eve resolutions. Some types of personalities find specific goals motivating, but most do not. They provide benchmarks along the way, but are not motivating in and of themselves.

Van Oosten: What becomes possible when helping a person discover and articulate their personal vision is that they are able to convey with new clarity what they really want to do and who they desire to be in their work and life. This is at a different level than goals which tend to be more discrete and short-term. These questions require a person to look deeply within and be honest and imaginative to consider and see new possibilities. The process is often iterative and occurs more in fits and starts, so the role of the coach is to facilitate conversations that inspire others to reach for the very best of themselves and to envision a different future.

InfoQ: What are the cornerstones of coaching?

Smith: Two cornerstones of coaching with compassion are helping a person articulate and then pursue their ideal vision for their future as we have discussed, and establishing what we call a resonant relationship with the person. This involves creating a positive emotional tone in your interactions with them and making a genuine authentic connection, which requires deep listening and empathy.

Van Oosten: Effective coaching rests on the existence of a trusting, supportive relationship between the coach and the coachee. We offer three keys to help build and nurture a quality coaching relationship. First, believe that individual change is a process, not an event. Growth and development take time. In pursuit of new habits, it takes practice and feedback to think and behave differently.

Second, consider your approach to coaching as a chance to mine for gold, not dig for dirt. Contrary to common belief, people don’t learn by focusing on fixing weaknesses or shoring up gaps.  People learn in a safe, trusting environment and from a position of strength. Excellent coaches approach coaching conversations looking for the gold within every person.

Third, consider that the agenda for the conversation should come from the person being coached. This means that, although the coach is the keeper of the overall process, the fundamental reason for the process is to help the other person — not for the coach to share his advice or experience. So, keep the agenda flexible and meet others wherever they are.

InfoQ: How can we coach people when the topics to coach on are changing along the way?

Smith: That is part of the beauty of this approach of coaching with compassion. Once you work with the person to articulate their dreams and personal vision for the future, everything else is situated within that context. You can, and often do, end up coaching to multiple topics along the way. They key is keeping the various topics anchored to the person’s vision of their ideal future. That is what continues to provide the motivation for sustained effort toward whatever changes they are seeking to make.  

Van Oosten: In addition, truly partnering with an individual to help them move from point a to point b toward their vision requires the coach to be fully present, dialed in to the person’s thoughts and feelings and willing to adapt the plan. It’s not about imposing a process or steps. Learning and growth doesn’t happen linearly; it happens through epiphanies or discoveries, so it’s common for the conversations to be organic and even elliptical in nature.

InfoQ: What can be done to establish a culture of coaching in an organization?

Smith: There are actually a number of things you can do, and that we have done, to help an organization build a culture of coaching. One thing is to help them understand the benefit of using external coaches for certain coaching needs within the organization, but also helping them see the value of developing internal coaching resources.  Another thing that can support this effort is to develop the coaching capacity of managers and executives in the organization and to help them take on more of a coaching mindset. They key is to have them view coaching as a key aspect of what they do as leaders in the organization. Finally, something that is emerging as a very powerful way to build and support a culture of coaching within organizations is the use of peer coaching. Providing individuals at all levels of the organization with the skills, supporting structures and opportunities to informally coach one another, whether one-one-one or in small groups, is proving to be a useful way of spreading coaching throughout the organization, and changing the types of conversations that individuals are having with one another in a positive way.


[1] For more on the definition and evolution of coaching, see M. Smith, E. Van Oosten, and R. E. Boyatzis, "Coaching for Sustained Desired Change," in Research in Organization Development and Change, vol. 17, ed. Woodman, W. Pasmore, and A. Shani (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 2009), 145–174; and Boyatzis, R.E., Smith, M. & Beveridge, A. (2013). Coaching with Compassion: Inspiring Health, Well-Being and Development in Organizations. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 49:2, 153-178.

[2] ICF Definition of Coaching, 2018; retrieved from here.

About the Authors

Richard Boyatzis is a distinguished university professor at Case Western Reserve University and an adjunct professor at the international ESADE Business School. He is coauthor of Primal Leadership, Resonant Leadership, and Becoming a Resonant Leader (Harvard Business Review Press).

Melvin Smith is a professor and the faculty director of executive education at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.


Ellen Van Oosten is an associate professor at the Weatherhead School of Management and director of the Coaching Research Lab, which she founded with Richard Boyatzis and Melvin Smith in 2014.

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