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Coaching: developing behavioural alternatives

by NSS EPALE Nederland
Taal: EN

Kees van Rijn

A new market for welfare and well-being?


To me, coaching means that someone comes to me with an issue and that in a safe and open setting we try to get to grips with his particular behaviour, what's motivating it and the effects. The next step is to explore possibilities for learning to develop alternative behaviour that maximises his personal qualities both in and outside his work situation.


For a while now I have been wondering whether I still want to call myself a coach. Coaching is rife with models, methodologies and protocols (1) and, these days, it seems like there are coaches for just about everything. In sports, coaching is a fundamental concept, but now we've also got birth coaches, marriage and young life coaches, depression and burnout coaches, language coaches, laughter coaches and birthday coaches. Does this mean people are becoming increasingly incapable of resolving questions, problems and challenges they come up against on their own? Or are we, to paraphrase Achterhuis (Achterhuis, 1979), creating a ‘new market for welfare and well-being’ and are we cultivating dependency on as many fronts of life as possible?


We need a reality check. Life is not a Facebook page, it's not a succession of YOLO moments (2), and you can't ‘succeed’ and ‘feel joy’ every minute of your life. People experience difficulties, disappointments, sadness and pain. Not because they deserve it, but because those are a part of ‘real life’.


The search for alternative behaviour

Clients know very well that they still have things to learn, obviously, otherwise they wouldn't seek out a coach. Often, situations at home or at work make it necessary for us to develop a new facet of ourselves. The reality, for many people, is that some facets are more honed than others. And sometimes the development is one-sided (Stone and Stone, 2011; people develop a preferred behaviour, a behaviour they have manifested for many years already. They might have adopted it as a child and relied on it to carve out their own place in the world (Ladan, 2005). Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that. But there comes a time when they find that this behaviour no longer suffices. That their recipe for success isn't doing the trick. This learned behaviour no longer serves them and so they go out in search of alternatives (Malone and Malone, 1987).



Searching for alternative behaviour does not imply that the original behaviour is or was wrong. It has brought the client where they are today. As a coach, I want to ‘see’ clients, I want to value them as they are, with all their personal qualities and strengths and weaknesses. The focus is not on their shortcomings. In my experience, and I firmly believe this, people are capable of more than they believe. The ‘trick’ is to meet people at whatever juncture they find themselves at any given point in the coaching and to adjust to their pace and manner of learning. It all revolves around the individual, not around the phase of coaching, how much time is available or the model being used, and certainly not on social disciplining in the sense of conforming to the environment, at work or otherwise (3).



You have to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ (Covey, 1990, p. 237), which calls for ‘unconditional positive regard’ on the part of the coach (Rogers, 1961, p. 47). In other words, for attention, empathy and authenticity. It's the job of a coach to facilitate learning, to provide a safe space in which to learn. And a coach is never finished developing either. He needs to have a deep knowledge of himself and to re-examine his actions and insights on a regular basis through courses, with colleagues or a therapist.


Self-image and labels

Client A did a management degree and has asked for help because he is unable to put that knowledge into practice. He has been taught that he's ‘red’, which is to say decisive. This is a trait that is deemed desirable in the organisational culture, and he himself is also keen to be decisive. He is struggling with how to put this into practice, however, because it turns out he is not quite as red as he thought.


Reflecting on the image that this client has of himself and the image that others have of him feeds into the learning process. Reflection becomes more difficult when clients describe themselves in terms like ‘I can't help it that I'm a perfectionist’ or a ‘control freak’ or a ‘pleaser’ or ‘I'm red’. At some point they were stuck with this characterisation as a way to help them look at themselves, but that characterisation has devolved into a label, a ‘distortion’ (Ofman, 2006). It has begun to lead its own life. The danger is that people adjust their behaviour to fit the label, especially if it is one that appeals to them. ‘I am red’ is a static outlook on human existence and can be used as an argument not to change. It also leads to other people seeing you through that same lens. If you want to change, for instance because you're not as ‘red’ as you thought, then you not only have to grapple with your own self-image, but also have to ‘shatter’ that image: you have to change the image that you and others have. Speaking from my own experience, that's not easy.


Now, there's nothing wrong with being a ‘pleaser’ or a perfectionist, as long as we also look farther. With clients, we look together at the quality underpinning the label and at the qualities that have been stifled by it. We can then identify those qualities and the client can work on strengthening or evolving them.


Three levels of learning

From the system described by Argyris (1999), I have distilled three levels that can aid in strengthening or developing qualities. These are three different levels at which people can expand their behavioural repertoire; namely:


Single-loop learning: this concerns learning what you are doing and then analysing the problem and trying to solve it and adjusting your actions on that basis. This type of learning takes place at the visible, concrete behavioural level. You act a certain way and that action has a particular effect. By assessing if the effect is desirable, you can decide whether or not to change your behaviour.


Client B is a self-aware person who has noticed that the way she expresses herself has an adverse effect on customers. She wants to learn to be less direct, to use more words and to be less blunt. A few tips can help her on her way.


Double-loop learning: this is learning about how you do something. If a client wants to change a habit for good, they have to grasp the underlying patterns that shape the habit. If you know the mechanism behind how you do something, you can change it, looking at which behavioural alternatives fit your new understanding.


Client C discovered that he had become more accommodating in his family after the birth of his handicapped sister, and that as a professional he continues to adopt an accommodating attitude towards his colleagues.


Triple-loop learning: this is learning about why you do something. Here, you want to get to grips with the real, deeper motivation for why you want to change your behaviour and what has until now prevented you from doing so. Triple-loop learning often results from a clash between values – between our own values that we hold dear and the values of others with which we find ourselves confronted.


Client D is a marketeer. He is wondering how he can boost his self-confidence in his work. During coaching he discovers that this question is not really coming from within himself, but that he is articulating his employer's view of his work. The question doesn't fit him, and neither does the organisation. He finds another job, one that aligns with his values of ‘openness’ and ‘collaboration’ instead of acting at the expense of others. The real issue was not self-confidence in itself, but that it was difficult to sustain in the precarious context.


No one of the three levels of learning is better than the others. The point is to ascertain which level is suited to the learning problem and learning objective at the given time and in the given situation, not going deeper than necessary.



Even when clients know that developing a different behaviour would help them, letting go of some of those old behaviours and changing can be scary (or in any case stressful). They don't know – at least, not yet – how the new habit will pay off for them and those around them. Resistance (4) is a natural response. You experience resistance for a reason, and it's OK. If a coach gives it this positive outlook, he can adjust his approach and create room for learning (Van Rijn, 1987, p. 47). For the coach, resistance is above all a signal not to push. Sometimes I notice that I want to go faster than a client wants or is able to. This only increases his resistance, leading to defensive reactions and quelling their curiosity to look at themselves in new ways and to learn.



In my coaching, I draw on a diversity of insights and theories. But Carl Rogers' affirmation, ‘I don't have to be a Rogerian’ (5), echoes my sentiments exactly. My method depends on the client and therefore differs in approach, duration and frequency. As a coach, my premise is, ‘the sooner I'm gone, the better’.


The emphasis of my work is not on learning to succeed. That said, rediscovering the joy of living often is one of the effects of learning and of being able to perform better. I create an open and relaxed atmosphere in which the client feels free to learn and to experiment. And we also laugh, of course. Being able to make light of yourself and of practising not only takes off some of the pressure but also makes learning more fun.


My work is about contributing to clients' development. I am fully aware that clients also learn a great deal outside of coaching, and that my role is a momentary one. As a coach, I make a brief appearance in the lives of my clients; I'm a passer-by.


Kees van Rijn studied sociology and andragology at VU Amsterdam, and subsequently at WILL Europe (CH), Vin Rosenthal (Wilmette, USA) and Lex Mulder (psychodrama). He has held posts at VU Amsterdam, Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Dutch Ministry of Finance. Since 1989 he has worked as an independent management trainer and organisational consultant at a wide range of organisations (both profit and non-profit). He is also part of the van Rijn & van Rijn bv network in Amsterdam (


‘For me, happily, there's never an end to learning. My emphasis is primarily on learning “how to be” and less on learning “how to do”. In the words of Malone and Malone (1979, p. 170): “In terms of human beings, the crucial ingredient that nature seems to have provided for us is our insistent, driven, tropic need to complete our being, to search for strangeness.”




1. From ‘Coaching with NLP’ in 2005 to ‘Provocative coaching’ and ‘Systematic coaching’ in 2016. One of the best known and bestselling books on coaching is Coaching for Performance by J. Whitmore, first published in 1992, centring on his GROW model.

 2. YOLO: You Only Live Once.

 3. When clients are referred by their employers, I make this clear to them, and so the outcome of the coaching could be that the employee goes in search of a new job.

 4. My definition of resistance is ‘a response that people have to a change or a possible change that they expect will have (positive or negative) consequences for them’.

5. I heard Carl Rogers say this in a workshop in the 1980s.




Achterhuis, H. (1979). De markt van welzijn en geluk. Baarn: Ambo.

 Argyris, C. (1999). On Organizational learning. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

 Covey, S.R.(1990). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Fireside.

 Ladan, A. (2005). Walking heads. On the secret fantasy of being an exception. Boston: Other   Press.

 Malone, P.M. & Malone, P.T. (1987). The art of intimacy. New York: Prentice Hall.

 Ofman, D. (2001). Core Qualities. A Gateway to Human Resources. Schiedam: Scriptum B.V.

 Rogers, C.R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

 Stone, H. & Stone, S. (2011). Embracing our selves. The voice dialogue manual. Novato: New World Library.

 Van Rijn, K. Der Umgang mit Widerstand in der Trainingsarbeit; eine andere Perspektive. In: Gruppendynamik 18. Jahrg. Heft 1. 1987 S. 47-60. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.



This article has been translated by EPALE Netherlands from the original in Dutch on

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