The “Thought Model” is a coaching model to steer a coaching conversation. It helps when the coachee wants to explore new ways of thinking about a problem, which in turn can lead to a changed behavior and the desired results. This post contains the digest of this model and a cheat sheet to ease the application in a conversation.
The Thought Model - Overview
The Thought Model contains the following elements:
- The Circumstances describe the provable facts about what happened.
- Example: Peter didn’t greet Mary when entering the room.
- Circumstances can trigger Thoughts.
- Thoughts are a sentence in our mind regarding the circumstances. It’s the meaning we give to the situation.
- Example of Mary’s Thought: “Peter is unfriendly and mean."
- Thoughts cause Feelings.
- Feelings are a (one-word) emotion.
- Example of Mary’s feelings: anger.
- Feelings cause Actions.
- An action is the behavior you exhibit.
- Example: Mary ignoring Peter.
- Actions cause Results.
- The results you get for your actions.
- Example: No collaboration between Mary and Peter which leads to poor teamwork.
The central link in the Thought Model is between our thoughts and the result we get:
The way we think drives the results we get.
Our thinking drives our results. Mary’s thought, “Peter is unfriendly and mean,” led to a lack of collaboration and poor teamwork between Mary and Peter. The thought model helps to reflect and reveal this essential connection.
The Thought Model is a powerful self-reflection tool, but it can also be used to guide our coachees in a coaching conversation. That’s what we will cover next.
Working with the Thought Model in a Coaching Conversation
Let’s see how we can use the Thought Model to navigate a coaching conversation. A full run-through contains two ways:
- Analyze the status quo by going forward through the model.
- Identify the underlying thinking and reveal the connection between the thinking and the results.
- Work backward through the model.
- Define the desired result and derive supporting thoughts.
Let’s dive into it:
You can download the cheat sheet PDF here. I printed the cheat sheet and put it on my desk so I always have guidance during conversations.
➡️ Forward: From Circumstances Over Thoughts to Results
Here is an example coaching conversation:
- The Circumstances
- Coach: “What happened? What are the facts/observable behavior?”
- Coachee: “Peter is always criticizing my work.”
- Identify the underlying thinking:
- Coach: “When Peter criticizes your work, what are you thinking? What are you telling yourself?”
- Coachee: “I think that’s unfair. Peter’s feedback is exaggerated and fussy.”
- Note that in real life, people have difficulty differentiating clearly between thoughts and feelings, and it might take the coach some follow-up questions to nail that difference.
- Also, people might mix up circumstances with their interpretations/thoughts. In this case, it helps to clearly ask to differentiate between the objectively observable behavior and the interpretation and assumptions they make when facing the circumstances.
- The Feelings
- Coach: “How do you feel when you are thinking that Peter’s feedback is unfair?”
- Coachee: “I feel anger”
- Their emotions are their responsibility, not someone else’s.
- The Actions
- Coach: “How are you acting when you feel anger?”
- Coachee: “I’m getting defensive and justify my work.”
- Their actions are their responsibility. Look out for the belief that their behavior has only to do with others and question that.
- Coach: “What results do you get when you are getting defensive?”
- Coachee: “Well, honestly, I don’t incorporate the feedback that would improve the product quality, and I avoid him, which leads to a poor relationship.”
↩️ The Turning Point
Once you have arrived at the actual results, you need to pause and put emphasis on the following findings:
- Help them notice their thoughts.
- Coach: “It’s important to notice your thoughts here. You are thinking that Peter’s feedback is unfair.”
- Make them realize how they think affects their results by summarizing what you’ve heard.
- Coach: “It’s crucial to understand how we think affects the results we get. You are thinking that Peter’s feedback is unfair and fussy. This contributes to your results: stuck product quality and a poor relationship between you. What do you think?”
- They can choose how to think.
- Coach: “The good news is that you can choose how to think. Let us work towards that in the next steps.”
- They can’t control others. But they can control what they believe about themselves - or who they want to be in this situation.
⬅️ Backward: From Desired Result to Supporting Thoughts
- Define the desired result.
- Coach: “What result would you like to have?”
- Coachee: “I would like to have a good relationship with Peter and improve the quality of our product.”
- Define supporting actions.
- Coach: “What do you need to do for a good relationship and keep improving your product?”
- Coachee: “Be open to his feedback and incorporate it. Also, have a genuine one-on-one conversation with Peter about how I perceive his feedback.”
- Define supporting feelings.
- Coach: “That’s great. And how would you need to feel to do that?”
- Coachee: “I need to feel positive towards Peter and his feedback.”
- Define supporting thoughts.
- Coach: “What do you have to believe/think to feel positive?”
- Coachee: “Peter is competent, has the best intentions, and wants the best for the product; so do I! We are aiming for the same."
- The Thought Model is not “just change how you think about a problem and then live with the situation.” Taking action toward the desired result is a crucial part of it. It’s about shifting to proactivity.
- As a coaching manager (when your coachee reports to you), you have more options than only working on the thinking of your coachee and letting them solve the problem on their own. Often, you have the power to change the environment, escalate issues, or address conflicts on your own. I see the Thought Model as one tool in my toolbox.
- In practice, it’s hard to keep the coachee on track. They may not answer questions concisely and get lost in their verbose explanations. Plus, they might struggle to differentiate between thoughts and feelings and might mix them up. In both cases, be persistent and repeat your questions to bring them back on track.
- Take your time. Don’t expect to do a full run-through within 5 minutes. The process is the goal and contains many interesting insights.
- Confirm the willingness to be coached before applying the thought model. Otherwise, it can be confusing for the coachee if you suddenly ask about their thoughts and feelings. You can ask, “Would you like to be coached?” or “Would you like to explore another way to get new results?”. If you get a Yes, the coachee is open and ready for your questions.
In my last blog post, I presented the Coaching Steering Wheel, another coaching model. When to use what?
- The Coaching Steering Wheel is a generic model for problem analysis and solving. It’s a reference and generic toolkit containing different coaching conversation tools. You can apply it whenever somebody describes their problem and challenges. You can follow the general guide (Problem, Result, Options, Actions) to navigate the conversation or pick suitable tools and questions and apply them in isolation in your coaching conversations.
- The Thought Model is for mindset coaching. That describes situations where your coachee has the skills to solve a problem but is unwilling to. When using the thought model, we want our coachee to develop a new way of thinking about an issue. Which, in turn, should lead to different behavior and the desired results.
I learned the Thought Model in the great Coursera course “Coaching Skills for Managers” by Kris Plachy. This post contains my summary and visualization of the approach and my experience when applying it.