When to Coach for Shallow Change

A Blog Post by Chad Hall

Kevin came into the coaching relationship eager for change – deep change that would create new contours in his character and prepare him for something big, bold, and life-altering.  I admired his willingness to look deep within himself and the humility behind his openness to not just do things differently but to be someone different.  However, as we progressed through the coaching relationship, something unexpected slowly emerged: Kevin needed shallow change.

You see, nothing was wrong or limiting about Kevin’s character.  He’s a good man with a deep love for God, a willingness to serve others, and a very high emotional intelligence.  It was out of his deep and good character that he embraced the notion that he was the one who needed to change.  But while his openness to change himself was admirable, it was off target.  He didn’t need to experience change deep in his character, he needed shallow change.

Deep change (aka transformation) comes when a coaching client strives to reach some new goal or realize some way of being only to find that getting somewhere new in life requires becoming someone new.  As coaches, we often long for clients who are open to deep change and we strive to be able to facilitate transformation.  Transformation comes from a new sense of self, an upgrade of the beliefs that hold the client, and the client’s new understanding of the story he is in and his role in the story.  Deep change is change inside the client.

In contrast, shallow change consists of the client changing the things around him, not in him.  Shallow change is easier in many ways.  It’s all about taking new actions in order to get different results.

Shallow change sounds, well, “shallow.”  It sounds like the kind of change that really doesn’t get anyone anywhere new, so as coaches we might be tempted to dismiss it as cheap, temporary, insignificant and therefore unwanted.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

Mature coaches know that all levels of change can be valuable.  In Kevin’s case, what prevented him from experiencing that big, bold, life-altering thing in his life had nothing to do with his character, and everything to do with simple actions he could take.  These new actions didn’t require some deep, seismic shift in his being, they just required a fresh approach and renewed motivation.  These new actions (shallow change) were just what Kevin needed in order to move forward.  Had we pushed and prodded for deep change, we would have wasted time and, more importantly, made less progress.

As coaches, we should be careful to avoid valuing deep change too much.  Believing there is greater value the deeper the change is a mistake, but it’s an easy one to make.  After all, we want to know that our coaching is making a difference and what greater difference can we make than to help a client experience transformation?  But transformation is only valuable when that’s what is warranted.  When deep change is not needed, a coach who pushes for transformation is really just pushing his own agenda.

To be clear, we (the coach) are not the ones who determine what is needed (and therefore what is most valuable) – that’s the client’s job.  So what is our role in coaching for change and determining what level of change is needed?  Here are three quick pointers on the question of our role:

  1. Coach at the surface, while listening for deeper options. When the client presents a surface issue, help him process it at that level while also being curious about what deeper shifts might be needed (key word: might).
  2. Explore deeper options with total curiosity and without leading. The professional-level coach almost always invites deeper exploration, but does so without pushing an agenda and always with openness and curiosity.
  3. Recognize that deep change results in (and requires) shallow change. When a deep change is warranted and is accomplished, don’t forget that such transformation produces new actions on the surface.  A change in one’s being almost always results in changes in one’s doing.

In my experience mentoring and training coaches, I’ve noticed that beginner coaches shy away from deep change because they assume it fringes into counseling.  As they grow, they see the value in deep change, but then are tempted to overdo it.  The mature coach invites deep change, creates space for it, but doesn’t overvalue it.

What about you?  What’s been your experience (as coach or client) with deep change and shallow change?  What signals do you look for that deep change might be needed?  How do you explore that need?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “When to Coach for Shallow Change

  1. Hi Chad! thanks for writing this article. Really appreciated learning about the difference between Deep Change vs. Shallow Change. It’s true, there have been times when I have coached and all I could think of was, could this be the deep change they are needing? but in reality, it’s so true, that any kind of change whether deep or shallow is valuable. If the conversation is leading to a deeper issue, I should be open and curious about what may be happening at the surface. If it’s about a shallow issue, I should be open and curious about what may be happening deeper within. It will go wherever the client wants to take it.

    I remember having a conversation where a client needed to find a way; in which, they did not bring work home and enjoy more rest and family time. They needed a shallow change in their life, so I was open and curious about what may be happening deeper within. They needed a New Approach. A Renewed Motivation. Is this correct Chad and am I approaching this correctly?

    Thanks CAM!

    • Hey Martin,
      The client could have needed shallow change — this would be the case if they had the motivation, but just needed an adjusted approach. But the client could also have needed deeper change — this would be the case if they needed a new approach, a new perspective, an internal shift to unlock new paths forward.

Comments are closed.