Navigating the change paradox in executive coaching

Change paradox image

Have you ever started a coaching engagement with an individual who is pushing for an ambitious change, only to quickly realise that an invisible force is resisting development? In this post, I explore how the change paradox could be a helpful concept for executive coaches to help unlock change.

The Change Paradox

The “Change Paradox” is a concept with foundations in Gestalt psychotherapy written about by Arnold Beisser in his article The Paradoxical Theory of Change. Put simply, it states that it is only when you stop trying to force yourself to change that you allow yourself to be in a state to grow and develop naturally.

As an example, there are two clients I have worked with recently where the change paradox was present in mind. A recent senior leader within the insurance sector wanted to be more strategic and better able to prioritise her time. Another, a partner in a consulting firm, wanted to have more impact in internal meetings.

When we explored these goals further, as is often the case these areas of focus were not new to either of them. And yet they both felt that the harder they pushed themselves to change, it was as though there was a force pushing against them, entrenching them where they were. They had always approached it from the perspective that they needed to fix their perceived deficiencies.

The process of setting goals draws on concepts from psychology and personal development. The idea being that once we identify a clear destination, that perceived gap from where we are creates the energy or momentum for movement.

It was with the change paradox in mind that our work focused on exploring where they were and understanding their journey to get there. We devoted time to appreciating what they bring that is unique to them as we looked at how they sometimes do things that ‘get in their own way.’ It was at this point that, in both cases, something unlocked and they were able to make some changes that were important to them.

What does this mean for us coaches?

So, what does this mean for future coaching assignments? Will I be skipping the goalsetting process from now on? Not at all. My belief is that it is still of value and importance to identify the direction of movement and where the individual would like to get to.

However, there is a risk that the focus becomes solely on what they ‘are not’ and how they ‘should be’ and so, remembering that unless we spend some time appreciating accepting our current position, we may not be giving change the best chance.

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