Using creative methods within the coaching session

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Albert Einstein

One of the key development themes often brought to supervision by trainee coaches is developing their confidence in using creative exercises and techniques with their clients.

This is natural, as when learning anything new, we need to move through the development phase of mirror, signal, manoeuvre (feeling clunky) and this is achieved through practice. In addition, in the early phases of training to become a coach you are developing your capacity to be present and shift into a more non-directive approach to access the client’s deeper resources.

Fundamentally, you are learning to help in a different way; helping the coachee help themselves, which takes time. When this core skill is embedded, coaches can then turn their attention to learning to create more challenge within the coaching session to support the learning stretch (this is of course being supported by the depth of relationship and trust).

One of the ways coaches can create more challenge is using creative exercises within the coaching session. As per the Einstein quote above, the act of introducing a novel experience takes the coachee out of their comfort zone (their normal mode of thinking, behaving and operating), which enables them to take more risk and access their creativity and their unconscious.

This also shifts coaching into the domain of transformation — it facilitates an embodied and energetic shift of the coachee.

“One of the keys to neuroplasticity is novelty. Things that are new or unexpected get our attention and cause a release of a chemical in the brain that makes new neural connections possible. By evoking transformation we step out of our comfort zone and take risks….”

Ann Betz and Karen Kimsey-House

This experimentation requires courage on behalf of the coach, as they will often be stepping into their own vulnerability, by taking a risk whilst holding the coachee’s vulnerability too. Without confidence in themselves (and trusting the client and the process), they may become overwhelmed by the uncertainty of not knowing.

“Vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”

Brene Brown

The coach’s confidence in using these methods can only come from practice and is often lacking from not practising with clients. Remember the right opportunity to use a technique will not magically appear — seeing the opportunity comes from practice.

One of the main barriers for coaches in being creative is often their beliefs around the use of such techniques with leaders and corporate clients: “I just do not think they will be open to trying an exercise like this.” Yet, when the coach is well practised and very congruent with the techniques, these beliefs often disappear.

I will always remember coaching a senior leader early on in my coaching career. In session 1, we were working on a difficult peer relationship and I recall how I thought at the time that chair work would be very supportive in terms of connecting her with the peer’s perspective.

In that moment though, I held back as it was early on in the relationship and I was not sure how far I could push her. At session 3, I did the exercise, and when we were debriefing her learning she said “that was so helpful, how come we did not do that in the first session?”

This was one critical learning moment that has helped challenge the assumptions I held about working with clients creatively.

Another such experience was contracting with a Chief Finance Officer, exploring what I could do as a coach that would result in the relationship not working. He replied, “well if we are just going to sit here and you listen and ask me questions, that will not work, I’ve had so much coaching like that, I want you to work differently with me. I sit down in meetings all day!”

These days, when working with clients at the start of the relationship, I now contract with them about my approach and how I use creative methods when it is appropriate — with the intention of maximising their learning as we work together. This normalises the technique for the coachee, sets expectations (the psychological contract), gives me permission to work in this way and it helps me calibrate their readiness for such an intervention.

“Change takes place at the boundary, at the intersection of what is familiar and what is different.”

Mary Ann Rainey Tolbert and Jonno Hanafin

Of course, when working creatively, we are calibrating and responding to the coachee’s needs in the moment. The art of coaching is knowing how to introduce the novel and grade the experience, so that it is not too different — too much “woo woo” for the coachee can close them down.

A helpful model to consider here is the Perceived Weirdness Index (PWI) – see Figure 1 below:

Perceived Weirdness Index
Figure 1: Perceived Weirdness Index

The Perceived Weirdness Index (PWI) provides coaches with a model to consider how different (novel / weird) a coach or an experience is in relation to a system.

As coaches we will model and develop an experience for the coachee to create a different way of being, thinking, and behaving in the session. At the same time, if the coach (or the experience) is too different (a high PWI), the effectiveness will be reduced. It is likely the coachee will instead focus on the coach / coaching (as they have become an interference) rather than the topic they are working through.

When we are working with a coachee, we calibrate their readiness and the trust in our relationship so we can decide on what experience to create whilst not being too different.  This enables us to grade an exercise – see Figure 2 below:

Grading the experience
Figure 2: grading the experience

Our top tips on using creative techniques in the coaching session

In summary, here are our top tips for coaches for working with creative methods:

  1. Develop your confidence and trust in any exercises that you want to integrate into your coaching. Remember confidence comes from practice – peer practice is one way to do this, where you can receive valuable feedback from an informed coachee. Recording yourself working creatively and reviewing this with the support of a supervisor is another great way to do this.
  2. Remember that coaching is about being present not perfect. When I have learnt a new technique, I am open about the fact that I am offering this as something that I have just learnt that I believe will help a coachee’s thinking about a topic, and suggest “trying it out.”
  3. Build working creatively into your contracting from the outset – this way you will normalise the process, calibrate your coachee’s readiness for it and gain permission to work in this way.
  4. In the moment, consider the relationship with your coachee and whether it is strong enough – do they trust you?
  5. Consider the timing of the exercise within the session: do you have enough time to fully work through the experience, debrief your coachee’s learning and close the session effectively?
  6. What is your intention for offering this? Who is it for? What is it for? A model or exercise is always offered with the intention of shifting the coachee’s relationship with a topic (deepening awareness, responsibility and choice) and creating an embodied and felt shift.
  7. Consider the PWI – the exercise offered needs to challenge the coachee and not overwhelm them. The art of coaching is knowing how to grade the exercise (from a conversational input to a full embodied experience – e.g. chairwork). Sometimes we might need to warm the coachee up first in one session and build towards an embodied experience in a later session.
  8. As an exercise is offered, it is important the coachee experiences us as being non-attached, so choice remains with the coachee — as otherwise can they truly say no?
  9. A succinct explanation of why a technique is being offered will be helpful to create buy-in; too much explanation about its background can become an interference (if the coachee is interested, you can always share more information about the technique at the end of the session).
  10. When working creatively and embodied, be prepared for the coachee to connect with their emotional knowing. We always encourage coaches to work on their capacity to hold this – see our blog post on managing emotion within the coaching session for more details on this.
  11. During the exercise itself, if we are not sure how much value the coachee is gaining, instead of mind reading, spot contract and check-in with the coachee. Then based on the coachee’s response, you have a choice to push them and continue or let it go without attachment.

For further information about working with creative methods within the coaching session, I recommend watching our webinar on the topic below.

YouTube video


  • Use of Self in OD Consulting: What Matters is Presence – Mary Ann Rainey Tolbert and Jonno Hanafin

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