Best behaviour

Much of our change effort has to be focused on ourselves. As Dr Johnson famously said: “He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless effort.”

There are three techniques described in this article. The first two use focus to provide insight and an impulse to change. Culpable vagueness helps learners to move from general statements to a clarity about what they want to do. Transforming vices into virtues uses appreciative inquiry to help learners see the value in a habit and to overcome its dark side.

The third technique is an in-depth approach for experienced helpers, working in an established relationship. Exaggeration is a technique we have used on occasion to enhance the will to change by seeing a habit through to its logical (and emotional) conclusion.

The first two techniques are helpful in focusing the learner on paying attention to their own behaviour.

Culpable vagueness

Some Buddhists suggest that there is a kind of vagueness that represents a moral position that can be criticised. This is when we use vagueness deliberately to avoid doing what we know needs doing. One way that coachees can do this is by keeping their intentions general. In these cases, the coach can help by getting specific.

Vice into virtue

This technique uses Appreciative Inquiry methods (Srivastva and Cooperrider, 1990) to address what is viewed as a problem by a two-stage process. First, build self-acceptance by helping the player to look at the positive side of the vice and, secondly, find and use a strength from elsewhere in the player’s life to build a solution based on what he already knows.


This third technique is not an activity for the faint-hearted. It is best used by experienced helpers in the context of a strong and established relationship.

It can be used to tackle behaviours that are deeply embedded in the individuals’ repertoires, where no amount of discussion will lead to any lasting change.

In these circumstances, it can sometimes be helpful to encourage the learner to exaggerate the behaviour and to see what that feels like. The case study of Bill offers our experience of using this high-risk, high-energy technique.

Exaggeration led a bully to change

Bill was a senior manager, who had been made aware of a number of behaviours which created a climate of fear among those who reported to him. His direct reports always fell into line, which was misinterpreted by Bill as a sign of team strength.

When he received feedback about his colleagues’ opinions, he was shocked and committed himself to changing his behaviours. A coach was appointed to help.

The coach initially tackled the problem by trying to understand the underlying beliefs on which Bill was operating. These boiled down to: ‘It’s my job to stop pointless debate’; ‘I’m paid to make sure people fall into line’; ‘This is the way I have always operated, and I’ve always got results’.

The coach also asked Bill what he enjoyed about his job. Among his key responses were ‘winning and getting my own way’.

Then the coach asked him to define the difference between that and being a bully. Bill was offended, but invited his direct reports to say what they really thought. None had the courage to do so, and he reverted to his previous behaviour.

The key that unlocked the door for Bill was a high-risk strategy, which the coach adopted in desperation.

“Let’s accept that your underlying beliefs are justified and appropriate,” said the coach. “Why don’t you play them out fully? Why not shout at people?”

Bill was invited to try these behaviours for a week. But when it came to the crunch, he found he couldn’t do it without becoming a gross parody of himself. After less than a day, he made a point of apologising to his entire team.

Acting out the caricature of himself stuck with him more effectively than any of the discussions. He began to actively work at not being that awful person, and commissioned a drawing of the ‘monster’ he could have become, and hung it on his office wall. The negative image gave him the emotional commitment to change his behaviour.

More techniques

This chapter is an edited extract from Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring by David Megginson & David Clutterbuck, published by Butterworth Heinemann. Readers of Training Magazine can get a 15% discount by going to and entering offer code AFF8.


Farrelly, F. and Bradsma, J. (1974). Provocative Therapy, Cupertino, California: Meta Publications

Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. L. (eds) (1990). Appreciative Management and Leadership: The Power of Positive Thought and Action in Organizations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Comments are closed.