Using cognitive behavioural coaching to deal with negative thinking

Using cognitive behavioural coaching to deal with negative thinking

18 March 2016

Gladeana McMahon is a leading coach, therapist and author, and one of the UK founders of Cognitive Behavioural Coaching.

There are a number of methods, based on Cognitive Behavioural Coaching strategies, that can be used to dispute negative thoughts.  

Don’t expect clients to immediately change their thinking. Like a ‘dripping tap method’, you keep on challenging from as many angles as you can. As with all coaching, some people get things more quickly than others. Persistence pays.

1.  Socratic Questioning

Use carefully chosen questions to lead the client to see the inconsistency or illogic of his/her thinking style. For example;

Coach: ‘What would you say if I asked you to run the London Marathon tomorrow without any training?’

Client:   ‘No way’.

Coach: ‘So how come you think you can change your behaviour and thinking overnight without any practice or training?′

Client:  ‘I guess it is a bit unrealistic.′

2. The Didactic Approach

This involves teaching clients the reasons why self-defeating thinking is unhelpful. Use anything relevant.  For example, your knowledge about how we are conditioned to think and behave in certain ways and never get around to challenging these ideas as we see them as normal until we take them apart.  You could use academic or research information to bring home a point.

3. Using Humour

Once a good working alliance has been formed, humour can be used. For example, “I know those cream cakes just jump off the tray and into your mouth before you know it!”  Humour is a powerful tool if used correctly and positioned well.

4. Metaphorical Approach

Using metaphors and language based on the client’s own experience. For example, if you were working with a computer programmer you might say, ‘sounds like the programme has gone a bit haywire’.

5.  Appropriate Self-Disclosing

As and when appropriate, the coach might self-disclose some personal but appropriate information to illustrate a point. For example, ‘I know it can be hard as I still have to work at challenging my own self-defeating thinking.’

After you have identified the client’s self-defeating thinking and/or irrational belief the coach needs to begin the process of challenging or disputing this thinking.

In addition to the above there are three types of disputations commonly used in Cognitive Behavioural coaching.  These being:

1.   Logical

This argument tends to follow the line that although a client may prefer something to be a certain way, it does not logically follow that these conditions must exist. For example, if dealing with someone who beats herself up for making mistakes you could say, ‘Just because you would like never to make a mistake, how does it logically follow that you must not make a mistake?’

2.    Empirical (evidence based)

This type of argument is based on finding evidence to support the belief, for example, ‘Where is the evidence that you must not make a mistake otherwise you are a failure?”  When using evidence based disputation (challenges) you can get the client to look at what is and by sticking to the facts, this can provide a challenge.  Another example would be, “you say you are a failure; however you have a variety of qualifications and are a successful CEO.  Help me out, if you are a failure how comes you have been successful at a range of activities?”

3.    Pragmatic

The third type of argument is based on helping the client see how his or her current style of thinking is making them feel unhappy and can only lead to more problems. For example, ‘even if it were true that making a mistake means being a failure, do you feel better or worse for believing it?’ This is a case of whose interests is it in to continue doing something that does not work.

You can find out more about Cognitive Behavioural Coaching at

Gladeana McMahon, FAC, FBACP, FIMS, FISMA, FRSA.

Chair Emeritus, Association for Coaching, Training Consultant, FRC.