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Melvin Smith connects coaching mechanisms to long-term change

Melvin Smith offers insight into what motivates people to achieve long-term change. In his talk, Melvin describes various strategies coaches can use to help their clients reach desired outcomes.


Long-term change can be difficult for clients to achieve without supportive coaching


Coaches can use Intentional Change Theory to help clients achieve long-term goals


Coaching for compliance or compassion help clients see lasting change

Wisdom Weaver

Foundations of Intentional Change Theory

In his presentation at the 2021 Future of Coaching Convening, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Melvin Smith discusses coaching processes and mechanisms based on Intentional Change Theory. In 2006, Wisdom Weavers Dr. Richard Boyatzis and Dr. Anita Howard developed Intentional Change Theory (ICT), a five-stage process for making long-term change in oneself. Today, ICT helps individuals, teams, and even organizations achieve and sustain desired change.

According to Anita, emotions play a significant role in intentional change. She explains that emotions are response tendencies that prepare us for action when an event or experience requires us to change; they function almost as processing systems. The ICT process repeatedly activates a person’s positive emotional attractors (PEA), or ideal self, and negative emotional attractors (NEA), or real self, to generate positive and sustained change.

Coaches can use Intentional Change Theory to help clients achieve long-term change by:

  • Using positive emotional attractors (PEA) — affirming thoughts and feelings—to help the client achieve their ideal self
  • Engaging negative emotional attractors (NEA) — fear, anger, and disgust — to move a client away from the present behavior (the real self), keeping them from their ideal self

Positive and negative emotional attractors lead to lasting change

Melvin’s talk explores ICT to illustrate the different ways that coaches can guide clients to sustained life change. He notes that coaches unintentionally do many things “intended to be for good and to help an individual [reach] the desired outcomes, but actually block the process instead.” When choosing a strategy, Melvin urges coaches to keep in mind that “significant behavior change, as far as we know, is going to be more successful if one does it within a network of trusting, supportive relationships.”

The way coaches speak to clients and prompt them toward change creates a subconscious response. Using the ICT framework, Melvin illustrates how events and emotions trigger underlying responses in the brain, including the PEA and NEA. Richard defines PEAs as the “hopes, dreams, possibilities, strengths, optimism, and self-directed learning goals that make up our ideal self.” 

Melvin elaborates by explaining that PEAs naturally pull us towards long-term change through affirming thoughts and feelings, which also motivate people to continue the change process. These emotions prompt arousal in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which reduces anxiety and improves well-being and resilience while alleviating the effects of negative emotional experiences.

Conversely, Richard defines negative emotional attractors within the ICT framework as the “present reality, fears, problems, shortfalls, pessimism, and self-directed improvement goals that make up our real self.” Instead of pulling towards intrinsic change, the NEA pulls towards extrinsic change that stems from negative emotions. Melvin explains that some of these negative emotions include fear, anger, and disgust. 

The NEA is triggered when negative emotions express themselves as dissonant thoughts, feelings, memories, meaning, and concerns about self-efficacy in the real self. Unlike the PEA, this occurs within the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and neural circuits predominantly in the brain’s right prefrontal cortex. In this framework, NEAs are valuable because they call our attention to behaviors that compromise our effectiveness, threaten our safety, drain our resources, increase our stress, or require us to protect ourselves.

Researchers use PEA and NEA together in a multi-step approach to change

The activation of both the PEA and NEA through alternating cycles is a great way to manifest intentional change and its benefits. According to Anita, positive emotions enhance flexibility and creative thinking. Because of this, some of their most valuable benefits may occur when they interact with negative emotional states. Positive emotions reduce the tendency to develop a “maladaptive regulatory pattern,” such as rumination, after a negative event. 

Co-activation of positive and negative emotions also enables people to learn from adversity by generating positive psychological resources to process and learn from negative experiences. Through co-activation, Anita suggests that intentional change allows us to access a broader range of emotional knowledge. Both can enhance long-term change for clients instead of relying on only positive emotions or negative emotions to catalyze change.

Coaching for Compassion vs. Coaching for Compliance

Understanding the difference between PEA and NEA enables coaches to align positive and negative motivations toward achieving different goals. Melvin describes coaching for the PEA as “coaching for compassion,” which involves listening intently to the client while emphasizing the ideal self. In this way of coaching, an overall positive emotional tone is maintained and activated by positive triggers, such as evoking happiness, compassion, and mindfulness. 

However, triggering the NEA produces the effect of coaching for compliance. In this process, coaches accentuate external standards, pressures, and controls to activate a client’s negative emotions and to emphasize the real self. Melvin questions whether these frameworks are mutually exclusive and hopes future research will tell us more about how they might complement each other.

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

For coaches, implementing the best process is essential in fostering the optimum relationship with their clients, whether through coaching for compliance, coaching for compassion, or a different coaching process altogether. Understanding the coaching process aligns heavily with the United Nations Global Goal 3, to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages. In this way, coaches can create waves of positive changes through well-being by forming these relationships at their highest level.

About This Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations at the Shaping the Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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