Research Paper By Amy Sareeram
(Leadership Coach, CANADA)
How can clients create meaningful change in their lives? Meaningful change requires uncovering limiting underlying beliefs and creating new beliefs that enable forward progress.
Changing habits is difficult. We start with a great plan, initiative, and commitment. Then, something happens and we stop making forward progress or we revert into our previous ways. Why do we often fail? Deep-rooted emotions, thoughts, and behaviors often sabotage our efforts and prevent us from realizing our goals.
To effectively change a habit or behavior, we need to understand and reframe underlying beliefs, some that have been cultivated for years and often solidified through internal justification. Real, lasting change requires understanding ourselves, developing resilience to overcome the obstacles that present themselves, and creating new thoughts and beliefs to achieve our goals.
This paper will outline the steps for creating meaningful change and how they can be applied in coaching to empower clients to overcome internal obstacles to move forward and achieve their goals.
Change is a Process
One change model is the transtheoretical model (TTM), which has been traditionally used in health settings and consists of five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance.
- You have no conscious intention of making a change, whether due to a lack of awareness or information. To move past precontemplation, you must sense the thought or behavior is at odds with your goals.
- Contemplation. You are aware the behavior is a problem and has thought about the need to change. However, ambivalence or fear may lead you to weigh and re-weigh the benefits and costs. You need a motivating reason to move to the next phase.
- Preparation. You know you must change, believe you can, and are making plans to change.
- Action. You have started to take action to reach your goal.
- Maintenance. You are in a continuation phase. You start to experience challenges and may lose energy, focus, and commitment. In this phase, you need to leverage your motivation and engage in tools to bolster your resolve.
These steps have been depicted in academic literature as a spiral model or wheel. No matter what variation of the model, the key insight is this is not a one-time event. We do not change the behavior and then become “cured.” It takes continual focus and works for lasting change.
You may have heard the adage that after 21 days you have created the new behavior. This comes from “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a book published in 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, where he wrote: “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.” According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
Why is Meaningful Change so Hard: Uncovering Underlying Beliefs
We may have entered maintenance mode and then when significant progress has been made toward the goal, we suffer a setback. Why after two years of effectively balancing work and self-care, did Emily fall back into her old ways of prioritizing work over her health and family? Why did Ethan repeatedly not put in for new positions within his company although he continued to say he wanted a new job?
Effective long-term, meaningful change on hard issues requires more than just wanting to change and then coming up with actions. It requires systemic work to fully understand the underlying beliefs and thoughts that derail our actions to truly change our behavior. After becoming aware of these underlying beliefs, we need to create new beliefs and actively counter the old underlying beliefs or thoughts to move forward.
Beliefs are guiding principles that provide direction. Beliefs filter our perceptions of the world and help our brain interpret what is happening. These perceptions create our reality. Beliefs originate from what we hear and experience – and continue hearing from others. The sources of beliefs include environment, events, knowledge, and/or past experiences. We are aware of some of our core believes that affect our thinking.
Underlying beliefs are the values, thoughts, and judgments we hold about ourselves and others. They are formed over time by family, society, and experiences. Often, we are not aware of them and the influence they have on our behavior. These beliefs are ideas, thoughts, and assumptions we perceive as absolute truths. Though some beliefs are positive; others do not serve us and hold us back from pursuing our goals and living to our full potential.
One misconception is that a belief is static and cannot change. However, we have the power to choose and adapt our beliefs. Our memory creates thoughts and emotions that over time become established beliefs. Memories are not facts; rather they are filtered in our minds. This explains why different people have different memories of the same event.
Changing Your Beliefs and Creating New Beliefs
Research states 40-80% of what we do every day is automatic and not influenced by new thinking or new problem solving. This is useful for efficiency and safety; however, our automatic brain is not helpful when we want to change. Most routines satisfy the reward center of the brain and will be repeated until it is overpowered by the need to change.We have to actively work to manage our brain to change.
Research in the Indian Journal of Psychology has found the sensory inputs we receive undergo a filtering process as they travel across one or more synapses before they enter our conscious awareness. What portion of this sensory information enters is determined by our beliefs. Receptors on the cell membranes are flexible, so when we choose to change our thoughts, we become open and receptive to other pieces of sensory information blocked by our beliefs. When we change our thinking, we change our beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we change our behavior.
This is where we often struggle as many beliefs driving behaviors are unknown and appear as truths or facts to us. It is not sufficient to have a desire to change – we need to actively change our brain and thinking to affect real change.
Change Tools and Techniques
Many tools and techniques can assist in changing thoughts and behaviors.
Self-monitor. Once the underlying thought is exposed and known, individuals can use self-monitoring as a tool to recognize when the unhelpful belief or thought is occurring. Just knowing it is “popping up” is useful as you can then actively combat or reframe the thought. Noticing thoughts, emotions, or body sensations can serve as a great indicator. Journaling can also assist in identifying triggers and allow you to avoid or prepare for them in the future. Over time, noticing these events more quickly will allow you to reframe or counter them more effectively achieving a systemic solution. We must challenge ourselves in our thinking.
Use mindfulness to interrupt the series of thoughts. By devoting energy to deliberately stopping our brain from making the automatic connections and generating thoughts and feelings that support the undesired behavior, we can change the behavior. Actively pausing will create the space to stop the automatic response and refocus our minds to question our assumptions and evaluate how our response will contribute to our overall goal.
Act as a “third person” or witness to question thoughts and assumptions. This can be challenging for those with long-established beliefs as they may not be able to objectively see the situation. Coaching can be an effective tool here as coaches can assist clients to critically question their understanding of the situation.
- Is what I am telling myself really true?
- What makes me believe this?
- What evidence is there that this thought is accurate?
- What evidence is there that this thought is not accurate?
- What other ways could this information be interpreted?
Reframe the belief or thought to a positive one. Several methods and naming conventions could apply: Reinterpreting, Repositioning, Recontextualizing. However, the basic principle of releasing the negative underlying belief and changing how you view the situation is consistent.
Develop Positive Self-Talk. When we believe it, we can start to see it. Have a positive soundtrack ready to counter the belief or thought that limits you from reaching your goal. To be effective, develop this message in advance and anticipate what words and motivators will be needed to overcome what you will experience in your thoughts. Insightful self-awareness allows us to know what negative thoughts will likely appear and what will be most effective in powerfully silencing these thoughts. We must spend time outsmarting ourselves to ensure our positive self-talk is strong and sufficient to overcome these voices.
Application to Coaching
Beliefs that may have served clients well in the past; may no longer do so. Perhaps someone demonstrated great drive early in their career, worked extensive hours to establish themselves, and grow their reputation to achieve success. That belief of working non-stop to impress others was rewarded with promotions and money. After three decades of work, they now seek a better balance to enjoy life. They struggle with accepting they will still be regarded as competent and outstanding while working a normal workday to have the balance they seek.
Clients seek coaching either initially to create change in behavior or after they have tried and are not successful alone. By creating awareness of these underlying beliefs and thoughts, individuals can do the difficult work of reforming new beliefs and behaviors. Just stating we are going to start a new belief is not sufficient. We must also counter or question the original belief that was limiting us from moving forward.
Coaches do not go into the past to explore the source or root cause of these beliefs. Rather, coaches use the present and positive vision of the future to drive clients to challenge these beliefs and creating new beliefs that assist them with their goals. Coaches can help clients visualize their future and use that as motivation to change behaviors and thoughts. Assisting the client in identifying and leveraging their strengths can help a client move forward and overcome beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors to realize their goals and achieve their best self.
Studies have shown positive motivation is be more effective than negative drivers. Although coaches should not offer praise with judgment, enthusiasm, and support in the client’s progress is important to keep momentum in new behaviors and beliefs. This is critical not just when clients are starting a change, but can be even more important when they suffer a setback or encounter an obstacle that derails them. Focusing on the positive and successes to date releases the heliotropic effect – pulling us to the light (positive) versus the dark (negative).
Coaches should give hope in the future and continue to work with clients to define success with realism. By looking at successes, clients can gain confidence to continue improving. Routine coaching sessions can assist in the maintenance of changing behaviors and counter the resurgence of the long-established beliefs and thoughts that may occur.
Coaches can work with clients to identify tools and techniques that would best fit to implement/realize their goal. Coaches lead clients through the process of developing ways to apply various actions and hold themselves accountable. Clients know themselves the best and have a solid understanding of what is most likely to succeed. Ensuring clients identify ways to overcome obstacles provides them the tools and accountability to move forward.
Change is hard but with determination, perseverance, and resilience we can realize the change we seek. Coaches serve a needed role in exposing pitfalls in thinking, developing achievable paths to success, and providing accountability to achieve our best self.
Coaching with the Brain in Mind, David Rock, Wily, 2009
Practicing Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, Kim Cameron, 2012
“5 Steps to Changing Any Behavior, Alex Lickerman, M.D., Psychology Today, October 12, 2009
“Why it’s hard to change unhealthy behavior – and why you should keep trying” Harvard Medical School, August 2, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/
“How to Change Negative Thinking with Cognitive Restructuring”, Healthline, February 4, 2020https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-restructuring
International Coaching Academy: ICF Module – Underlying Beliefs, 2019
Questioning beliefs that cause suffering from beyond belief By Byron Katie, 2011
 International Coaching Academy, ICF Module: Underlying Beliefs, date
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2011
 On Second Thought, Wray Herbert, 2010