We pick so many things in life, from kinds of breakfast cereal to life partners.

Where does a coach fit on this continuum from minuscule, impersonal objects to relationships that in many ways “make or break” our happiness? Well, if you are like most of the brains I work with there is a true answer and there is an answer that we go with. Arguably, on one level, of course a coaching relationship carries more weight than choosing between the myriad of cardboard, sugar-infused delights that line a whole side of a grocery aisle. But do we actually decide based on this rational distinction? My experience says no way, for my firm’s research shows that most coaches are picked from an instinctual, emotionally-based center that feels right yet carries with it significant errors. Don’t believe me? Try this test*:

1)  A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

2) If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

*Cognitive Reflection Test, Shane Frederick

Got your answers written down? You would be surprised that fewer than half of the students at the top 8 ranked universities in the U.S. got these answers right (you can view answers at bottom of the article). Certainly intelligence and rational thinking is not lacking with such a premium sample of minds. What is going on? The brain is what is going on. We are susceptible to cognitive biases that elude our conscious awareness, and if they are present in such non-reactive, non-“unconscious trigger” areas like balls, widgets, and lily pads, can you imagine the whirlwind of illusions underneath a choice of a coach?

I share this example with you to make the case that before one chooses a coach, one has to unchoose their sense of reality as they know it —including the problem to be supposedly “solved” with your coach. This humility on the largest of scales is usually forgotten in this self-improvement process, for there is always the “perfect storm” brewing:

  1. An eager client with tons of data to show what needs to be done
  2. A well-intentioned coach with a game plan that he/she truly believes will help
  3. An objectively “meaty” concern or goal area to address

And when these dynamics are brewing, the brain will typically make a coach choice based on some of the following “brain loving” factors that make it feel like it ‘got a match”:

  1. Low threat/anxiety
  2. Dissonance-reducing logic (i.e., coach shares things that make sense)
  3. Makes you feel at ease/comfortable
  4. Reduces fear of unknown/ambiguity with a ‘game plan’
  5. Satisfies trust through the credibility lens (i.e., sharing of testimonials)

Though it is possible the coach who demonstrates these unconscious “hooks” does indeed have what it takes to satisfy you in your coaching needs, my experience as a master coach trainer and thought leader in both the neuroscience and behavior change worlds has shown these are both woefully inadequate and highly satisfying to the unconscious systems of the brain. Therein lies the coaching pickle.

To properly immunize yourself from these fundamental biases is quite difficult but not impossible. Developing a meta-cognitive (i.e., thinking about one’s thinking) strategy that helps you truly discern the fluff from the substance is critical.  And so, to help with this, I lay out below what I believe are the critical factors to maximizing the coach selection choice for your ultimate success:

  1. The presence of training in, yet “loose attachment to” psychopathology, specifically personality based issues-Coaching has appropriately distinguished itself as the development profession for the “well” but how much of this distinction is a mere theoretical comfort when near 30 million Americans meet the criteria for a personality disorder (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/08/040803095121.htm). Sure, treating Axis 1 disorders like depression and anxiety, with stronger biochemical correlates, have always been the purview of shrinks but it is the high functioning personality disorder that eludes both the therapist and the coach in many cases, for they will enter both gates with equal probability and ignorance
  2. Decision making science background – No, a coach doesn’t need to be a cognitive neuroscientist or a behavioral economist, but they must show you evidence that they can handle the irrationality of goal setting. If you find they are speaking mostly from their rational brain about “just doing this, and just doing that”, be wary.  See if they come to the table with a plan to handle your innate irrationality or do they align too much with your apparent motivation to change.
  3. Dialectics and Second Order Change – A dialectic is “a process of change in which a concept or its realization passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite.” Why is this critical? Because so much of coaching makes sense. And that is the both the promise and the problem. Does the coach show you their ability to see both the solution you seek and beyond it, for many times what we really want lies beneath our language and into the uncomfortable world of paradoxes. “No problem will ever be solved on the same level of thinking it was created on, “as Einstein said so well.
  4. Positive Psychology in a Balance – Does your coach oversell the positivity of coaching or do they properly place the world of “positive emotion” in its balanced, proper place? Be wary of too many citations of their explicit awareness and commitment to the world of positive psychology, for although it has its place, always remember happiness lies in the waiting room of happiness. If positive psychology isn’t in the waiting room, on the “side” of the coach’s arsenal, then it could ironically be the reason you may not find your goals achieved.
  5. Humility of the Coach – C.S. Lewis once wrote that a humble man, by virtue of the definition of humility, does not tell you he is humble.  I find this ever so critical in the identification of your coaching partner.  To see if they have this ability without asking directly (which would set one’s self up for a halo effect of an answer), see if your coach shares voluntarily in their success stories the ironic connection between what they didn’t know, got surprised about, was way off base, etc and how that linked to not only a client success but a refined, nuanced version of humanity they now have.  For without this “plasticity” of knowledge a man with a hammer makes his world a nail.

At the end of the day, with the growth of the coaching industry, it certainly feels like we have the same overwhelming emotion we get in the grocery aisle, staring at a great wall of cereal boxes. Though we all love the taste of sugar, just make sure it isn’t too much for there will be adverse effects….just like with the coatings you must look through to find your taste for the “best coach.”

Answers: 1) $.05   2) 5 min    3) 47 days