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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Coaching the Organizational Leader: Thinking and Feeling

Humans are complex animals. For example, think of all that happens in our hearts and minds when we make a decision. The process involves how we think and how we feel, which can change based on recall of memories and reliving past experiences. I remember the rollercoaster ride I took when preparing to ask the girl I loved to marry me—so many imponderables; a lot of questions involving both thinking and feeling. Could I really support her? Was I ready at age twenty three? Could I share the rest of my life with this person? Some questions were analytical in nature, and others were out of pure desire for this person. After spending about twenty minutes in a pensive state, my emotions won! Who cares about all the barriers—I’ll figure it out! Can we plan a wedding date? In the end, I made a judgment based on the available information. I’m happy to report that after twenty-eight years of marriage, it was indeed the right choice. I am still madly in love with my wife.

I went to an exhibit on the brain not long ago and was at a loss for words to describe the wonder behind this part of the human anatomy. My attention was drawn to the pituitary gland, a tiny pea-shaped gland at the base of the brain that regulates a number of hormones. Just another facet of human complexity that is so integrated into who we are as people, we often overlook the roles these odd chemicals play in everyday decision-making. We are amazing creatures, and on top of it all, God gives us human personality just to mix it up a bit. We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalmist acclaims.

As professional coaches, this admixture of human physiology and personality is what we have to work with when coaching organizational leaders. And, to be effective, we must tap into these same resources—thinking, feeling, rationalizing, learning and judgment to get to the heart of a matter. The reason I prefer the professional coaching platform over other disciplines is because some of my client’s decisions are so intense and involve so much risk that the thought of offering my personal opinion seems inappropriate. We know that the best answers come from within our clients, once we have worked with them to ensure all information is available in the decision-making process.

Coaching the Who versus the What

Curiosity is one of the most important ingredients in a coach’s mix. I have one client who hired me because he wanted to find another job. So, I’m a coach, right? I’m supposed to follow the client’s agenda. This is a slam dunk. He told me his agenda—the client leads with the agenda—the coach follows along and does what the client wants. Right? Wrong!

Being a coach does not mean we shut off our own experiences, judgment, thinking and feeling. We engage all of these facilities in the process of professional coaching. In this particular client relationship we took the time to unpack his world and discover what was behind his thinking and feeling to get to the “who.”  Rather than taking him and his agenda at face value (which, by the way, happens when we lack empathy), I began to ask him questions. “What are the circumstances that led you to this point of wanting a different job?” “What’s behind your desire to change?” His answer revealed that he couldn’t get along with his executive vice president and that he had been displaced from being in a managing role, causing him to have bad feelings about his work environment.

Coaching the “who” versus the “what” in this case meant digging deep into why he felt the way he felt, but it gave me a chance to ask another important question. “If you could right the relationship with your manager, and get some clarity about what happened with your earlier displacement, would this change anything for you?” His answer: “Yes!”

After coaching this organizational leader, making hidden information available, he now enjoys working at this same company, reporting to the same executive, and has declared that he is happy in his job. In fact, he is now reaching for more responsibility in the organization and making a real difference. I suspect he will ultimately lead an organization like this some day. Coaching the “who” versus the “what” created a whole shift in mindset for this client.

This is where I believe new or untrained coaches get hung up in the process. It’s all too easy to ask the client what he or she wants (taking them at face value), then coaching them toward outcomes. “Let’s put together a plan. Do you have a resume? What are your target companies? What are your next steps?” rather than centering around the “who” first. In my case it would have been all too easy to say, he wants a new job therefore having a new job is a successful outcome of our coaching relationship. Coaching my client around the outcome (the what) and not around the person (the who) would have been a drastic mistake. What are the chances that if he found another job, he would end up in the exact same circumstances months or years later? It could have postponed his growth and personal mastery, had we deferred to the “what.”

Getting to the Heart of the (Gray) Matter

I mentioned my fetish for the brain. The fact is I love neurology. I worked in Alzheimer’s research and also in AIDS research at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s. It was such a cool job. My title was Research Associate and Data Manager, but the best part about the job was having access to research, and some fascinating classes. One of those classes, Brain Cutting, produced feelings of anticipation and enjoyment, much like in elementary school when it was time for recess. I remember it as though it was yesterday—it was my favorite place to go at Pitt.

The professor pulled out a human brain from a jar and proceeded to use a bread knife to slice it into thin pieces. He then passed it around on a cookie sheet for everyone to view. It sounds morbid, but it was so educational and it was inspirational to see the different parts of this human mega-computer. In this particular case, we could see lesions with the naked eye—no microscope needed for this experiment! The learning—AIDS can kill all by itself through degenerative brain disease without resorting to opportunistic infections. What I really learned was how complex and unfathomable this God-given mechanism is, and how we must steward the different types of information we receive and process. So, how does this lesson apply to coaching?

Scientists tell us that there are many different functions of the brain. For all of the emotional intelligence students, we muse over the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain where people process emotions of fear and aggression, for example. What I find interesting is the distinction between the front and the back of the brain; the explicit and implicit learning roles of these two parts. And, while I’m not a scientist (I’m a coach and a scientist wannabe) I resonate with this concept of implicit and explicit learning as it relates to decision-making. I see it in my life. Here’s how it works.

When we are faced with a difficult decision we have both thinking and feeling about our choices. Many people refer to implicit learning as “gut feelings.” Well, there is some science behind this sense of knowing. It comes from the back of our brain, the experiential learning part of our make-up. Gut feelings are important in decision-making because they often hold data and clues that we just have not taken the time to put into language. For most of us, to make the information available we must think deliberately about our gut feelings and put them into language.

Here’s a simple example. Have you ever done something so routine that you didn’t even think about it? But then, one day, something feels different and you ask yourself the question, “why?” Think of a woman leaving the mall after a late afternoon shopping venture. She’s done this a hundred times. Only this time it feels different. As she’s walking into the parking lot, she feels unsafe and decides to call her husband. What just happened? Chances are there was something out of place that told her something was wrong. Perhaps someone she saw out of the corner of her eye seemed suspicious, or reminded her of a feeling she had when she was younger. Who knows—all she knows is that something is out of place, and (hopefully) she takes action.

Those who ignore gut feelings put themselves at risk because this is a legitimate form of learning, whereby we gain judgment. It is a source of data that needs to be verbalized and included in decision-making. Acknowledgement of, and mining for, this information is a must when coaching organizational leaders. This is coaching the “who” versus the “what.”

To return to my earlier example—the executive I mentioned had feelings of relational disconnect and disappointment for not being promoted, or at least given the feedback he thought he deserved to move forward in his career. His first logical, front-of-the-brain type solution was to find another job. By coaching the “who” we were able to center on what was behind his thinking and feeling and do true discovery around his needed action plan. Coaching the “who” created the life changing shift.

Turning Feelings into Facts

With all of this discussion around thinking and feeling, let’s talk about turning feelings into facts, the final process before making an important decision. Using my coaching client example, let’s look at the process of uncovering his concerns.

What really happened in this coaching scenario:

  • He identified feelings linked to his implicit learning and put language to his concerns
  • He was asked what was most important to him, which revealed information about his personal values
  • He was asked clarifying questions to identify how his personal values were being served in his current decision-making mindset
  • He was then confronted with a personal dilemma—how could he marry his desire for change to his personal values
  • He came to a conclusion, different than his first conclusion, which was to face the circumstance head on and strive for personal mastery

Remember that discernment is, by definition, using the right principle at the right time. It is possible to center on a biblical principle that is out of context for the current circumstance and miss the mark.

Using a coach to turn feelings into facts can have a profound impact on one’s spiritual growth.

As we learned in our coach training, questions can be our best friends. First, they prevent us from sharing our opinion, if asked properly. Second, they promote thinking in our clients. After all, whose thinking do we like best? The answer is always the same—our own. Leveraging off of our clients thinking is the most profound way to achieve human shifts. As I repeat often, one well placed question is worth more than ten discreet answers. Good questions keep me the coach out of the way, and more transparent in the coaching conversation.


The thinking and feeling aspects of coaching revolve around the explicit and implicit knowledge of our clients. I look at it this way; accessing a client’s explicit learning is a venture in unearthing the “what.” But, if you want to get to the “who,” there is no other option but by asking penetrating questions around life experiences and what’s at the heart of one’s feelings. This is the place where the who and the what meet, and provide lasting shifts in mindset. Remember that a shift is the basic unit of human change. If we are not facilitating shifts in thinking in our clients, we are probably not really coaching.

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