The Role of Emotions in Change

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“Overall, she did alright… she gave me lots of tools and motivation but she failed to do the most important thing. She didn’t get me to emotionally connect.”
– Jillian Michaels, personal trainer


The other night, I was watching The Biggest Loser (yes, I am a fan) and during this particular episode the tables were turned. The contestants were placed in the role of trainer while their trainers played the role of obese, issue-laden contestants.

One challenge was to coach “TV’s Toughest Trainer”, Jillian Michaels, through mental struggles as she mirrored each contestant’s own negative self-talk. I was struck that one of her biggest beefs with the contestants was in their failure to have her emotionally connect.

Turns out all that barking and yelling isn’t just about being mean! Who knew? Rather, it’s to create the opportunity for change by surfacing the emotions swirling around their issues.

In our coaching model we, too, understand the critical role emotions play in behavior change although, admittedly and much to the relief of our clients, we have a slightly different way of going about it than Ms. Michaels.

During our 7-step process, we periodically pose the question, “What do you feel?” as the coachee identifies what is at stake for him or her if nothing changes and again as they picture themselves on the other side of the issue, having resolved it to their ideal outcome. That one question provides the impetus for change. You miss that, you’ve squandered the opportunity.

The old days of trainers simply barking at their long-suffering subjects or coaches putting on a display of self-importance as they lull their coachees to sleep with sage advice are long over.

As humans, we behave for emotional reasons FIRST, then for rational reasons. Multiple studies have proven this phenomenon. Keeping conversations involving change head-based and expecting long-lasting sustainable change is fantasy. Instead, we need to engage the head AND heart.

As our founder, Susan Scott, puts it so well, “To ignore emotions is like sitting in a Maserati with no gas. You may look the part, but you aren’t going anywhere.”

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