Cognitive Coaching – takeaways from my latest Professional Development

I have decided to write this post as I have just finished an 8-day training course in cognitive coaching and want to spend some time digesting and articulating my learning. Having been on PD courses in the past I know how I decide to follow the event up is just as important as the days themselves. The follow-up process, for me, is two fold:

  1. Spend some time thinking about the key takeaways I want to incorporate into my life from the training. This step is about acknowledging that not all the content I was exposed to over the course will resonate with me (and that’s OK) and


  1. To make space and time to consciously implement and practice the learning.

I am going to write this blog without looking over the course notes in order for it to be an authentic reflection of what I (consciously or not) felt was important enough to take away from the course. More information on the course, its content and its *trainers can be found at


What is cognitive coaching?

 Cognitive Coaching (or at least my interpretation of it) is a way of conversing with individuals designed to empower them to see more clearly the capacity they have within themselves, to solve their own problems and to plan their own futures, for both the benefit of themselves and the wider communities within which they operate. Through guided conversation, focused on the five states of mind (I’ll come back to that later), it is about leading an individual to a higher level of consciousness surrounding their own innate abilities and spheres over which they have some level of influence. Cognitive Coaching operates from a non-deficit model, that is to say that the best person placed to solve ones problems is the person themselves. The coaches task, therefore, is not to give answers to the problems posed by any given individual, but to ask questions and prompt responses which will enable the individual to think more critically about what resources they might have, or can draw upon to help themselves and/or those around them. It is about nurturing self directed, yet community centered individuals.

Of course, I can not summarise the eight-day course in one blog post, but the following is one example of a particular section that resonated strongly with me. The scaffold that the helped me most to think about ways in which a coach can begin to aid in the unlocking of an individuals inner potential is to consider the 3P’s…




The definition and use of each is considered below.

The Power of the Paraphrase

During the course we looked at three types of paraphrases and how they might be used in a coaching conversation

  1. Acknowledging
  2. Organising
  3. Abstracting


One tool the *facilitator used which aided my understanding of these three types of paraphrases was to ask us to assign each type an icon or symbol. An acknowledging paraphrase is like a mirror. You are reflecting what the individual is saying back at them, effectively enabling the coachee to hear themselves. Whilst it may seem a little silly, for me, it has two main benefits. Firstly it helps to build rapport, the **coachee begins to feel like they are really being listened to and secondly, by giving the individual a chance to re-evaluate whether that is what they think or how they intended to phrase, it helps to ensure that both parties in the conversation are on the same page with regard to what is being discussed.

An organizing paraphrase may be represented with the icon of a number of presents or packed boxes. Here the coach is helping the coachee to sort their thoughts. They are actively listening to what is being said and then packaging it and presenting it back to the individual. Some effective sentence starters of organizing paraphrases might be…

“So on one hand you (have/are considering) … And on the other hand you (have/are considering) …”

“There are three areas you are giving some thought to… Firstly… Secondly…. Etc”

For me, the power here is in allowing the individual to be able to begin visualising and compartmentalizing their thoughts. This aids them to in priortising their options, or in thinking more clearly and in more detail about specific areas of what might seem like an overwhelming task.

An abstracting paraphrase could be illustrated with an image of a ladder. The idea here is that whilst the coachee is giving you details about the scenario they are facing, you are attuned to what they are saying and offer back to them a speculative abstraction of what is important to them in this scenario and/or what their end goal might be. The power of this approach is the ability to shift the focus of the coachee from minor details to the bigger picture. By offering stems such as “You value … “ or “it is important to you that …” you help to broaden the thinking of the coachee focusing now on what their desired end state might be. Once this clear focus or area of value has been established, the conversation can work towards this goal.


The Potency of the Pose

Posing is about asking questions or giving prompts to aid the individual in their thinking, around their involvement in a given situation, and/or their capacity to change it. It is important to remember that as coaches, we do not hold any of the answers to the coachee’s problem, but are here to mediate the coachee’s thinking around how the might harness their own capabilities to achieve their desired end goal. For me, the key characteristic of meditative questions is that they are invitational and non-judgmental. Note the end goal mentioned above is their end goal, not the goal (tempting though it is) that we might think would work best for them. To this end we tend not to start a question with “why” as it can come across as quite intimidating and confrontational, implying that there is a right answer.

To illustrate this aspect of the coaching conversation, I will dissect the question below to highlight how it has used several techniques we discussed during the course as being effective characteristics of meditative questions.

What might be some of the strategies you have use successfully in the past with a similar group?

The use of tentative language here is invitational, signaling to the coachee that the question is being asked without judgment. The coachee is able to consider multiple scenarios without feeling the pressure to give a correct answer to the question. The question is open ended.

By embedding plural forms the coachee is not contained to just one right approach, but is instead invited to consider multiple approaches broadening their thinking around the situation.

The positive presupposition encourages the coachee to focus on the successful things they have done in the past or the potentially positive outcomes that could result from their actions in the future.

As well as the language used in the sentence itself, its important to be conscious of the way in which the question is asked. The coach should use an approachable voice and mirror body language to build rapport. The question itself will be based on the type of thinking you are trying to elicit (e.g. reflective, planning etc) and which “state of mind” you are trying to access – a separate post is needed to unpack states of mind.


The Potential of the Pause

Given that the coaching process is designed to encourage a deepening of the coachee’s thinking around a particular area of interest, it is important to give the individual time to think. As a teacher I can speak from experience of the benefits of building in ‘wait time’ in a classroom setting. When asking a question to the group, you will always have a few students, who eagerly shoot up an arm in anticipation of giving you a response. If a teacher takes that pupils’ response straight away, they are not allowing other pupils in the group time to formulate their ideas. One way to combat this may be to start your question by saying “take 30 seconds to consider …” This built in wait time slows the pace of the lesson and shows students that your value time invested in thinking before speaking/responding. The widely adopted “think, pair, share” model is another example of appreciating the potential of the pause in a classroom setting. Below are a couple of examples of how pauses might be incorporated, consciously or not, into a coaching conversation.


Pausing after the coachee responds

Allowing space after the coachee responds to a question or paraphrase has two potential benefits. Firstly, despite the coachee having finished speaking, a moments silence may prompt them to ponder a little more and quite often they will continue talking, adding to their earlier thoughts or naturally clarifying their thinking about the topic. Indeed, given the space, many people begin to undertake metacognition without the input of a coach. Secondly, if the coachee gives verbal (or non verbal) signals that they are done verbalizing their thoughts on the previous question/paraphrase, the pause gives the coach to formulate their next question/paraphrase.


Pausing after the coach poses a question

Although the coach has no control over the pace with which the coachee responds, given the nature of meditative questions, naturally most people will pause to think on their thoughts and formulate their responses. During this time the coach is given an insight into the thought process of the coachee through their non-verbal reactions to the prompt. Some people believe that the direction to which their eyes move and the subconscious changes in their body language can give the coach information such as whether the coachee is thinking about the past or the future and whether they are constructing visual or auditory memories. I’m not sure to what extent I buy into the amount of information you can glean from looking at someone’s eye movement, but I can certainly see how being conscious of the coachee’s subconscious reactions to questions can keep you attuned with their present state.


Have you been on the Cognitive Coaching course? I would be really keen to hear how other people have internalised the contents of the course for themselves and to what extent their summaries align with mine. All comments welcome.



* The facilitator on my course is an inspirational woman named Doreen Miori-Merola. Her contact details can be found here. I am indebted to her for passion and willingness to share her knowledge with others to enable them to bring out the best in themselves.

** The word coachee I have created myself to describe the one being coached. I took my inspiration from the word employee.

Note to self: I have found articulating my thoughts really helpful. I should do it more. I would like to write a post about the five states of mind mentioned above




1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing Nicola. Your thoughts resonate strongly with me. I particularly appreciate the imagery offered of mirror, boxes and ladder. I like to think i do try to paraphrase on these three levels, but hadn’t really associated them with visual imagery. I will now. Agreed that Doreen is quite inspirational.


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