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“Critical Moments” research informs the coaching practice

‘Critical Moments’ research explores the limits and potentials of human attention and memory. Comparing the memories that coaches and clients share reveals how the coaching relationship generates personal discovery and satisfaction for both parties.


Coaches can struggle to gauge the impact of critical moments on their clients


Coaches can glean insights on how to use critical moments in the coaching relationship


Research shows the positive impact of critical moments on coaches and clients

Wisdom Weavers

Exploring what makes a moment noteworthy

Wisdom Weaver Dr. Erik de Haan has spent years conducting research on critical moments in coaching from the perspectives of the coach and client. Erik defines a “critical moment” as a “moment of difference or key moments” within the coaching session. In total, his team collected “86 moments, and then we did a case study, where we collected critical moments per session in that study.”

The purpose of this research is twofold. It first illuminates the mechanisms, processes, and experiences of both the coach and the client or coachees. Second, the research assesses if both parties “come up with different stories after they’ve done their coaching.”

Erik notes that the human mind has an average “attention span [of] between about two and eight seconds,” and the key moments participants identified occurred during these brief snippets of time.

Similarities and differences exist between coach and client

Wisdom Weaver Margaret Moore explains the importance of coach and client communication:

“The relationship is rich because the relationship is producing the insight. I mean it isn’t a relationship to have a relationship. Its whole purpose is to produce insight, so therefore, the two go together. They’re interdependent.”

Margaret Moore

The results of the critical moments studies revealed “a big sense of self-doubt” on the part of the coach, says Erik. His team was initially surprised by this result but soon discovered the root of coach anxiety: “These were inexperienced coaches only starting their journey, but many of them wrote about, ‘who were they to contribute anything to a manager? Who comes for a session? What should they do?  How should they go about coaching?’ So, they had a kind of a distorted view of self, or they were very focused on their doubts, and very often their doubts were highly relevant for what they were trying to do, so the doubts also seem to be very generative, painful, at the same time as generative for these coaches,” Erik explains.

However, Erik and his team “found a very different result for the clients.” In fact, “the [client] was much more focused on realizing something new and finding out something either about themselves, or about their situation, or people they worked with. So, insight seemed to be extremely important in this group.” The clients seemed unaware of the anxiety coaches reported. Instead, Erik reflects:

“The word “realization” or “realize” was the most frequent noun in the data.”

Dr. Erik de Haan

Furthermore, clients “didn’t always recognize the idea of a critical moment, although the coaches immediately did.” This difference is crucial when addressing the internal versus external realities of the coaching process. The critical moments connect to an internal change within the client that was uncovered by coaching. The inability of some clients to note the exact moment this occurred reveals a lack of self-awareness during the coaching session.

Critical moments research strengthens the coach-client relationship by::

  • Showing how a critical moment can impact both coaches and clients
  • Helping coaches understand how a critical moment can be perceived differently by their clients so they do not assume a client’s experience or their coaching’s impact

Coaches and clients can have different emotional experiences

When gathering data, Erik explains, “we asked the very same question in every piece of research to all the new groupings from coach to experience.” 

Erik was also interested in the Rashomon effect, which explores how two people can share an experience but retell the event differently. Generally speaking, the “coach’s story [was] a bit more gloomy, a bit more anxiety-driven, emotional, sometimes also very, very proud” compared to the client’s stories. 

After the conclusion of coaching sessions, when Erik’s team “again asked about critical moments or key moments, there was a remarkable consistency in their stories, and, in fact, they had largely the same story. We still found more doubts, more emotions, more anxiety, in the coach’s story and slightly more insight and outcome [than] what the client took from the event, but in more than 50% of the cases — and this is where statistics was possible because we had these large numbers in more than 50% of the cases — the story was about the same event. The same two to eight seconds, if you wish, in terms of their moment. Which statistically would be highly unlikely, and not just that, they also focused on the same aspects of the key moment; in fact, both parties now mostly spoke about insight and realizations.”

There was no significant rupture in the recollection of events between the coach and the client. Internal emotions and thoughts, especially in the coach, were the most notable difference that this study revealed. 

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

Coaches aspire to better themselves in order to best assist the well-being and emotional development of their clients. Critical moments research was conducted for application in future coaching sessions focused on the client’s needs. Thus, this topic relates to Goal 3 of the United Nations Global Goals, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Constant efforts for the development and improvement of the coaching process work to assist the long-term goal of improved well-being for the clients.    

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations on Shaping the Future of Coaching across three separate Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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