“To the man who only has a hammer,

everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.”

– Abraham Maslow

(Below is the extended version and all research links from my article in International Coaching News).

Also available in ICN Issue 32 – February 2021.


Choosing the right model, tool or technique is not easy.

Out there, in the “real world”, it seems as if every website or social media group is showcasing a new tool, approach or solution…or building on the success of a prior one.

So, which instrument should you choose?

Here’s a couple of things I keep in mind when considering this very question.

Knowledge and Ageless Wisdom

Truth is eternal. And there appear to be a set of principles that are, likewise, timeless. This is evident in written records dating back thousands of years: from the Far East, the Confucian Golden Rule of never imposing on others what you would not choose for yourself; or Buddha’s dangers of attachment as he pursued Release from Suffering; through to ancient Greece and Zeno’s paradoxes[i], we see principles that remain relevant today. Other classical literature is full of further parallels. From the modern focus on building resilience, which is rooted in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius[ii]. Or our modern understanding of Mindfulness[iii], where we can see elements of the ancient practice of Mediation.

However, in a world where the speed of technological change is ever increasing, it can sometimes feel that everything is new. And urgent. Even chaotic. Because of this, we may forget we are only really discovering our new awareness of the principle–that these truths have already guided leaders for millennia.

Our modern world has created a shift in our approach to these principles. While in many cases we now have better insight into them, there has also been innovation in the way we apply them. Stephen Covey identified this phenomenon. For most of our written history, he saw examples of character ethic–basic principles of living, integrated into one’s character. He then noted that, early in the 20th century, the literature shifted towards what he called the personality ethic–which considered success to be a function of personality, of skills and techniques. These techniques could either be applied externally to a given situation, or internalised in the form of “positive mental attitude”[iv].

Whether our client chooses to work within the character or personality construct, Sir John Whitmore also reminds us that “coaching and high-performance come out of awareness and responsibility”[v]. In order to assist our client gaining these, we may employ instruments (tools, techniques and models). These may be something as simple as Whitmore’s definition of SMART goals[vi], or as intricate as introducing Conversational Intelligence® to change an organisation’s culture[vii].  However, the primary purpose of any instrument is to assist our client in identifying and delivering their own, unique, success.

Effectiveness of the Instrument

The obvious first step is to evaluate the effectiveness of the instrument we intend to employ. This can sometimes be difficult to measure. Certain instruments, such as assessments or models, can be measured by their validity and reliability[viii]. Reliability means using that instrument twice under the same circumstances will give similar outcomes. Validity relates to the fact that the instrument will allow the client to build an awareness within their required area (in other words, that it actually delivers what was intended to be delivered). For example, I use assessments that have been certified to exceed national standards regarding reliability and validity (as measured by the Assessment Standards Institute[ix]). However, it can be difficult for some instruments to be certified this way.

This is all further complicated by the fact that there is no perfectly reliable and valid instrument. We are all unique (from birth, at the genetic level[x], and then further crafted by the sum of our experiences). Therefore, instruments must always trade off being flexible enough to encompass the contexts of many different clients, with the ability to be exactly relevant to a specific person.

The Human Brain

The next area to consider is related to how the brain is involved in managing memory. There are three main areas of the brain memory tasks–the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the part of the brain most engaged in understanding abstract concepts and identifying obscure connections–and we might prefer our client to remain largely here during a coaching conversation.

The other areas of the brain are more ancient, and often deal with our ‘baser’ instincts and responses. For example, the amygdala adds emotion to our memories–in particular, the emotion of fear[xi]–from here, the associated flight/fight/freeze impulses can create an “amygdala hijack”[xii] (for example, if introducing the analogy of a plane journey to a client who has been involved in a serious plane crash).

The hippocampus is more active when committing things to memory, rather than when we are engaged in abstract thought and connection-seeking. This is why there are significant benefits in avoiding heavy hippocampal engagement if we are seeking to maximise the PFC functions.

For example, we can unwittingly distract our client, who might be trying to commit an unfamiliar instrument to memory (such as an extremely complicated or technical instrument). Likewise, as coach, if we are using something unfamiliar, perhaps in order to give our client something they are familiar with, we may misinterpret their response and either (i) miss important cues, or (ii) be tempted to ask a question that’s for clarifying our understanding.

There are also different types of memory. Of particular interest is our long-term memory, where many of our beliefs and behaviours are embedded. This memory is divided into two types: episodic, which are the memories of things you’ve done or have happened to you, and; semantic, which is information you’ve committed to memory. For example, you may have been taught that the Orwell brothers were instrumental in the development of flight (semantic), but you are likely to remember more fully the (episodic) experience of your first flight. And, because coaching is tailored to the uniqueness of the client, it is often dealing with episodic memory (including those memories that have become automatic–from simple tying of shoelaces to deeply unconscious biases).

Informal Learning

Therefore, a masterful coach does not ‘teach’ or ‘instruct’ the client. There’s generally no heavy use of hippocampus or amygdala–the client is allowed to join their own dots. This has parallels in what is known as informal learning. Informal learning is what we, as toddlers, used when we learnt to walk (we don’t get formal walking classes). This perhaps engages our episodic memory, and is very different to the structured (therefore, semantic) learning we receive at school. The coach’s role is to draw out the client’s own inference and understanding, and draw their attention to the unseen. This allows the client to identify their best next-action, based on their unique context.

Raising such awareness during a coaching session is not unlike the process of informal learning, which is known to involve three key areas. Firstly, the client chooses how and what they engage with; secondly, experience is built in the client’s own interests and initiatives; and, finally, it’s not a solo act, rather, it involves others[xiii]. We also know that 70 to 90% of learning in organisations is informal[xiv], which suggests we remain deeply familiar with this type of learning throughout our lives.

In the same way, a coach can choose to introduce models or techniques that support informal learning. We know instruments such as models have the greatest overlap with sense making–they are “specialized representations” that embody the aspects of a context to “illustrate, explain or predict” outcomes[xv]. These are powerful, as they can generate “infinite meaning”[xvi] that can then be shared and developed further with others. So, choosing an instrument that elicits the effects of informal learning in the client is also of value.

How to select the right instrument.

So, how do we choose the optimum tool, technique or model? By addressing the above points.

  • If possible, ensure our instrument is both reliable and valid.
  • Also choose something that will minimise interference of the PFC through unnecessary engagement of the hippocampus (memory-making) or amygdala (emotional hijack).
  • Look for instruments familiar to the client’s to experience.
  • Finally, consider those instruments that engage informal learning,

The Perfect Instrument?

There are no perfect instruments…as you may have already guessed. Every model is a simplification of what it represents. No tool can take into account every situation in which it will be used. And a technique will become limited by simplicity, or made less intuitive by complexity.

Remember that the choice of instrument itself is not as important as the skills of the coach who apply it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use instruments at all (or worse, we randomly select one). But it does mean that we can avoid agonising over selection, even if something is less-than-perfect, it’s limitations will be offset by solid ethics and strong coaching skills.

It’s often like deciding which builder to engage. We don’t first peer inside their tool box (it really doesn’t matter what type of saw they use, or how they order the materials). These won’t make the outcome (the house) all that much better or worse. What we should be examining is the builder’s ability to connect to, and then deliver, our vision – often by looking at the previous houses they’ve built, or talking to previous clients.


  1. DON’T get hung up on finding the “perfect” instrument. It doesn’t exist.
  2. DO consider introducing instruments that the client is familiar with.
  3. DO, therefore, have a selection of the most common/popular instruments in use today.
  4. And most importantly…DO continue to develop your coaching skills.

These points will offset the limitations of never being ideal in every situation. They are your armour against any shortcomings the instruments bring. And they ultimately increase your ability to connect with, and hold space for, your client.



[i] Law. Stephen, The Great Philosophers, 2 ed. (Great Britain: Quercus, 2013). pp.1-20.

[ii] Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way : The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage (London: Profile Books, 2014).

[iii] Bassam Khoury et al., “Embodied Mindfulness,” Mindfulness 8, no. 5 (2017).

[iv] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside Edition ed. (New York : USA: Simon & Schuster, 1990). pp.18-19

[v] John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance : The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership, 5 ed. (Croydon : CPI Group, 2017). p.21.

[vi] Ibid. p.107.

[vii] Judith E.  Glaser, Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, ed. Inc Books24x (Brookline, MA : Bibliomotion, 2014).

[viii] David E. author Gray, Doing Research in the Real World, Third edition.. ed. (Los Angeles, California : SAGE, 2014).pp.150-154.

[ix] https://assessmentinstitute.org/

[x] https://markmudford.com.au/unique-genes/

[xi] Roger Marek, Yajie Sun, and Pankaj Sah, “Neural Circuits for a Top-Down Control of Fear and Extinction,” Psychopharmacology 236, no. 1 (2019). p.314.

[xii] Glaser, Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. pp.26-28.

[xiii] Michelle A. Hurst et al., “Leveraging Research on Informal Learning to Inform Policy on Promoting Early Stem,” Social Policy Report 32, no. 3 (2019). p.4.

[xiv] Christopher P. Cerasoli et al., “Antecedents and Outcomes of Informal Learning Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Business and Psychology 33, no. 2 (2018).p.204.

[xv] Tor Ole B. Odden and Rosemary S. Russ, “Defining Sensemaking: Bringing Clarity to a Fragmented Theoretical Construct,” Science Education 103, no. 1 (2019).p.199.

[xvi] Dilip V. Jeste et al., “The New Science of Practical Wisdom,”  (2019).p.222.


Cerasoli, Christopher P., George M. Alliger, Jamie S. Donsbach, John E. Mathieu, Scott I. Tannenbaum, and Karin A. Orvis. “Antecedents and Outcomes of Informal Learning Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis.” [In English]. Journal of Business and Psychology 33, no. 2 (Apr 2018 2018-03-07 2018): 203-30.

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Fireside Edition ed. New York : USA: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Glaser, Judith E. . Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Edited by Inc Books24x. Brookline, MA : Bibliomotion, 2014.

Gray, David E. author. Doing Research in the Real World. Third edition.. ed.: Los Angeles, California : SAGE, 2014.

Holiday, Ryan. The Obstacle Is the Way : The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage. London: Profile Books, 2014.

Hurst, Michelle A., Naomi Polinsky, Catherine A. Haden, Susan C. Levine, and David H. Uttal. “Leveraging Research on Informal Learning to Inform Policy on Promoting Early Stem.” Social Policy Report 32, no. 3 (2019): 1-33.

Jeste, Dilip V., Ellen E. Lee, Charles Cassidy, Rachel Caspari, Pascal Gagneux, Danielle Glorioso, Bruce L. Miller, et al. “The New Science of Practical Wisdom.”  (2019).

Khoury, Bassam, Bärbel Knäuper, Francesco Pagnini, Natalie Trent, Alberto Chiesa, and Kimberly Carrière. “Embodied Mindfulness.” Mindfulness 8, no. 5 (October 01 2017): 1160-71.

Marek, Roger, Yajie Sun, and Pankaj Sah. “Neural Circuits for a Top-Down Control of Fear and Extinction.” [In English]. Psychopharmacology 236, no. 1 (Jan 2019 2020-04-14 2019): 313-20.

Odden, Tor Ole B., and Rosemary S. Russ. “Defining Sensemaking: Bringing Clarity to a Fragmented Theoretical Construct.” Science Education 103, no. 1 (2019): 187-205.

Stephen, Law. The Great Philosophers. 2 ed. Great Britain: Quercus, 2013.

Whitmore, John. Coaching for Performance : The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership. 5 ed.: Croydon : CPI Group, 2017.