Executive coaching is a wonderful tool for personal growth. The combination of persistent but compassionate questioning coupled with uncritical attentiveness helps the learner to explore their challenges with renewed insight and positivity. It unlocks new resources of self confidence and personal agency and enhances creativity and decision making.

A coaching session is, in an essence, a conversation: Language and text are its tools. However, given that the lion’s share of the brain is devoted to processing images in the physical world and in our imagination, the use of visualization techniques in coaching is now emerging as an important addition to the coaching toolbox.

By engaging the brain’s non-verbal cognitive processes through visualization techniques, coaches can better access their learners’ thoughts and motivations.

A Different Approach to Coaching

Though effective at best, there are times when thought-provoking exploratory coaching questions — with the implicit expectation for an equally engaging answer — can impede the process of self-discovery. After all, some opportunities are not always as clear-cut. For some learners, their answer to certain discussion topics could be wound up in a complex, difficult-to-express answer, buried under ideas they only half understand. In these cases, having to provide an articulate and rational answer can risk them sounding glib or inconclusive.

In contrast, visualization bypasses the pressure of having to fit coaching topics into structured discussions. Instead, tapping into our instinctive use of imagery, metaphors and storytelling, visualization can free the learner to explore these themes more instinctively with less inhibition. An individual can reflect more deeply and holistically on the significance of the images and any symbolism or meaning that’s personal. This can be helpful in setting stretch goals and more inspiring goals that line up with their interests.

What Is Visualization?

Visualization techniques can have several approaches. For example, process and outcome visualization is used to imagine the achievement of an aspirational goal and the steps it takes to get there and then to mentally invoke the associated images, emotions and other senses. This practice is common among professional athletes. Michael Jordan once said, “Every time I feel tired while exercising and training, I close my eyes to see that picture, to see that list with my name. This usually motivates me to work again.”

Visualization is also useful as a therapeutic tool. Psychotherapist Valerie Thomas says in her book, “Using Mental Imagery to Enhance Creative and Work-related Processes,” that “[exploring a client’s mental images] provides conceptual metaphors that restructure the individual’s perception of self, and self in relation to the environment.”  In other words, when an individual learns to change the images in their head, they learn to change themselves.

Some visualization techniques can be as simple as having a learner describe their challenges by sketching simple images, like stick drawings, basic shapes and symbols and even colors. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson observe in their book, “Metaphors We Live By,” human thought processes are largely metaphorical and by exploring the meaning behind visual metaphors, coaches can greatly optimize the opportunity for their learners’ self reflection.

“Illustrated Coaching” As A Training Practice

As a painter and illustrator as well as an executive coach, I have developed a particular approach to visualization which I call “illustrated coaching.” When working with clients in need of an alternative approach to learning, I record the topic discussions in the form of digital illustrations. Rather than asking my clients standard coaching questions, I invite them to describe what they see when they reflect on topics that interest them. The very act of describing the images they “see” encourages them to envision their own landscape of visual symbols and metaphors and, in the process, to tap into non-verbal meaning and understanding.

This approach is particularly valuable for a learner who has difficulty expressing their thoughts and ideas into words. For example, when the topic is too complex or targets deep-rooted behaviors and beliefs, the learner may not be able to put their answer into words, but instead can utilize metaphorical imagery to communicate. Questions of identity and purpose lend themselves particularly well to this approach.

From these discussions, the learner can then visualize the meaning behind how the image makes them feel for a deeper reflection: What is the significance of these images? Where else do they lead? What feelings do they evoke and how do these feelings evolve?

By utilizing “illustrated coaching” with strategic visualization aids, coaches can open up their learners to putting their deep-rooted thoughts and feelings into words.

Why Is It Worth Investing In?

This illustrative approach is worth trying for any team size or work environment where the goal is to challenge traditional approaches and best practices. Innovation sessions lend themselves particularly well to this approach, both for capturing fresh ideas but also in disrupting existing processes.

Capturing the output from ideation meetings in the form of pictorial mind maps can often lead to dramatic breakthroughs. Innovative growth, agile practices, a fresh mindset and a vision for the future are necessary for people and organizations who want to succeed. “Illustrated coaching” can help achieve just that.