Effective coaching sometimes requires us to shift our focus to igniting a coachee’s intrinsic motivation to change, as I mentioned in a previous blog post.  This is not always easy to do, and some say it borders on the impossible. The good news is, there is an incredibly powerful tool one can use that has been proven by years of rigorous scientific study.

Hint: It begins with them, the person being coached.

Intentional change begins when we tap into what people care about. Research by Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D. and many others is remarkably clear on this point: Back in the late 1960s, Boyatzis began studying why some people change and that change sticks, while others can’t seem to change. This research led to his proven model of change: The Intentional Change Theory (ICT).

Since that time, hundreds of scientific studies have looked at why it works across individuals, teams and organizations. I was fortunate enough to study with Dr. Boyatzis during my graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, where I learned from him how to coach using the ICT.

What I learned from that experience is that if we want to help someone change, and if we want them to be motivated to change and stay motivated, then we must start with what is called the “ideal self.”

Simply put, the ideal self is a positive vision of who we want to be. It also includes those enduring qualities that comprise our core identity, such as our strengths and values.

Here’s a quick example of how I’ve seen this turn around sales rep performance:

In 2012, I was coaching over 50 managers at a large, national car insurance company. One sales manager, Chris, had been a bit frustrated with the results that he was getting with his team, specifically from one team member, named Ryan. Chris shared with me that he was so frustrated that he would start every coaching session by saying, “Dude. You are killing my numbers,” and then he would present the facts and the metrics for Ryan.  Chris was essentially laying out his case for how Ryan was under-performing. And he was. In fact, this organization had 12 tiers of incentives and Ryan was only at a level three, which meant that he was on the cusp of being let go.

After going through some coaching with me, Chris adjusted his approach.  At his next coaching session with Ryan, he began by asking Ryan about his goals and about what motivated him to do his job. Ryan replied that he was motivated to come to work because he wanted to make money.

This is where the conversation got interesting.

After hearing Ryan’s answer, Chris paused and he said, “I understand that. And that’s just money. What does the money mean to you?”

There was a very long moment of silence and then Ryan said, “I’m a father, and it’s important to me that I provide for my family. My baby girl is 13 and I want to be able to send her to college someday, but I have never been able to save a dime toward that goal.”

Now, that’s some powerful motivation. Chris then said, “I love your commitment to your family, and I’d love to be your partner in helping you achieve that goal. How about if we work on that together?”  Ryan was visibly choked up and said, “I’d love that.”

From that point on, Chris began every coaching session with, “This is all about your goal and helping you to send your daughter to college.”

So, what happened? Within about three months, Ryan advanced to a level nine and then a level 10 — and he didn’t backslide.

Of course, this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Ryan’s ideal self, but it shows the power of working on what’s important to the person being coached. The bottom line is that the people we are coaching don’t really care about our goals or our “numbers,” they care about their goals and their lives.

Our coaching becomes dramatically more effective (and easier!) when we begin with our greatest asset — our people.