SHIFT Coach’s Gift to Their Client


A Coaching Model By Jennifer Topinka, Internal Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES

The SHIFT Help a Client Move Forward

A mind once stretched by a new idea never returns to the same dimensions. Oliver Wendell Holmes

I value my coaching experience (as a client) because it has enabled me to realize the accumulation of seemingly small shifts that sum to a noticeable improvement in my fulfillment and well-being.  These shifts include shifts in my perspective, thought processes, stories, habits, and actions.  My coaching model is called SHIFT because it focuses on the art and science of partnering with clients to achieve shifts and learnings to reach their desired change and outcome. 

The SHIFT coaching model is a framework to support the client in transforming their mindset, perspectives, and thoughts.  This model emphasizes the process to promote and identify shifts that enable clients to break through their current stories and beliefs to move forward toward their desired outcome.  The importance of shifts is reflected in the new ICF competencies which focus on the transformation of thought, facilitating growth, and evoking awareness.  Even subtle shifts can serve as sufficient change, breakthroughs, or insight to help a client move forward.

The word “SHIFT” can be used as a verb or a noun: 

  • Verb: move or cause to move from one place to another, especially over a small distance.
  • Noun: a slight change in position, direction, or tendency.
SHIFT Jennifer Topinka Coaching Model
Photo credit: Sun breaking through the fog after the storm

Synonyms for “shift” in the coaching context:  Insight, breakthrough, awareness, or reframing.

In coaching, a “shift” is having new awareness or breakthrough to interpret things differently.  A shift or breakthrough is like finding a “crack” in current perspectives, assumptions, thinking patterns, beliefs, and stories that we tell ourselves.  The “shift” or breakthrough reveals new paths of possibility to move forward.

When the fog clears, the path appears. (Rowland, Coaching for Potential, 2020)

Coaching is a space that supports a client to achieve and recognize shifts in their mindset.  A coach’s role is to support the clients to achieve some shifts and to recognize and reflect on the shift.  Specifically, when a client achieves a shift, the coach needs to pause, acknowledge the shift, and allow the client to reflect on and then leverage the shift to move forward.  The SHIFT coaching model recognizes that even a slight change is progress, and the coach must allow the client to reflect and integrate this learning.  This is the gift of coaching.

SHIFT Coaching Model

S: Start where you are

H: Honor the feelings

I: Imagine what’s possible

F: Find the new and next

T: Take the first step

The coaching process is a partnership.  The coach supports the client to achieve and recognize shifts.   By pausing to allow the client to reflect and integrate the shift, the coach offers a gift to the client.  If a client achieves a shift and the coach does not pause to point it out, it is like the coach has prepared a gift for the client, but not offered it to them.

Personal reflection:  In an ICA Coaching Lab, I recall a session where the client experienced insight and used the phrase, “I guess that is an epiphany…” In this case, the coach did not pause to inquire about the learning. Therefore, the client didn’t acknowledge or integrate that awareness as a shift of perspective and learning. 

At the end of the session, the client didn’t remember the learning which they had referred to as “an epiphany” earlier in the session.  In the debrief, the instructor shared a wonderful illustration to remind the students of the importance of recognizing and pausing just after the learning took place. 

Per the instructor, “If we as coaches do not pause to allow the client to reflect, it’s like we purchased a gift for someone, wrapped it beautifully, and never offered it to that person.”  The gift we offer as coaches is presenting the client the space to acknowledge their shift and associated learning, just like offering a beautifully wrapped gift.  The gift may remain “undelivered” if the coach doesn’t pause – at the moment – and ask the client to reflect and articulate the shift and learning created.

The SHIFT Model

Start where you are – The coach supports the client to acknowledge what is.  It’s very important to recognize the current state of the client. No matter what challenge, understanding what is and the impact on the client is key. It can be helpful to normalize this challenge for the client.  Set the stage to confirm the intent is to start exactly where the client is in the present.  Even though it may be uncomfortable, it is what it is, and have confidence that we’re here for a reason.  “You are exactly where you’re meant to be.”

Honor [all] the feelings – The coach supports the client to recognize and validate their emotional state, understanding that emotions are a barometer.  The client may start a session with negative emotions, feelings, and thoughts about a current challenge.  These feelings contain valuable insights about the clients’ values, and specifically how the challenge is impacting them.  What are the feelings revealing about the client as a whole human being?  How is this challenge impacting the client?   What core values are being impinged? 

Imagine your outcome – The coach partners with the client to determine where they want to be at the end of the session.  Trusts that multiple paths will emerge [to the client] later in the session to reach the desired outcome.  Support the client to imagine and consider an aspirational goal.  Where are we going? What is the destination? What is the real challenge that needs to be resolved?  What is the goal, outcome, or take away from the session? What is the significance and intent behind the outcome?  How does this relate to the whole human?

Find the new and next – The coach partners with the client to help them uncover what is getting in the way of their desired state and to find shifts and breakthroughs.  A breakthrough exemplifies a “break” or change in their current stories and beliefs.  The coach can help the client identify a crack or movement in their current stories and beliefs.  This could be a new awareness, insight, perspective, or path forward.  This is a nonlinear process.  When a client has a shift or breakthrough, the coach can reinforce this with a pause and reflection.  It appears something is different for you, what is coming up? What is the new insight? What are you learning?  What are you learning about yourself as you come to this conclusion? What possibilities are revealed after the realization and shift? 

Take the first step – The coach supports the client to identify actions that emerge and commit to action.  After a shift, the client will typically see the very next step.  Action enables the client to move forward and actualize the outcome they imagined.   Action is the path to gaining confidence and self-trust.  Coaches help the client focus on the very next step, without getting overwhelmed with too many subsequent steps.  “As the fog clears, the path appears.”

Discussion – Coaching Considerations to Apply SHIFT Coaching Model

How to Inspire the Desire for “The SHIFT” (Franklin, 2019)

  • Help clients realize the pain of inertia in their current situation. This motivates and encourages them to move. Some questions to consider: “What is it costing you?”, followed by, “And what else is it costing you?”. “What do you get out of thinking this way?”, or “How does it serve you to think this way?”
  • Breakthrough perceived limitations and help clients think outside of their typical paradigm. For example, ask, “What if you knew?” or “What makes you think [certain viewpoint] ….?”
  • Prompt reframing. Sometimes the same facts can be interpreted differently with different surrounding assumptions and contexts.  Challenge the client to imagine a different context or “story” around the facts.  The question, “Is it possible that ….?”
  • Remove the perceived obstacle, whatever is the issue, take it away. This can highlight other barriers to illustrate whatever was the real issue.  Sometimes the perceived obstacle is only an excuse. 

Using Reflective Inquiry to Prompt “The SHIFT” (Reynolds, 2020)

  • Active Reply, including recapping and paraphrasing Reflect what the client is saying, allowing them to see and hear it from another person.  This reflective inquiry can help clients see their blind spots. 

Stepping Out of the Emotional Situation to Trigger “The SHIFT” (David, 2016)

  • Invite the client to see the problem from another point of view. How would someone else see the problem?  Say an animal, a child, or the wisest and kindest person?  What advice they would give to someone in a similar situation?

Indicators of SHIFT

  • A coach must be fully present to pick up on small changes that indicate a shift has occurred.
  • The shift can be visible in the client’s energy as shown by their body language, posture, mood, facial expression, breathing patterns, long silence, the intonation of voice, and word choice.
  • Shifts can involve a client’s [unconscious] emotions, which is why the coach has a unique perspective to recognize and bring to the clients’ [conscious] awareness.

After the SHIFT

  • Once a shift occurs, the coach can appreciate, explore, and move to the so-what from that new perspective.  “Now what is possible?”
  • After a shift, the client typically knows what step or action is required.
  • Shifts take a lot of mental energy. The important thing: hear the shift, find out where they are, what they’ve learned about themselves, and how they want to move forward.  Do not continue to ask open-ended questions after the shift.

What if There Is No SHIFT?

  • Shifts do not always happen within the coaching session. Sometimes they happen between the sessions.  Other times, it takes many sessions for a client to experience a shift. 
  • If there is no change in energy, this can also be helpful information to clients in the long process of (evolving/growing/maturing/….). 

Recognizing and Acknowledging the SHIFT

Coaches serve as thinking partners enabling clients to promote and identify shifts, supporting clients in reaching their desired outcome. When the client experiences a shift in perspective, it is critical for the coach to pause, acknowledge the shift, and allow the client to reflect on the learning.  A skilled coach provides space and presence to acknowledge the shift and learning.  This is the coach offering a beautifully wrapped gift to the client.  If a coach doesn’t pause to recognize this shift, it is like they have bought a gift, wrapped it up, but never presented the gift.  Recognizing and acknowledging the SHIFT is a coach’s gift to their client.

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David, S. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York, New York: Penguin Random House.
Franklin, M. The HeART of Laser-Focused Coaching: A Revolutionary Approach to Masterful Coaching. Thomas Noble Books.
Reynolds, M. Coach the Person Not the Problem: A guide to Using Reflective Inquiry. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Rowland, R. Coaching for Potential. Coach the Person, Not the Problem with Dr. Marcia Reynolds. Apple Podcasts.
Rowland, R. Coaching for Potential. Shift Happens with Marion Franklin. Apple Podcasts.

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