Alison Whitmire's picture Submitted by Alison Whitmire December 23, 2022 - 2:47pm

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar for the Institute of Coaching entitled “Our Client’s Past Need Not Foretell Their Future: Coaching to our Client’s Patterns and Attachment Styles.” It was a delightful experience and gave me quite a bit to chew on.

I’ve been talking, writing, and teaching coaches about topics related to patterns and attachments for a long time, and it has been a very provocative subject. 

What is it that makes the subjects of individual patterns and attachments controversial in my experience? After having worked with coaches through the concepts of Attachment Theory and resulting relational patterns for the past decade, I’ve learned that many coaches have strong reactions to something that sounds like psychology orcould be construed as therapy.

I can understand why coaches want to be careful when the topic of therapy comes up.

Here is the throughline of my talk…

We are shaped: 
  • by our past relationships (especially our earliest relationships).
  • neurologically, psychologically, socially, and mentally by these relationships in ways we don’t know, can’t remember, and didn’t choose (because much of the shaping occurred at a time for which we have no memory and had no language).
  • by our earliest relationships in predictable ways, as documented in the research on Attachment Theory, and this shaping tends to stay with us into adulthood.
How we were shaped by our early relationships impacts not only how we relate to others into adulthood but also how we relate to ourselves and our world in the following ways:
  • Our relational shaping results in patterns of thinking, feeling, and wanting, which make up our internal experience (in other words, we’ll tend to experience others, events, and ourselves in ways that follow predictable patterns).
  • We reveal our internal experience of ourselves and others and the world around us in how we narrate our experience.

Our clients come to coaching with these patterned ways of narrating their issues, opportunities, and challenges. And tend to be blind to their own patterns of experience.

So that when coaches:
  • can detect our client’s patterns from their narratives, we can work with them in deeper and more profound ways than if we work with them on one issue, opportunity, or challenge at a time.
  • work at the level of the pattern, then how the client sees, feels, and experiences themselves, others, and the world can shift.

Then we’re able to coach each client’s pattern relative to how it formed without asking them questions about their past.

Here is how you can detect and coach the most common patterns we see in clients.

With this throughline having been presented, I’m intrigued by the questions and concerns that fall along the lines of “This sounds more like therapy than coaching” and “Alison is asking us to diagnose.”

In my experience, when we start talking about psychological concepts and referring to our clients’ past, many coaches can have strong reactions. I honor the intention behind these kinds of reactions. Most coaches have strong ethics and boundaries around what is theirs to do and what they feel qualified to do.

Ethics and boundaries are healthy for us coaches and our clients. AND sometimes, our reactions can become obstacles to working with our clients in deeply meaningful ways.

Every human I’ve coached and every human I’ve met is shaped by their past, and that shaping shows up in the present in their narrative. Our past is bound up with our present. Yet, when we start talking about a client’s past, it can trigger a coach to think we are talking about therapy.

Coaches are working with and coaching our clients’ pasts in every coaching session (whether we realize it or not). That doesn’t mean we are digging around in their childhood or asking them about their past experiences, or engaging in therapy.

It means that every story our client tells us reveals a narrative pattern of how they are relating to themselves, others, and their lives today, which was shaped by the experiences of their past.

Becoming familiar with the predictable patterns that humans have for relating to their lives, and listening for these patterns in our clients, doesn’t mean we are diagnosing. It means we have a powerful lens through which to see our clients and learn what is unconscious to them around how they  experience their lives in patterned ways.

When we work with our clients at the level of their patterns, at the level of their non-conscious material, we can support them in making profound shifts that allow them to re-author themselves. And THAT is the work of coaching.

The more mature the field of coaching becomes, the more we coaches ask ourselves about our role as coaches and what is uniquely ours to do.



Valid points Alison! Truly you cannot shake off your past. I think as coaches it is also important for us to assess how ready for coaching is our client.

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