How important are ‘aha’ moments and how can we increase the likelihood of them occurring in coaching, asks Sophie Austin
Many of us are familiar with Archimedes’ cries of ‘Eureka!’ on discovering density and volume, and Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. Intrigued to find out whether it’s desirable to enable such moments of insight within the coaching dialogue and how we might best do this, I chose to explore this topic for my Masters in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School.
I set about exploring the phenomenon of the ‘aha’ moment in coaching as a symbol of a critical point in the coaching dialogue, when the unconscious is brought to the conscious awareness of the client. I wanted to understand the extent to which these moments can be created; to determine the role of both the coach and client in the process, and to explore whether such moments are even of real value.
Often seen and referred to as the Holy Grail of coaching, should coaches be actively seeking and working towards ‘aha’ moments as a measure of success and/or effectiveness? Do such moments indicate that their clients have drawn critical information into their unconscious, bringing a new awareness and choices? Or is the ‘aha’ moment just the latest buzzword in a relatively newly established profession, or even a case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’?
The ‘aha’ moment is a term used to describe the point in the coaching exchange at which the client makes a significant breakthrough – perhaps unexpectedly – when everything suddenly makes sense and there is clarity where there was previously none. These “critical moments” (De Haan, 2008) or “tipping points” (Kets de Vries, 2011) signify a seismic shift in thinking rather than merely introducing a different perspective or view.
Assuming that in many contexts, the purpose of coaching is to enable some level of change, and if we accept that the ‘aha’ moment is a realisation and therefore a precursor to change, then surely it makes sense to understand to what, if any, extent these moments can be facilitated or even accelerated by coaches. Let’s look at what the research suggests.
What we know so far
Research revealed that the term ‘aha moment’ is not widely referenced in coaching literature and there is relatively little research on ‘aha’ moments within the field of coaching, with a few exceptions including De Haan (2008).
De Haan’s research focused on how coaches learn from ‘critical moments’, defined as “an exciting, tense or significant moment”, how they improve working with the anxiety created by these moments and how they exploit such tension.
Additionally, research by De Haan, Bertie, Day and Sills conducted in 2010 appears to be the first study of the client’s overall experience of coaching, within which the ‘critical moments’ are explored from the client’s perspective – interesting, given that focus on the client is central to the coaching ethos!
In my experience, from research and talking with fellow coaches, achievement of the ‘aha’ moment itself is not the objective of their coaching and in many cases, doesn’t even feature in their thinking during coaching. One of the recommendations of my research supported De Haan et al’s view that more client-focused study is required.
The coaches I interviewed were largely consistent in their understanding of the term, as the point at which there is a change in their client’s thinking or a ‘shift in the room’.
But there was a range of views regarding the size of such a moment: “from small to big to epiphany” and “the degree of leverage it gives”, focusing on the impact rather than the moment itself.
The majority of coaches acknowledged that they did not evaluate the success of their coaching by the occurrence of an ‘aha’ moment, preferring a change in behaviour as a measure.
They also revealed experiencing positive feelings such as “delight, excitement, energy, joyful, serene” and describing the “huge privilege” to be with someone at that time.
However, there may also be a feeling of wariness, of becoming too involved in the emotion of the moment and losing focus.
Clients were less likely to identify specific approaches or interventions leading up to an ‘aha’ moment, focusing more on the actual experience or insight.
So what might we learn from research outside the coaching arena? Literature focusing on insights experienced in the creative thinking process in general has pointers for processes and tools we might introduce to foster creativity in the coaching relationship, arguably increasing the chances of insights arising in coaching.
In addition, the rapid and continuing advancement of neuroscientific research offers us a greater understanding of the brain’s unconscious processing activities during problem solving, for example, which is relevant here.
A clear distinction has been drawn between the processing involved in solving linear or logical problems and that which takes place when experiencing sudden insights, or ‘aha’ moments.
When looking at insights or non-linear problems, levels of activity in the right side of the brain change and operate in a different way. Prior to the actual ‘aha’ moment itself taking place, there is increased alpha activity in the right brain/hemisphere. This happens when brain activity is ‘low’, which then leads to a burst of gamma band activity, which produces the insight. In other words, the idling of the brain dampens the noise, so the insight can emerge.
The ‘aha’ moment itself usually involves connections between a small number of neurons, whereas our everyday thinking may involve many more neurons communicating.
De Vita (2003) describes the ‘aha’ moment as “a feeble one, easily overwhelmed by stronger thought traffic” so it is important to create a calm and quiet environment.
Rock offers a practical analogy in interpreting this: “just as it is hard to hear a quiet cell phone at a loud party, it is difficult to notice signals that have less energy than the general energy level already present in the brain” and goes on to suggest that we “only notice signals above whatever our baseline of noise is” (Rock, 2011).
As coaches, we can bring this knowledge to bear in our coaching practice, to facilitate a breakthrough or ‘aha’ moment, by creating the right environment and adopting an appropriate approach or technique.
In addition to a literature review, my research involved interviews of varying durations with practising executive coaches and independently, a sample of eight coaching recipients, of varying duration.
Much of the literature supports facilitation of the ‘aha’ moment or ‘insight’, rather than creation, suggesting techniques to enable the critical moment, not least the importance of the coaching relationship.
It’s important to have a light touch. As van Nieuwerburgh (2012, quoted by Hall, 2012) has said: “the more you push for an ‘aha’ moment, the less likely it is you’ll get one, but you can create conditions to make it more likely to happen”.
It was interesting to consider any similarities in perspective from both the coaches and clients – and my research indicated that there were a number of common themes highlighted by both groups alike to illustrate the coach’s role in creating the ‘aha’ moment, which is depicted in Figure 1 (page 27).
But there are other factors which will create that same moment of realisation, each being uniquely shaped by the coaching client. These are illustrated in the two word clouds in Figure 2.
If we align all those elements, are coaches guaranteed success? I’m afraid not, and indeed the cloud in Figure 2 depicts the element of unpredictability.
One of my research subjects described the ‘aha’ moment as when “things come together, like a perfect storm”, in a unique combination fruitful for the client. There are so many variables, arguably the largest being the ‘unconscious’ issue and its readiness to emerge.
However, while there is no definitive formula for success, my research highlighted that there are a number of consistent factors which may enable facilitation of this point of realisation, or insight, in coaching. They include the relationship between the coach and client (Morin and Baron 2009; Lowman 2005; Kilburg 2001; Miller et al 1997 and Kimsey et al 2011); readiness of the client and the capability and skill of the coach. Scharmer (2013) writes of the requirement for an “open mind, open heart, open presence” for a transformational shift to occur, which was echoed by 90% of the research subjects.
Likelihood of ‘aha’
There are a number of ways we can increase the likelihood of facilitating an ‘aha’ moment. These include:
- Focusing on building the relationship: trust, rapport and creating a ‘safe’ environment. Creating the appropriate physical environment, by ensuring a comfortable, conducive space – outside or in – but away from the usual workspace. Light, temperature and space are all important elements.
- Offering reflective space: being comfortable with silence (van Nieuwerburgh, quoted by Hall, 2012) and encouraging clients to
develop reflective capability by journaling and allocating regular time for reflection.
- Encouraging the client to ‘unfocus’: going for a walk, for example (van Nieuwerburgh, quoted by Hall, 2012), offering them the opportunity to allow the mind to wander, and creating a “Thinking Environment” as developed by Nancy Kline.
- Considering your questioning: the timing, tone, level of challenge, the use of clean language.
- Using all the senses when coaching: to pick up non-verbal communication.
- Listening: obvious – but actively watching for contradictions, what isn’t said – recognising the ‘chaos’ in what the client may be saying.
- Challenging the client to step out of their comfort zone: so they don’t indulge in old, lazy thinking – and holding them to account.
- Using metaphors or story telling to make a point: don’t forget to share a bit of yourself!
- Being happy! There is much research that suggests a positive mood is more conducive to problem solving.
- Drawing on tools and techniques associated with opening up the creative thinking process: such as drawing, using particular objects (for constellations and to re-enact a situation) or pictures (coaching cards), or introducing a new activity or changing environment.
Finally, before we get carried away with the feeling of satisfaction or even joy that as coaches we may shamefully admit to as we witness the ‘aha’ moment, it is important to consider the moment for what it really is: the point at which a breakthrough occurs.
If we consider the goal of coaching to be behavioural change, then what follows the ‘aha’ moment is where the real work begins. As one of my research participants points out, “It’s what they do with it that counts!”
It is perhaps the beginning, rather than the end.
- Sophie Austin is talent & development director at Wincanton plc and an independent coach
WHAT THEY SAY
- “[The ‘aha’ moment] was “one of the most significant moments of my life”
- “Focused, present, challenging, safe environment, high level of rapport, someone who is interested in me as a person, the right physical space, comfortable, safety, relaxed, my openness and willingness to engage, working in partnership”
- “A loving relationship with someone….with all those things you build together”
- “Something that really makes you think, a real physical feeling. I felt something change in me, which enabled me to think differently”
- “The perfect storm”, the coming together of “readiness, presence, curiosity, willingness and skills of the coach….those things collide and it happens”
- “Felt relief, like a weight had lifted, challenging, made me think differently”
- “I don’t have any role in determining the issue – my job is to create the conditions for them to figure that out”
- “‘Aha’ based entirely on the quality of the question”
- “Who decides whether an ‘aha’ moment is big or not”
- “If people knew how their brains work, they would be able to use them more effectively – it’s not magic”
- “Questions are so important, at the right moment; not clever but the right one, at the right time”
- “Need to have a joint endeavour, some degree of collaborative enquiry into what ‘new’ is needed, with both parties listening to the wider system”
- “If you equate ‘aha’ experience with the pinnacle of independent thinking, then you could say that the ‘aha’ moment is the point
Figure 2: Word clouds (left) ‘aha’ definition – summary of interviewee data, and (right) respondent data – depiction of emotional experiences
- S Austin, The secret of the ‘aha’ moment: an exploration into the phenomenon of the ‘aha’ moment in coaching and its role in surfacing the unconscious, dissertation for Masters in Coaching & Behavioural Change, Henley Business School, 2015
- E de Haan, ‘I doubt therefore I coach: Critical moments in coaching practice’, in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(1), pp91-105, 2008
- E de Haan, C Bertie, A Day and C Sills, ‘Clients’ critical moments of coaching: toward a “client model” of executive coaching’, in Academy of Management Learning & Education, 9(4), 2010
- E de Vita, ‘Space to think’, in Management Today, pp64-71, 2003
- L Hall, ‘How to increase the chances of an aha moment’, in Coaching at Work, December 2012 http://bit.ly/2fXZyBB
- M F R Kets de Vries, Coaching’s Good Hour: Creating Tipping Points, INSEAD working paper, 2011
- D Rock, ‘Neuroscience provides fresh insight into the ‘aha’ moment,’ in T&D Points, INSEAD, 2011
- O Scharmer and K Kaufer, Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2013