Who Needs a Coach the Most? And Why? - International Coaching Federation
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Who Needs a Coach the Most? And Why?

Posted by Gretchen Rubin | January 20, 2015 | Comments (6)

When I started writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I vowed to answer questions that, for some reason, didn’t seem to puzzle most experts on the subject.

And I bet you’ve raised these questions yourself. Why do some people find it fairly easy to change their habits, while others struggle? Why do some people love habits, and others dread them? A friend told me, “In high school, I was on the track team and never missed practice. But I can’t go running now.” Why?

I wanted to account for the habit differences among people. After months of intellectual struggle, I arrived at my “Four Tendencies” framework.

I figured out that when it comes to habits, it matters enormously how you tend to respond to expectations. We all face…

–         outer expectations (keep a deadline, meet a “request” from a sweetheart), and

–         inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend on the track team)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

The four tendencies Gretchen Rubin

(To see me discuss each category, for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, hereRebelshere, and Obligershere.)

From my observation, Rebel is by far the smallest category, followed by the slightly larger category of Upholder—which came as a shock to me. Many things became clear to me once I realized that very few people are Upholders.

By a huge margin, most people are Questioners or Obligers.

The Four Tendencies framework is useful for coaches—especially when working with Obligers. Why? Because of the key insight that Obligers are motivated by external accountability.

Of the Four Tendencies, Obligers are the most likely to wish they were in a different category. They say things like, “I wish I weren’t a people-pleaser” or “I wish I could take time for myself.”

Obligers excel at meeting the expectations that others impose, and they dislike letting other people down. However, while they’re good at meeting external demands and deadlines, they struggle to self-motivate—to go running, to work on a Ph.D. thesis, to attend networking events, to get their car serviced.

They find it difficult to impose expectations on themselves—to make time for their own work, or even to relax. They no longer make New Year’s resolutions, because they’ve broken them so many times. An Obliger summarized: “Promises made to yourself can be broken. It’s the promises made to others that should never be broken.”

Therefore, in order to meet inner expectations, and to form habits that benefit themselves, Obligers need structures of outer accountability. To follow through with an action or to form a habit, they need tools such as supervision, late fees, deadlines, disappointed friends, the duty to be a role model to their children, or other consequences enforced from the outside.

More than the other Tendencies, Obligers benefit from the support of coaches—career coaches, health coaches, executive coaches, life coaches—who provide the crucial accountability by setting concrete goals, establishing deadlines, and looking over their clients’ shoulders.

A psychiatrist friend made an interesting point about the difference between coaches and psychotherapists. “In the kind of therapy that I do, I don’t hold you accountable,” she explained. “I try to help you learn to hold yourself accountable to yourself. A coach holds you accountable.”

“Then I wonder if some people need a coach more than a therapist,” I said, thinking of Obligers. “Accountability to someone else is what they really need.”

Accountability is a useful tool for many people, but for Obligers, it’s crucial.

Coaches can play a critical role in allowing a person to succeed. How about you? Have you found that for some people, this kind of external accountability makes all the difference?

To learn more about the Four Tendencies framework, and other strategies that help people to change their habits, check out my book Better Than Before. Also, on my blog, you can find many habit-change resources, such as one-pagers on “Eating Better Than Before,” “Exercising Better Than Before,” and “Working Better Than Before.”

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, and the forthcoming Better Than Before. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

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Comments (6)

  1. Gretchen,
    Thank you for this excellent piece. It’s an important contribution to helping people learn how to breakthrough the “bureaucracy of habit.” As an executive coach i have seen coaching pay huge dividends with “Obligers.” This piece helped give a visual framework to support that.
    Look forward to your new book and learning more.

  2. Alexis Hutson says:

    Is there a link here to personality types (Jung) and the internally or externally focussed energy expressed by Introversion and Extroversion and how this is linked to Feeling and Thinking?

  3. I think that every framework has its own strengths, and that trying to make them match up means losing what’s specific and most helpful about each one. Many people have told me how they think the Four Tendencies map onto that framework, but I don’t think it’s the most useful way to think about them, myself.

    • Huw says:

      Not only a thought provoking article, but a great response to the question about Jungian overlap. Sometimes its important to just look at things independently, learn from them, and then internalise them.Thanks Gretchen.

  4. Michelle says:

    Great post Gretchen! I find the people that need a coach the most are fairly closed to the idea while those that least need a coach are the most open to the idea. Interesting observation there is that people willing to get out of their comfort zone are most likely to be successful in this thing we call life.

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