Coaching: The Mind Does Matter

In this article I want to share my belief that a client’s ‘inner game’ or the conversation they are having with themselves, is just as important as the coaching conversation we are having with them.

Coaching has morphed into many different forms in the last twenty years or so but the fundamental principle that people are capable of finding their own solutions still underpins most approaches.  The more experienced and skilful the coach, the better they usually are at ensuring they are not ‘interfering with the process’ by asking leading questions or following their own agenda.  Our role is to listen, follow the client’s interest, ask simple questions, make them think, challenge them, help them get a much wider perspective and hopefully a deeper understanding of their issue.

When we do this well there is often a breakthrough moment that leads to the client seeing things differently and this in turn often opens up a bigger range of potential solutions.  It is an empowering process because the client finds their own way through the problem and as a result is usually more committed to implementing the solution.

So where does ‘inner dialogue’ figure?

When we ask our client questions there are actually three conversations taking place. The coaching conversation we are both part of and the internal conversation going on in the client’s mind and our own.

The more we know about ‘inner dialogue’ the better equipped we are to manage our own and help our clients manage theirs.   Recognising that there is a dialogue going on is the first step.  Most people tend to attribute the conversation going on in their head as ‘merely me thinking’ but if it is a conversation going on, then ‘who is talking to who?’  To be able to answer this question I think it is helpful to consider the work of two people who have greatly influenced my coaching; Timothy Gallwey famous for his work on the ‘Inner Game’ and author of ‘The Inner Game of Work’ and Dr. Steve Peters the author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’.


‘The Inner Game’

Gallwey identifies two parties making up our internal dialogue and describes them like this:

  • ‘Self-One’ a dominant, judgemental, mainly critical voice that tells us what we ought to do or should have done.  It is risk averse and sees difficulty, danger and the downside of new opportunities.  It is fear based and cautious which can be a good thing if we are about to over reach ourselves but limiting and over protective if not.

It is a voice we have ‘learned to listen to’ rooted in our life experience.


  • ‘Self-Two’ a more encouraging, supportive and positive voice.  It is generally quieter as Self One tends to dominate. It believes in our capability and if we learn to trust it, it can help us perform with grace and ease.  In many ways it is the voice of our potential. The voice we heard most when we were young and less weighed down with self-doubt, worry and fear.

This may appear a little simplistic but it does give us something to work with and my own experience is that clients immediately recognise and relate to the two descriptions.  It is a way of categorising the internal dialogue into a voice that is likely to be helpful in the main or a voice that is going to hold us back.  A performance enabler versus a performance inhibitor.

Gallwey sees Self-One as the voice of interference in his simple but powerful equation:

                                                Performance = Potential minus Interference

He argues that whatever it is we are trying to do, our potential will only be fully realised if we are able to quieten the voice of interference (Self-One).  When athletes talk of being focused and ‘in the zone’ they have somehow managed to distract Self-One and allowed Self-Two to come to the fore.  If you think of an occasion when you surprised yourself by how easily and effortlessly you performed a challenging task or skill, you will probably find that Self-One was quiet for some reason and Self-2 was allowed to perform without interference.

The Chimp Paradox

Dr.Steve Peters identifies three voices and talks about ‘The Chimp, The Human and The Computer’ referring to three parts of our brain that work differently and appear in our internal dialogue.  Whilst they can work together, they often get into conflict and struggle against each other to gain control.

The Chimp is an emotional thinker that processes information with feelings and impressions.  It makes assumptions based mainly on a hunch, paranoid feelings or defensive thoughts.  As Chimps are constantly vigilant to danger they tend to think catastrophically.  The purpose of the Chimp is survival.

The Human works with evidence and makes decisions based on logical thinking. Considering context and maintaining perspective is typical human thinking.  The purpose of the Human is to achieve self-fulfilment.

The Computer can think and act automatically using programmed thoughts and behaviours. It is the reference source for information, beliefs and values.  A mind-set based on the sense we have made of our experience to date.  ‘Potentially the Computer is more powerful than the Chimp and the Human because it is the reference source that both of them look to for help and guidance’. (Peters)


More than two voices

Whilst Gallwey and Peters use different metaphors; they both provide a simple working model to help us become more aware of how we talk to ourselves.  It makes a very complex subject more accessible and allows us to begin to differentiate between the many internal voices we hear on a daily basis.   Groups I work with often identify up to twenty different types of voice, ranging from ‘you’re not good enough’ to ‘you can do this’.  You won’t be surprised that each of the TA Drivers appears to have their own voice too.   The ‘Hurry Up’ Driver will pushing for action and speed or telling us there is no time to stop and reflect.  The ‘Be Perfect’ Driver will be pushing for extremely high standards, neatness or telling us we must not compromise excellence for speed whilst the ‘Please People’ Driver will be creating all sorts of anxiety around the way we have interacted with others ‘you shouldn’t have said ‘No’ to doing that extra work.’

Not all of these voices should be labelled ‘interference’ and deemed unhelpful.  Self-One telling us to be careful for example can prevent us from getting into trouble but my experience is that the voices we attribute to ‘Self-Two’ are usually more trustworthy and authentic.  Interestingly about 75% of the voices people identify do fall into the ‘interference’category.  Psychologists have long observed a human tendency to attend disproportionately to the negatives, as in the past our survival was often dependent upon recognising threats(the Chimp/Self-One).

Whilst I predominantly work with Gallwey’s interpretation of ‘inner dialogue’; like Dr.Peters I also introduce a third voice to my clients.  It is one which I think is particularly important for them to be able to recognise called ‘The Gremlin’.  This is the ‘voice of catastrophe’ and recognisable to most as the one that keeps them awake in the middle of the night.  It feeds our innermost fears and results in a temporary loss of perspective.  It is a controlling voice that is threatened by change and fights hard to maintain the status quo.  It wants us to stay exactly as we are.

As most coaching results in a commitment to change something, it is always going to make an appearance and do it’s best to sabotage our efforts or undermine our resolve. Knowing how to recognise the Gremlin and manage the Gremlin is paramount for clients as it is the biggest threat to them successfully implementing the change they want to see.

‘Our internal saboteur is what holds us back. It is the part of us that lacks the confidence to make the changes we want or sees the negatives and downsides of what we may be resolving to do. Although it is often in the background, it is an extremely powerful voice and can easily undermine our attempts to change by setting barriers that force us back into our habitual ways of thinking and behaving. Learning to recognise the internal saboteur and its patterns/tactics is the first step to help you stay true to your resolutions in the long term’ (Professor Ewan Gillon, First Psychology Scotland)

The Coach is another Self-Two Voice

Helping my clients to become more aware of how they ‘talk to themselves’ and these different voices has become a key part of my coaching practice.  I find Gallwey’s Self-One and Self-Two easier to work with especially if I work with the client to further subdivide each voice.  When we are working with our clients I believe we counter the Self-One voice and allow Self-Two to address the issue.  By creating a safe, relaxed environment and asking our clients to ‘suspend judgement’ we are effectively quietening their Self-One.

If they ‘self-censor’ their options and find it difficult to look beyond the difficulties a potential solution presents, again I believe we neutralise the ‘interference’ by asking them to temporarily ignore the difficulties and focus on the difference this course of action would make.

As coaches we aim to listen without judgement and encourage our clients to say what they are thinking without worrying about how it might sound.  Ideally we will be operating in Self-2 mode ourselves which undoubtedly will counteract their Self-One.  We want to be working with their Self-Two as that is where the solution will come from.

The best performances occur when Self-One is quiet and Self-Two is in control.  That also applies to our own coaching performance.  Just think of how many times your full attention is distracted by ‘interference’.  It might be an internal voice telling you that ‘you need to know what the next question is going to be’ which is then countered by a reassuring voice that says ‘just trust that you will know what the next question needs to be’.


I believe our internal dialogue has a huge influence on the decisions we make, the ‘truths’ we hold to be sacrosanct, the way we feel and the way we behave.  As well as helping clients to solve their own problems, I think we also have to help them recognise that they can choose which voice to listen to. This gives them greater control and empowers them. 

If we can give them a way of categorizing the voices that appear in their ‘inner game’ and help them understand how they might manage their mind more effectively, then the good work we do as a coach is less likely to be undermined.  Most coaching is about wanting something to be different and this usually involves change.  We know that many people find sustainable change challenging and that their commitment to any new course of action is going to be potentially weakened by an internal voice telling them ‘it’s too difficult,’ ‘it won’t work,’ ‘you can give up now,’ ‘it’s much easier not to.’

As a Personal Mastery Coach my aim is to help my clients become the person they want to be, the leader they want to be, the partner they want to be, the parent they want to be etc.  A big part of my role is to help them see that this is who they already are.  Understanding how they are ‘getting in their own way’ enables them to take responsibility for the choices they are making on a daily basis.  The good news, is that we can all choose at any moment which voice to listen to.

‘That choice makes all the difference in not only how happy you are, but whether you reach your true potential.’ (Shirzad Chamine)

Personal Mastery requires people to be very self-aware.  They need to understand how they make sense of their experiences, how their drivers impact them positively and negatively, where their authenticity comes from, how their past has contributed to their beliefs and how those beliefs can work for them and against them.  For me, heightened awareness of ‘the inner game’ underpins the whole mastery process and is key to the work we do as Coaches.  When it comes to helping people make a sustainable change, I believe the mind really does matter.


Jeff Jackson

9.9 World Class Performance Ltd