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Positive Behavioural Change

How to use Positive Intention and Metaphor to give someone a real boost to their interpersonal and relationship skills

I’m occasionally asked to help when a man in a senior leadership position is seen as being particularly challenging or negative in his relationships. Or similarly, when his interpersonal behaviour is having a damaging effect on other people or is just not getting the results that the business needs.

My experience has been that it’s almost impossible to help this man change his behaviour by starting out being critical of him. By the time things have got to the point where the business seeks my help, plenty of other people (and, sometimes, even the man himself) will already have been highly critical of him. Even if my being critical would have worked as a behavioural change catalyst (and sometimes it can), that option is often no longer available to me.

Instead, I often apply a change strategy based on two key aspects:

  1. the power of Positive Intention; and
  2. the use of Metaphor.

1. Positive Intention

Positive Intention works by seeking to understand, from the other person’s perspective, what was the ‘good’ outcome they were hoping to achieve by applying the behaviour that they used. Even if the actual outcome they got was highly negative, there will be something from their point of view that they were trying to achieve that, to them, would have been a positive outcome.

If I can understand what their Positive Intention is, as they see it, that’s halfway to creating the rapport and partnership we need for me to help them explore other behavioural strategies.

I’ve listed some of the examples I’ve come across of Positive Intention in the table below.

2. Metaphor

I’ve noticed that there’s something about metaphors in a coaching context that lets them fly right under a client’s radar, bypassing any resistance to change.

When we’ve found a metaphor that works well to either describe what the client’s positive intention was, or to picture how a ‘good’ interpersonal relationship might work, I can often see that it’s like weight has been lifted from their shoulders. See the table below for some examples.

Positive Intention and Metaphor


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Good to Talk

The Zen of a great space for thinking out loud about ideas, concerns and ambitions

One of the best aspects of my work is how much people value the chance to just talk about stuff.

There are several things you have to do before, during and afterwards to make it work well, but, the most important message I’d like leaders and managers to take from this post is really simple:

having a good-quality opportunity to talk and think out loud about the things that excite, concern and drive us is a fundamental requirement for operating well and feeling good about things at work

If you’ve set this up well, people will arrive ready and raring to go, with lists, narrative notes or a thought-cloud of things they want to share.

As a coach, it’s sometimes surprising how little I actually have to do on the outside – the important part for clients is for me to ‘witness’ whatever it is they are sharing. And I’m often consciously working at not doing anything else other than witness during these times. I’m also working at not letting my opinions and my own concerns and ambitions crowd-out my attention.

Things that seem to make it a good quality opportunity for people include:

1. Environment
The actual physical space you’re in, which needs to feel fairly protected or perhaps isolated I think. Although you can do a lot towards that just by the way you interact and negotiate together about what’s to be said and how they want you to be during the saying of it

2. The Coach or Leader’s Attitude
Holding an attitude in mind where (as the coach) you can connect really well with whatever it is that you find genuinely interesting, magnificent or even puzzling about this person. This I think is the key to good, deep listening and should be what drives your body language and verbal ‘tics’ (the uh-hu’s and hmm’s etc)

3. Offering People the Chance to Just Talk
On a conscious level, people don’t always seem to know that they want the chance to just talk. So it needs to be part of the negotiations about what they want from you as their coach and I think you may sometimes need to offer it explicitly: “You know, people sometimes just want me to listen to what’s been going around in their head and in their experiences. Would that be useful for you either now or sometime?”

4. Confidentiality and Managing the Agenda
There are also the real basics, like your commitments to confidentiality and how it works if you’re this person’s boss and therefore also have to juggle your own and the organisation’s agenda as well as listening to them. Make sure you talk about these right upfront, preferably before offering an ear to someone. But do it not in an idealistic way, but in a way that includes and is explicit about the reality – what are the limits to the confidentiality you can offer this person? What are the potential conflicts with your own agenda for what you want them to achieve and what the organisation wants?

For me, being able to give someone the chance to talk about (and hear for themselves) their ideas, concerns and ambitions is an incredibly privileged and humbling experience. Instinctively (and I have more learning to do about this), my sense is that the experience of talking about these things should be really ‘zen-like’ – unadorned and aspiring to true insight.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers