The subtle cognitive layer of coaching conversations for learning

In coaching, structuring the conversation is important. But how many coaching models exist?

If you practiced as a coach for a while, you probably came across a lot of frameworks. They are as many as the niches coaches look for to develop their network and business. However, all frameworks are founded on one idea: that coaching conversations shall bring their subject forward.

When we consider cognitive coaching, that is what we do when we want to improve our mental skills. In a way, cognitive coaching is a subordinate layer of any kind of coaching. It promotes self-awareness and critical thinking, it pushes the coachee beyond their prejudices, it provokes imagination.

Learning and Coaching

Observation, memory, communication, reasoning, and emotional intelligence are encompassed by coaching. However, I want to stress out the “cognitive” way because it is the dearest to me. Not only do I focus on coaching for learning: I use self-coaching as a form of introspection and retro-analysis, to improve my coaching skills.

Learning is a complex process. When we get curious about something new and we want to absorb as much information as possible, we do not consider the infinity of variables that influence us, both in the planning and the act. Time, energy, mood, any other kind of limitation we may have, or we pretend to have… Those factors surely make a difference.

Learning in the Flow

Csikszentmihalyi was among the latest to give to the learning process a non-linear, holistic scheme. He defined optimal experience as the one we have when we both learn and enjoy. We can achieve this, in the delicate balance between our level of competencies and the degree of difficulty.

The other name he used to describe this kind of experience is, perhaps, more popular. Let’s consider the experience as something that progresses. Then, let’s think of the time we spend on learning and trying what we learn. The degree of absorption we feel (sometimes, without realizing) when we do something. Then such a name is very appropriate: Flow.

This is a state where the sense of time is altered while we are performing the action; when we have a great focus on the doing, and great awareness of what is happening, altogether. Unbeknownst to us, we are living the moment to its fullest. And we are growing, as well.

Disrupting the Flow

The more we learn, the more our skills grow. And the more they grow, the more we are longing for higher challenges.

When we find challenges too easy for us, we may end up bored. That would take away the pleasure we felt up until this moment. When we get bored, we might end up looking for new challenges.

However, if they are too high, if we are unable to overcome them, frustration is what will kick in. It angers us not being able to get where we want. This happens especially when we set too high expectations for ourselves (also, if somebody else does, that is even worse). We risk ending up as in a fable of Aesop: like the Fox that does not reach the grapes, thus leaving and pretending the fruit is unripe, we will find some excuse not to pursue our goal.

You may need the Flow to be disrupted

Being unable to move forward is what makes us feel “stuck” somewhere. That is normally when we look for a coach. We know we have the right skills; we just do not know how to put them to use. This is what we feel. Unlike the Fox, we do not run away, rather we seek help.

The support granted by coaching is not exactly an advisory one – but again, that depends on the style the coach will adapt. The point I am trying to make is that, as a coach, we are going to refine the existing skills of the coachee.

Løvoll and Vittersø (2012) provided some interesting insights into the theory of Flow. They criticized the fact that optimal experience occurs when there is a perfect balance between skills and challenges. As they claim, if challenges are matching our level of competencies, probably we are not going to learn much, neither we will enjoy them as they would be too easy. On the other hand, frustration might be the trigger to move on and get better. Higher stakes put us in front of our limits: to overcome them, we need to get better.

As martial artist, I cannot agree more. After all, the same concept has been expressed by Bruce Lee: “no limits as the limit”.

As a coach, I am even more delighted. From physics and biology we know that whenever a system loses its balance, it will find a way to achieve a new one. This is nature. We could end up regretting that we abandoned something because, at one point, we were incapable to find a solution. Coaches are there to provoke thoughts and motivate their coachees, with no need to give them a lecture. Sure, feedback is something helpful, but learners especially seek out real-time feedback and immediate application, as Malcolm Knowles teaches us.

What does coaching has to offer to learners that aim to get the best in their field? Let’s see some use cases.

Memory Improvement

Coaching forces the interlocutor to think and elaborate. That will shed a light on the complex neural network of our coachee. We can target specifically the current state of knowledge: what the coachee knows, and what he or she does not know. But also, what does he/she does not know to know. This is exactly what we could consider a tacit knowledge: something that we cannot express but is there. We may attribute it to intuition or genius. Maybe we are right: sometimes those factors are the key to bringing it out. I am talking about information that is stored in our memory but not in a way we can recall them easier.

Coaching can help to create more bridges between the knowledge we want to retain and the one we already have stored clearly. An interesting study (Nelwan et al., 2018) tries to demonstrate that. It had set three groups of children with ADHD: one received memory training and a high quantity of coaching; another one received memory training and low coaching; the third one had coaching, but no memory training.

The astonishing result is that the third group performed better than the second one; and in general, highly coached individuals had better memory retention and mathematical skills. From this, I can infer that individuals who receive coaching on what they learn can mature skills faster or deeper than those who only study. This may be even more relevant for adult learners, who often have limited time to afford into learning and expect good performances.

Experience learning and growth critically

Open questions are a core element of coaching. Some of them are solution-oriented: they promote positive thinking, looking at how to overcome the challenge rather than its origin. However, solution-oriented conversations are not like a bulldozer that puts down issues as if they do not exist. On the contrary, ignoring sources of frustrations and hindrances merely delays problems that, sooner or later, will even become a bigger block.

So, even if solution-oriented, a coaching conversation should be critical. That means, examining reality for how it is, and putting the coachee in conditions to discern his feelings and emotions from the events (something like a self-assessment). This can take some time, but once we built a habit, the coachee will be grateful.

Critical thinking is useful in any kind of learning, whether you are an analytical or a pragmatic type of person. Interpretation, analysis, evaluation of facts, and finally inferences can be applied to our learning experience as a form of introspection. Or, they can be fleshed out by the coach. All to better understand what is blocking us from progressing further.

Many studies consider the role of critical thinking in coaching and its effects on coachees. One of them (Catchings, 2015) shows how we can become more factual, less dramatic, and righteously confident while learning at work or studying. Participants had just to attend coaching sessions, together with reflective practice as “homework”.

In another case (Chaplin, 2007), it was considered how traditional schooling systems do not prepare students to develop meta-skills (such as critical thinking and listening). Schools rather assume them as implicit. So, once students move to higher degrees school, they feel overwhelmed by their higher intensity and rhythm. The high challenges hinder students from underperforming and lacking interest or dropping once and for all. For the sake of the research, some students were divided into those who experienced coaching as a set of learning techniques, and those who did not. The experiment demonstrated how inducing debates as a form of group coaching, and coaching students after the class is significant for the learning experience. Interest is higher because students participate actively. But even more interesting is how students who underwent coaching acknowledged their lacks, thanks to critical thinking promoted during coaching sessions. As for the previous example, they were willing to improve and felt confident in succeeding.

Creativity and Imagination

We may now consider another interesting facet of coaching: its ambiguity. We want to avoid asking rhetoric and leading questions as those suggest a partial or full answer. This way, coaching becomes ineffective. But open, powerful questions have ambiguity as to their best feature. No half answer is provided, so the coachee really needs to think deeply about options.

In learning, imagination and creativity are extremely important, because they keep our interest high. That’s no daydreaming, and those who, like me, use imagery, memory palaces, and dual coding to retain information better, knows well how it is important. For entrepreneurs, originality is important to reach new niches of customers. For students, to have a hypothesis to test and to write an amazing dissertation without sounding trite and monotone.

I already quoted the work of Tomlinson (2020) in my previous article. It is based on his analysis of the elements of Romanticism in coaching that I developed my own, for cognitive purposes. And I am looking forward to new works on the matter.


  • The coachee may have a clear goal and some expectations but does not know the real flaws behind the challenge.
  • While balance is important in learning, sometimes it is refreshing and stimulating to overcome challenges that are, at the first glance, higher than our skills.
  • The right coaching questions can trigger memory and critical thinking. Over time, those can endure as a habit.
  • Coaching helps the coachee to conduct self-assessments, gain confidence and create interest. Without these three factors, we may derail easier from our learning experience or its purpose.
  • Coaching helps manage negative emotions. We can tame frustration and boredom through solution-oriented conversations.
  • Ambiguity is an essential element of coaching questions because it stimulates the imagination of our interlocutor, with interesting and positive outcomes.


  • Catchings, Gwendolyn. “A Practical Coaching Model for Critical Thinking Skill and Leadership Development (C/CTSLD).” Management and Organizational Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 2015, doi:10.5430/mos.v2n4p42.
  • Chaplin, Susan. “A Model of Student Success: Coaching Students to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Introductory Biology Courses.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 1, no. 2, July 2007, doi:
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, 2009.
  • Knowles, Malcolm S., et al. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005.
  • Løvoll, Helga S., and Joar Vittersø. “Can Balance Be Boring? A Critique of the ‘Challenges Should Match Skills’ Hypotheses in Flow Theory.” Social Indicators Research, vol. 115, no. 1, 2012, pp. 117–136., doi:10.1007/s11205-012-0211-9.
  • Nelwan, Michel, et al. “Coaching Positively Influences the Effects of Working Memory Training on Visual Working Memory as Well as Mathematical Ability.” Neuropsychologia, vol. 113, 2018, pp. 140–149., doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.04.002.
  • Tomlinson, Carl. “Using the Romantics to Understand the Imagination: A Creative and Original Methodology for Research into Coaching.” International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, no. S14, 2020, pp. 132–142., doi:10.24384/rq4t-ny31.


I had a difficult time to choose the examples for this article. More will be treated in my upcoming book, New Maieutic, others not. Sadly, longer the blog to read, faster the attention of the reader waver.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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