Pattern Recognition in Coaching – Connecting the Dots

Sep 19, 2018

This is a guest post by Mohan Bala, Coacharya training program alumnus. 

As coaches, we are encouraged to act as distortion free mirrors of the client’s reality and we do this largely in 2 ways, sharing an observation or asking a question. But what exactly are we doing? What differentiates an incisive observation from one that’s merely empathetic, a powerful question from a shallow probe? I believe, every time we do the former, our mind has made some connections and recognized a pattern in the clients narrative or ways of experiencing. I believe that at the mastery level, coaching is all about the ability to recognize and skillfully call out meta patterns in client’s world

Research on leadership styles (McClelland, Goleman, Hay-McBer) has conclusively established the link between emotional intelligence and successful leadership styles. Out of the multitude of cognitive and emotive parameters examined on one of the studies, there was only one cognitive ability, pattern recognition, that differentiated outstanding leaders from the good. It is no coincidence that EI is almost an axiomatic element of Coaching technology. Coaches are Leaders, there are no 2 ways about it. And the practice of coaching is in essence, the pursuit of excellence in self and social leadership. In a sense, it was inevitable that pattern recognition too had implications in coaching.

How do patterns manifest in coachingPatterns of thinking and behavior are nothing more than conditioned responses to external inputs. A coach’s recognition of such patterns can open up a potentially powerful inquiry into the client’s beliefs and values. You might have noticed that dismissive statement (“Of Course that is irrelevant!”), seemingly out of context in the client’s narrative. Or observed that the client’s words (“It doesn’t bother me in the least”) and body language are at odds with each other; the way a client responds to challenging questions; apparent contradictions in the client’s statements. These are common examples.

I find it a useful metaphor think of myself as choosing various points to stand on in the client’s narrative landscape and noticing the dips, hollows, and oddities that reveal themselves. Such patterns are not limited to the client’s narrative alone. For the coach, his/her inner patterns can show up as biases, stereotypes and prejudices that may get super-imposed and therefore distort the coach’s perception.

Can we learn to connect the dots? It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Pattern Recognition is a cognitive skill and can be learnt through cognitive exercises (I played Sudoku for weeks). The danger down this path is that because we think this is something that can be learnt and applied, we may start actively looking for patterns in the clients narrative or circumstances. That would be a mistake.

If we pause to reflect, it becomes glaringly obvious that the ‘subjective’ awareness of the coach is going to be heavily influenced by the coach’s own thought patterns. Therefore, the key to cultivating this useful skill lies in progressively reducing the distorting influence of the coach’s inner patterns. This is a direct pointer to the coach’s inner awareness levels, and one of the areas a supervisor coach would typically work to develop. And that brings us around to the quality of our ‘Listening’. As our ability to Listen progressively improves, so does the ability to notice ever more subtle patterns of conditioned responses and conflicts therein.

To sum this part up, a master coach does not seek out patterns, rather she permits them to emerge as an inevitable consequence of her own growing awareness. Otto Scharmer, in Theory U captures this for all time in his distillation of the field structure of attention. Thus ‘where am I listening from’ is directly connected to ‘what am I listening to’.

Scharmer’s ‘where I am listening from?’ Degree of Distortion introduced by the coach What am I listening to?
I-in-me: what I perceive based on my habitual ways of seeing & thinking Highest My own biases, stereotypes, judgements
I-in-it: what I perceive with my senses wide open Clients verbal, non-verbal patterns, circular reasoning.
I-in-you: what I tune into and sense from within with my heart wide open Subtle shifts in energy levels, underlying beliefs, worldviews, assumptions, values
I-in-now: what I understand from the soul of my being, attending with my open will Lowest The plethora of possibilities available in the moment. Infinite potency!


Coaching is all about ‘noticing’; for which hearing and visuals are just sensory inputs. The act of noticing is about connecting the dots in multiple dimensions. It’s a bit like looking up at the sky on a starry night and making sense of the billions of tiny dots of light.

While each of us are inclined to notice slightly different things, here are 3 I most often encounter.

  • The Circular Reasoning – where cause and consequence chase each other. A recent client said that he wanted to get up early to exercise because his legs were aching, but could not bring himself to do so…because his legs ached so much. Some may not be so obvious, but circular reasoning can often point to a core dilemma that needs resolution
  • Unstated Assumptions – Very often I have heard clients make matter of fact statements that contain a few ‘taken for granted’ things. A client may say, “Look, in order to lose weight, I need to get a trainer, right?’ The pattern of such unspoken assumptions over the course of a session can reveal certain operating norms that may restrict exploration of fresh options. Calling this out can open up deeper paths for exploration
  • The Strong Assertion: The ‘this is who I am’ statement. Clients often make declarations about who and how they are in the course of a conversation. ‘Look, I am a very direct person’ OR ‘I am always respectful to my team members’. Typically these are statements reflect the client’s self image and are worth a deeper exploration

What would your list look like? As we start noticing what we are noticing, the range of patterns that we notice will expand and grow…and our coaching can then truly begin to explore and understand the ‘who’, in the client and our own self.

Mohan Bala
Mohan Bala


Mohan Bala is a Coacharya alumnus, professional coach and learning consultant. His describes his life as an inquiry into the unifying principles of 'the way everything works' in the phenomenal and nuomenal universe.

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