By Andrea Sharb, ACC, CPO-CD, COC, CPO, Guest Contributor

I recently attended the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Annual Conference in Nashville where I was lucky enough to hear some fantastic presenters, including Russell Barkley, PhD, who led two different sessions on ADHD, Self Regulation & Executive Functioning, Karen Boutelle, PCC, who spoke on Bridging the Gap: Helping Clients Move From Knowing to Doing and Denslow Brown, MCC who led a session titled Motivational Coaching.

In addition to her conference session, Denslow Brown and her colleague, Cameron Gott, PCC taught a six-hour post conference workshop on the same topic. The workshop was based on Gott’s AEC Coaching Process Model and ideas related to Richard Boyatzis’ Theory of Intentional Change. Workshop participants learned about motivation as it relates to supporting clients in building Awareness, Engaging in action, and Completing actions. We also learned about the motivational impact of focusing on Positive Emotional Attractors and Negative Emotional Attractors.

This workshop was not my first introduction to the work of Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University. Boyatzis was the opening keynote speaker at the 2014 ICF Conference in Cleveland this past June. His presentation, Coaching Rocks Inspiration: Better Performance, Learning and Relationships (Intentional Change Theory), was lively and engaging with plenty of takeaways, my two biggest being:

  • An introduction to Boyatzis’ theory of self-directed learning and
  • An introduction to Positive Emotional Attractors and Negative Emotional Attractors.

Boyatzis’ theory of self-directed learning is based on a series of five discoveries:

  • the ideal self and a personal vision;
  • the real self and its comparison to the ideal self resulting in an assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, in a sense a personal balance sheet;
  • a learning agenda and plan;
  • experimentation and practice with the new behavior, thoughts, feelings or perceptions; and
  • trusting, or resonant relationships that enable a person to experience and process each discovery in the process.1

It was affirming during Boyatzis’ address to note the similarities between this series of discoveries and the coaching process. It was also affirming to learn about research that is being done at Case Western Reserve University around coaching and intentional change. Though I won’t be digging deeper into these discoveries or this research in this article, I encourage you to learn more by reading Boyatzis’ conceptual paper titled, An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. [i]

What I will focus on relates to the third of his above five discoveries. In discovering “a learning agenda and plan” the person seeking change is developing an agenda and focusing on his or her desired future. It is in this phase two attractors: Positive Emotional Attractors (PEAs) and Negative Emotional Attractors (NEAs) come into play.

Boyatzis tells us a PEA “pulls the person toward their ideal self” and “[i]n the process of focusing the person on future possibilities and filling them with hope, it arouses the parasympathetic nervous system.” 1 Conversely, NEAs arouse the sympathetic nervous system: your fight or flight nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is said to focus on thriving, while the sympathetic nervous system is concerned with surviving. It’s not hard to see which of these systems would be more beneficial for our clients to access in order to build motivation.

In their workshop, Brown and Gott highlighted what’s possible when the coach is mindful of PEAs and NEAs and just this week I was able to observe this first hand. I was working with a client who’s on the verge of a long distance move and couldn’t find the motivation to begin packing. Early on in the session she stated, “I don’t want to go, but I have to”. She continued on by listing horrible things that might happen in conjunction with this move: loss of income, unhappiness, having to deal with unpleasant people. Dwelling on these NEAs was causing her significant stress and keeping her from moving forward with her preparations. The sympathetic nervous system was working overtime and, as she put it, she was “paralyzed.”

In response I did nothing more than ask, “What’s possible because you get to go?” It was amazing how quickly the parasympathetic nervous system kicked into gear and she began to list opportunities: reconnecting with friends, spending time with family members and possibly making a different kind of impact professionally. When I asked her about her biggest takeaway from the session she was quick to state, “Focusing on the positives of getting to go!”

Getting to go!” – talk about a perspective shift!

As coaches, we know we can’t motivate a client, but we can help create situations in which they can create their own motivation. Sharing this knowledge with our clients and helping them understand the impact of PEAs and NEAs not only helps them build motivation for a change they’re currently making, but can help them build resourcefulness for the future.

[i] Richard E. Boyatzis, An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective, Case Western Reserve University, 2006, 10 Oct, 2014.

andrea sharbAndrea Sharb, ACC, CPO-CD, COC, CPO is certified in both professional organizing and coaching. Her most rewarding work is with disorganized adults who are creative, intelligent and overwhelmed, especially adults with ADHD. In addition to supporting her clients, Andrea serves as an instructor for the Coach Approach for Organizers program. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @SharbOrganizing or contact her via