Generative Coaching: The Practical Use Of Creative Consciousness

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.
Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.
Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.
(Kabir, translated by R. Bly)

Helping people to improve their lives is one of the world’s oldest professions. It has assumed many forms –philosophy, fortune telling, shamanic healing, religious rituals, informal relationships, psychotherapy, and so forth– but the underlying process of people seeking guidance for life changes has endured. The practice of generative coaching, that I have co-developed with Robert Dilts, is a third generation version of the more recent tradition of professional people helpers.1 This brief paper overviews generative coaching, first by briefly situating it in a historical context and then outlining the five basic steps of the approach.

Generative Coaching: A Third Generation Approach

Over the past century, many different methods for helping people to change have been developed. Relevant to coaching, we can distinguish three generations of such approaches. The first is traditional psychotherapy, initially developed by Freud and others.  Here the focus is primarily on problems (often thought of as “mental disease”) and the past (in terms of negative events that “caused” present problems).  The idea is that intellectual understanding of historical causation will free the person from the grip of their problems. It is essentially re-hashing the past to try to free up the present, with the therapist a distant expert figure who diagnoses the pathology of the client.

For many, this approach was not attractive because it (a) took too long, (b) was very expensive, (c) pathologized and stigmatized people, and (d) often produced little or no real-world changes. In response, a second generation of change approaches emphasized a person’s resources and positive goals, action over analysis, and solution-focused future orientation.  These approaches developed first within psychotherapy, with diverse brief therapy methods such as the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, the Transactional Analysis of Eric Berne, and the hypnotic utilization approaches of Milton Erickson.

Concomitantly, the related field of the human potential movement arose in the 1960s and 70s.  It rejected authoritarian and pathologizing approaches in favor of positive changes through increased awareness, self-actualization, and altered states of consciousness.  These new methods shared a client-based, positive-oriented view that stood in stark contrast to the first generation.

These second-generation approaches constellated in the 1990s with the emergence of what might now be called traditional coaching.  Coaching was not for “sick”or “damaged” patients, but for healthy people seeking to improve their professional and personal lives. Freed of the “crazy” stigma and strict hierarchies, coaching was attractive to many people, and has found applications in a number areas, such as life development, business, health, and sports.

However, in positioning itself as a counter-point to traditional therapy, coaching declared areas like emotional work and internal consciousness to be taboo or irrelevant.  We believe that such restrictions are unhelpful and unnecessary, and that the best coaching involves equal attention to the “outer game” of a person’s goals, lived experiences, and practical choices; as well as to what Tim Gallwey (2000) calls the “inner game”of a person’s state of consciousness.  Such an approach assumes that all reality and identity are constructed, and that a person’s or group’s state– e.g., their beliefs, intentions, perceptions, somatic patterning, and cognitive meanings– is the base for such constructions (Gilligan, 2012). This orientation to integrating various dualities in a “both/and” approach –internal/external, problems/resources, past/future, cognitive/somatic, etc.– constitutes what we call third-generation approaches.

To understand the differences between these three generations of change work, a brief example might be helpful.  John is a 40 year old man living with his mother, struggling as a telemarketer.  If he came to traditional psychotherapy, he would likely be diagnosed in terms of some mental disorder that he is trapped in– e.g., depression, anxiety, character disorder– and the work would focus on either medicating him, removing the symptoms by understanding their historical causes (e.g., negative childhood experiences), or challenging his negative or non-reality based thinking. Traditional coaching would give more primary attention to his positive, future-oriented goals (e.g., starting a business) and seek to identify the resources (mentors, associates, positive associations) and actions needed to practically achieve it.

Generative coaching would ensure his goals/intentions are congruent and resonant (as will be elaborated below), then look to develop his best state of consciousness to allow the positive intention to be realized. This attunement to an optimal state might include somatic centering; identifying and transforming negative beliefs; accessing and integrating a variety of resources; ensuring action plans; identifying and transforming negative emotions and relationships relevant to the goal; and opening to a creative consciousness.

Thus, we see generative coaching as a broader and deeper type of work than traditional coaching. In emphasizing that a person is responsible for creating their own life, it invites people to learn how they can realize their dreams by mastering their own creative consciousness. While it maintains a positive orientation to the future and “infinite possibilities,” it sees all of a person’s experience –positive and negative internal states, beliefs, historical experiences, creative imaginations, somatic states, etc.– as potential resources to achieving these positive goals. To understand this process a bit more, we now turn to the five basic steps of generative coaching.

The Five Steps of Generative Coaching

Generative coaching sees creative work as a process of disciplined flow –that is, it needs to both activate and trust the creative consciousness that flows through all creative work, but also provide the discipline needed to skillfully shape the flow of experience into creative action.  We see this discipline organized around five core steps.

Step 1: Identifying positive Intentions/goals

At the heart of generative consciousness is a positive intention to live creatively into the world. Positive intentions, when held with deep somatic resonance, are the “drivers” or organizers of creative consciousness; patterns of infinite possibility coalesce into specific actualities around them.

Positive intentions and goals can be identified with various questions:

  • What specifically do you want to achieve?
  • What is your mission?
  • What is your vision/dream?
  • What is your calling?
  • What is your deepest intention?
  • What do you stand for in life?

Of course, “positive” does not mean “good” vs. “bad” , but rather a declaration of something a person wants to experience or achieve in the world– for example, an intimate relationship, a successful business, good health.  To be generative, such positive goals need also to be succinct.  By succinct we mean that the content of the goal statement should be 5 worlds or less.  For example, the client might be asked to use the following statement:

What I most want to create in my life is X

X is limited to 5 words or less. This can be strictly but playfully enforced by the coach holding up a hand and counting the number of words the client uses for the goal content.  If the word limit is exceeded, a playful “beep” is sounded and the client is asked to find a more succinct wording. The point is to find a clear, simple declaration of the goal.  Becoming too “wordy” at this primary level will muddy the waters of awareness. While the secondary level of background information is important, it should be distinguished from the simple base of the primary goal.

A third condition for a generative goal is that it be resonant.  This means that the client’s speaking of it should create a felt sense in both the speaker and listener(s).  If no one is touched by a person’s interest, it will likely have no potency.  Thus, a general question we use throughout the interview is:

When you say/think/experience X, where in your body do you most feel its center?

Such questions allow the connection of the verbal (cognitive) mind to its somatic base, which we believe to be integral to the mind-body unity needed for creative action.  Without it, words often have no power.  By coaching the person to sense the somatic/cognitive connection underlying creative consciousness, words become magic.

While these three conditions for a well-formed goal–positive, succinct, and resonant–are simple, they are often not easy to meet in practice.  As we elaborate elsewhere (Gilligan, 2012; Gilligan and Dilts, forthcoming), skillful coaching is typically needed to ensure that clients can find and maintain a palpable connection to their deepest goals.

John, the client cited above, came to see me for generative coaching.  When initially asked about his goals, he could only say that he wanted to “feel better,” “not live with his mother,” and “stop worrying.”  These would not be considered well-formed goals in generative coaching, being too vague and/or negative. It took several sessions for him to sense and speak a deeper positive goal of “creating a successful internet company.”  This shift came after we took the time to help him develop a generative state, which is the second general step of the approach.

Step 2: “The inner game” :  Develop a generative state

To realize their dreams, people must be able to develop and maintain creative states of consciousness.  This is the focus of the second general step of generative coaching. To reiterate, a core premise is that each person actively creates their reality and experience, and that this creative process occurs through multiple levels of filters or maps. These filters are like stained glass windows, transducing creative consciousness into the particular patterns of experiential reality (see Gilligan, 2012).  They map multiple levels of identity– for example, neurological, cultural, familial, or individual– and include many types of values (for example, beliefs, body images, core values, ideas about the future, transgenerational patterns, etc.).

The particular reality that results is a function of the settings of these filters.  For example, in my research at Stanford University on state-dependent memory, we found that when individuals were in a particular emotional mood (such as sadness), their cognitive processes– e.g., memory, perception, attention, and predictions about their future– would be biased by that mood (Gilligan & Bower, 1984).  Shifting to a different mood (such as happiness) resulted in significant changes in these cognitive processes, in the direction of the new mood.  Thus, emotional mood serves as a filter through which a reality is experienced.

There are, of course, many other types of biases.  In generative coaching, we distinguish three general types of filters (1) somatic, (2) cognitive, and (3) relational fields.  A person in a problem state can be observed to have negative patterns in their somatic, cognitive, and relational fields– e.g., a slumped or rigid posture, negative beliefs, and critical support teams.  By shifting these filters to more positive and higher quality values, new experience and reality is possible.  Thus, generative coaching gives a lot of attention to helping clients get into a “generative state.”

One set of acronyms we use to explore this with clients is COACH vs. CRASH. COACH stands for centered, open, aware, connected, and holding space; CRASH stands for contracted, reactive, analysis-paralysis, separating, and hurt/hateful. CRASH states give rise to problems and stuckness, whereas COACH states allow creativity and positive responses. We teach clients to recognize when they are in the negative states, and how to shift into a generative state before trusting their thoughts or actions.

In the coaching with John, he was clearly in a low-quality negative state when thinking about his professional life– worrying, self-blaming, tense, and focused on negative images.  We explored how he could develop a generative state involving centering, attuning to a set of positive futures, and developing an imaginary “resource council” (Gilligan, 2012) of mentor-like figures to advise and guide him.  He practiced this generative state many times throughout the day.  Slowly he replaced a CRASH state with a generative COACH state, especially for his work identity.  Significant improvements in his work performance resulted.

Step 3: Taking action

Once intention is set and a generative state is developed, a person is ready to take creative action in the world.  We see three parts of this process: (1) plans, (2) actions, and (3) evaluating results and re-acting.  These are central parts of most coaching methods: A client is asked what they want to achieve and how they might do it, and is then encouraged to take action.”  Depending on how things go, these plans and actions are modified accordingly.

We find it helpful to have clients write down their plans, getting specific in terms of what have been called the “journalistic questions” of what, where, when, with whom, and how.  The client is then asked to make commitments to enact the plans, and keep written notes of their actions and results.

There are a variety of other methods we use for this general step. One is to have a person keep a daily journal with two categories: (1) What did I do today that brought me closer to my goal or intention?  (2) What did I do today that brought me further from my goal or intention?  This simple form of self-reflection can be very helpful in shaping one’s behavior and experience towards a more positive way of being.

My client John made plans and took action in many areas of his work life, including recruiting new personnel, changing his marketing strategies, redesigning his personnel training practices, and reorganizing how he spent his time at work.  As is typical, it was only when he took action that he became much clearer about the best ways to make things work.

Step 4: Transforming Obstacles

In the course of any creative path, many obstacles are encountered. They can be external, such as people or institutions that try to thwart development, financial or health crises, or setbacks and failures.  They may also be internal obstacles, such as negative beliefs or emotions, ambivalences, or lack of motivation.  Generative coaching sees creative utilization and transformation of such inevitable patterns as integral to success and growth– partly because to ignore them is too often to be limited by them, but more importantly because such negative patterns carry energy and potential resources.  Thus, we take a sort of aikido approach to problems, shifting from the counter-productive “fight/flight/freeze/or fold” responses, to creative flow to transform problems into solutions (Gilligan, 1997; 2012).  This is one of the unique and distinctive features of generative coaching, as our forthcoming book details.

An underlying idea here is that in the creative unconscious, an experiential pattern has many possible forms, both negative and positive, with its actual form a result of the human connection to it.  For example, fierceness could be positive (e.g., commitment, self-protection, determined) or negative (e. g., angry or destructive), depending on how it’s humanly held.  By bringing positive skillful connection to negative experiences, they can be transformed to their positive forms.

For example, John found himself unable to hold his sales people accountable for meeting their sales quotas. He discovered that he was afraid of getting angry, lest he repeat the rageful legacy of his father.  In connecting with both the anger and fear as “energies” in his body, he found ways to develop and integrate their positive versions of sensitivity and focus.

Step 5: “Keeping it Going”:  Practices of Generative Self-Development

Given its core principle that a person’s state of consciousness is a primary determinant of what realities and experiences are possible, a final step in the generative coaching process has to do with ensuring that clients develop positive mindbody practices to keep growing and changing.

I typically talk about this with clients in terms of the three major pillars of a happy and successful life.  The first two are work and love (family, intimacy partners, etc.); most people agree that success in these areas is crucial to happiness, health, and creative living. The third pillar of the “good life” is practices. While work and personal relationships always entail some responsibility and attention to others, practices are primarily about giving whole-hearted attention to your self.  Examples include journaling, meditating, walking, reading, physical exercise, self-affirmation practices, and so forth.

I like to say that you’re only as good as your practices.  If you are dedicated to improving your quality of consciousness on a daily basis, your life will get better; if you are not, positive development is much less likely.  The most common excuse for not doing regular practices is “I’m too busy right now.”  We challenge such an excuse, emphasizing that most of us will never be given the time for practice, we must take it –e.g., several 20 minutes of self-practice sessions per day.  Such practices not only improve the quality of experience and performance, they also provide the expanded time sense needed for well-being and creative consciousness.

We help clients identify which practices might be most helpful and rewarding for them, and focus on the how to ensure that they are done on a regular basis. With John, he found that taking a long walk each morning was exceptionally helpful, as was going for a walk whenever he found himself mired in anxious thinking at work.  He also returned to an old practice of playing and writing music, and this reconnected him to an inspirational and creative energy.

With all his hard work and positive changes, John’s life took off.  His company became enormously successful, with over 80 employees, and he met a woman who became not only his general manager but also his wife! As he said, he was living the life of his dreams. Further challenges arose, but his continued commitment to training and living from a generative state allowed him to successfully navigate each step of the way. The last time I talked with him, he was wealthy, healthy, and happy.


We see generative coaching as a third generation of change work.  It includes most of the basic principles and methods of traditional coaching–an emphasis on positive goals, future orientation, and action plans–but also gives major attention to a person’s state of consciousness, including their negative emotional states.  By emphasizing the “inner game” of a person’s performance as equally important as their outer life allows new possibilities to emerge.  By having a positive curiosity and skillful orientation to negative experiences (in the service of positive goals), lost energy is re-claimed and new skills are discovered.  Most important, its primary goal is to connect clients with the creative consciousness needed to generate a happy, successful, and meaningful life.

1Robert Dilts and I were students together at UC Santa Cruz in the mid-70s, and part of the original group of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. While Robert became one of the most important developers and teachers of NLP (Dilts, 2003; Dilts/Delozier/Bacon Dilts, 2010), my path moved through Ericksonian hypnosis and psychotherapy and then onto generative approaches to change. (Gilligan, 1997; 2012). We re-connected around ten years ago and have been co-developing various approaches to generative change (e.g., Gilligan/Dilts, 2009). The generative coaching approach is a culmination of this collaboration. The material from this article is elaborated in our forthcoming book, “Generative Coaching: The art of creative consciousness.”


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