Clients often express negative thinking, which they imagine to be objectively true, but which are actually not true at all.

A classic example is “I could never do that.” As coaches we learn to challenge these, for example by asking, “What would actually happen if you did?”

These sorts of challenge have been codified in various ways: two excellent ones are the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the NLP Meta Model.

What to do when models don’t work

Nevertheless, however good a model you are using, these challenges don’t always work. This isn’t the fault of the model. The reason can be that the client is not in the right mental or emotional state to answer the questions. They might just get defensive, or even ‘fly off the handle’.

Mindfulness presents a way of creating the right state in the client so they can do this personally challenging work. It enables clients to notice their thoughts without judging them, without judging themselves for having them, without feeling threatened, without worrying about the implications of these thoughts – or without any baggage, really.

The mindful person simply notices. In this frame of mind, clients are much freer to question the validity of their thoughts. They can answer your challenging questions in a calmer, detached manner.

How to challenge negative thinking using mindfulness

I always teach mindfulness on my courses (and often directly to my clients) along with the Meta Model as a way of questioning beliefs. Here is a simple process that I teach, that gets people into a mindful state where they can challenge unhelpful thinking for themselves.

1. Notice when you are saying negative things to yourself.

2. Pause.

3. Focus your attention on your body and breathing.

4. Allow yourself to notice your thoughts without engaging with them or re-entering a narrative.

5. Let yourself question those thoughts, in an objective, calm manner.

I use this process on myself when I feel upset or angry.

Notice your negative thinking

In this state, I usually find myself telling myself the story of what’s happening in a way that presents me as a victim. I’m saying stuff like “It’s not fair!” or “I did all these things for him/her and they’ve gone and let me down!” (and so on). There is an unpleasant yet familiar pain along with this. Suddenly I catch myself in this cycle. This is the first, and probably most important step, noticing that I am in this repeating pattern.


Rather than immediately challenging the negative thoughts with analytical thinking, I pause and deliberately move away from thinking. I focus my attention into my lower abdomen (an area known in Chinese medicine as the Dan Tian) and count 10 slow breaths.

Focus on your breathing

My mind is usually eager to get back to its negative groove, so I have to discipline myself to remain focused on my breathing. My mind calms down. I now have some distance from my thoughts.

Notice your thoughts

The next step is not to solve whatever problem caused this unhappiness, but simply to get myself into a more useful state so I can tackle the issue later. It’s time to use those challenging questions. I consider some of the negative statements that, in my mind, made a problem into a catastrophe. The Meta Model teaches me to look out for words such as never, always, can’t, should and must. Are these generalisations and absolutes actually true? I realize that they are not. My mind begins to calm further. I look at the judgements I made about other people: are they really that stubborn, ill-natured and inflexible? Probably not. I look at words I used to describe the situation. Hopeless. Is it really that bad, or am I just worrying excessively? Probably worrying excessively.

Review the situation

I now begin to feel more normal again. I finish the process by promising myself to review the situation and take further action within 24 hours, but that right now I will move my attention away from it and return to enjoying my day.

I will be covering both mindfulness and the Meta Model in our next three day course on How to Coach with NLP, TA and Mindfulness. I consider the Meta Model to offer a slightly more comprehensive list of negative thought patterns than CBT, although both are useful.

Do come along; it could prove a great way to help your clients and for you to become an even better coach of yourself.

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