Cognitive Dissonance, Scaling and the Coaching Conversation

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (1957) is one of the most enduring theories of social psychology (Strong & Fernandez, 2008). Essentially Festinger proposed that ‘…the possession of dissonance (inconsistent cognitions) creates psychological discomfort that motivates people to restore consistency.” (Harmon-Jones et al, 1996, p.5).

At the core of cognitive dissonance is the concept of discrepancy. The gap between the desired state, the current state and the psychological discomfort from that discrepancy arouses the desire to maintain a sense of homeostasis leading to attempts to alleviate or remove the discomfort. Dissonance theory proposes (Strong and Fernandez, 2008) that the move to alleviate this psychological discomfort is undertaken in several main ways…

  • Changing the original beliefs
  • Changing the perception of the actions
  • Changing actions to bring then into line with the original stated desire.

Coaching is fundamentally about the management of self-regulation in the movement towards goals. Indeed, according to (Spence & Oades, 2011), “a coachee’s success will depend upon how well they can manage their thoughts feelings and action in support of goal attainment.” (p.37). Consequently, any theory that seeks to understand how and why people ‘move’ (or do not move) in their thoughts, feelings or actions towards goal attainment has relevance to coaching. Indeed there are several specific applications of cognitive dissonance theory that could be explored in the coaching context: targeting and framing questions; influencing the way that check-in/follow up sessions are structured; stressing the effortful nature of goals, but for the purposes of this paper the concept of ‘scaling’ will be explored.

Scaling is a widely used coaching tool, (Szabo, 2006; Jackon & McKergow, 2007; Berg & Szabo, 2005) and provides a method for visually demonstrating the extent of the distance between the current state and the desired state in relation to any identified goal. If ‘10’ represents achievement of the desired goal and ‘1’ represents no progress at all towards this goal coachees are asked to indicate on the scale where they might currently be in relation to the desired state. The very nature of the scaling process sets up a visual ‘discrepancy’.

In order to build and hold the dissonance and thereby increase the motivation to reduce it via thoughts and actions that move towards the desired state it is helpful to work at both ends of the scale. Questions that seek to intensify the importance and value of the desired state are helpful here. For example, “Why might this be important to you?”, “What benefits will flow from achieving this?” Similarly questions that seek to intensify the aversive state can also be helpful. For example, “What will be most disappointing if in six months’ time there has been no movement on this at all?”

Further research (Draycott & Dabbs, 1998; Newnham-Kanas et al, 2011), although specifically applied to Motivational Interviewing, has relevance to the ‘scaling’ in coaching contexts. The researchers (Draycott & Dabbs, 1998) recommend making the current state and desired state graphically visual by writing these down in parallel columns. They also recommend weighting both reasons for the desired change (consonant factors) and those against (dissonant factors) as a way of holding the dissonance so that it is less likely to dissipate.

Additional research exploring hypocrisy as a form of dissonance (Strong & Fernandez, 2008) found that public declaration of the desired state together with private acknowledgement and intensification of the factors eroding movement towards the desired state was a significant motivator of consonant action towards the desired state.

Bannink (2006) offers a practitioner perspective arguing for an adaptation of the scaling process on the basis of dissonance theory. Typically the scaling process is introduced immediately following a detailed articulation of the desired state and coachees are asked to rate their current position. Bannink reverses this asking questions about what is already working prior to scaling. She argues that when coachees identify positive resources first they rate their position higher on the scale because of the need to avoid dissonance. When coaches use the scale immediately following the description of the detailed future the rating is typically lower. It then becomes more difficult to uncover resources and build self-efficacy since a lower rating and the need for dissonance avoidance means there is probably little in the way of resources available.

Others (Axsom, 1989) have noted that in order for dissonance arousal the desired state or goal needs to be freely chosen. It is also important that the current state needs to be as a result of actions (or inactions) for which the coachee feels some sense of direct responsibility. Using the scaling technique and attempting to intensify dissonance would be less likely to be effective in such situations where this was not the case.

A deeper look at cognitive dissonance theory reveals some significant ways in which a more nuanced use of scaling could enhance its effectiveness in coaching situations.


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