Beyond the Aphorism: The Paradoxical Theory of Change as a Practical Lens for Coaching

paradoxical theory of change

Beyond the Aphorism: The Paradoxical Theory of Change as a Practical Lens for Coaching

Change happens best when one becomes what one is, not what one wants to be.

This, or some variant of it, is the paradoxical theory of change.

First expressed by Dr Arnold Biesser in 1970, the paradoxical theory of change has become a well-worn catchphrase in parts of coaching and therapy. 

Many coaches repeat it knowingly, but what does it mean in practice?

How does the paradoxical theory of change actually shape a coach’s practice?

In this article, I want to consider what it means to take this concept at face value and to coach from its premise in a meaningful way.

However, before beginning, I think it’s worth acknowledging the therapeutic roots of this theory, and therefore that we cannot assume a priori that it can be applied to coaching.  After all, the change process in coaching can differ significantly from the therapeutic context.

That said, the paradoxical  theory of change is a reasonably well-known dictum in the coaching space, especially by coaches who engage in transformative coaching, that itself has roots in shared psychological concepts.

As such I think it is worthy of investigation as to whether it is simply a wise-sounding aphorism or a practical lens for change.

What is the Paradoxical Theory of Change?

The paradoxical theory of change was first formulated by a Gestalt therapist, Dr Arnold Biesser, in a 1970 paper entitled, unsurprisingly, “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”.  

In it he states that change occurs most naturally and profoundly when one becomes what one already is, rather than striving to become what one is not. 

“not from the attempt to force change, but to engage fully with the present being.”

Dr Arnold Biesser

This idea is a core concept in Gestalt therapy and reflects a broader belief in the importance of authenticity and self-acceptance in coaching too. 

However, this statement can be challenging to understand because it seems contradictory at first glance – hence the paradox of change.

Many people enter coaching with the goal of changing something about themselves, whether that’s a behaviour, a thought pattern, an emotional response, a situation or something else. 

Clients enter coaching with change as their goal. 

However, the paradoxical theory of change suggests that the most effective path to change is not to strive to become different, but to fully accept oneself as one already is. 

The idea behind this paradox is that by attempting to force change, individuals often create internal resistance and conflict, which can actually hinder their progress. 

On the other hand, by accepting and acknowledging their current state, they can create a healthy and supportive environment for organic growth and change. 

This perspective invites clients to explore their experiences in the present moment and to accept them without judgement, which can lead to a deeper self-understanding and, ultimately, to meaningful change.

An important aspect of the paradox of change is that it does not suggest that people should avoid making efforts to improve themselves or their situations. 

Rather, it suggests that such efforts are more likely to be successful when they are based on a deep understanding and acceptance of oneself as they are in the present moment. 

What Does the Paradoxical Theory of Change Mean in Practice?

For a profession that is fundamentally about deliberate and conscious change, how might coaches work with the paradoxical theory of change in a meaningful way.  

How might it affect their practice as a coach?  Or is it merely an esoteric and provocative concept that hovers in the background?

If a coach is working from the perspective of the paradox of change, how will their approach be different from a more traditional goal-setting mode? 

Here are a few ways this may show up in the coaching relationship and methodology:

Focus on the Present: 

The coach would encourage the client to focus on their current situation and feelings, rather than focusing exclusively on future goals. 

This means exploring what is happening right now in their life and how they feel about it. 

This exploration of the present is not to negate the future or desired changes but to create a solid foundation from which change can organically arise.

A coach taking this approach might ask questions like:

  • As you think about it now, what comes to mind?
  • Where do you feel this in your body?
  • How do you experience this?

In other words, the coach is seeking to deepen the awareness of the current state of things.


A major part of the process will be exploring the client’s situation such that it enables a greater level of self-acceptance as they are right now. 

This involves identifying and acknowledging feelings, beliefs, patterns, and self-perceptions. It means exploring these aspects without judgement. 

A coach facilitating greater self-acceptance by a client might focus their exploration around questions such as:

  • Looking back, what do you feel you did well in this instance?
  • What strengths did you call upon in that situation?
  • How might you cut yourself some slack?
  • What are you expecting of yourself that you might let go for the time-being?


The coach would work to increase the client’s self-awareness. 

This might involve helping the client identify their patterns of behaviour, habitual responses, and automatic thoughts but without challenging them to change. 

By becoming more aware of these patterns, the client can better understand how they might be contributing to their current situation and can make more informed choices about how to respond.

  • How does this reflect a more general pattern?
  • What does that pattern reflect as a deeper way of thinking/being?
  • What are you seeking to achieve at that moment?

Experiencing Rather Than Avoiding: 

Often, clients may be seeking change to avoid certain aspects of their lives. 

A coach working from the paradox of change would help the client to face and experience these aspects, rather than avoiding them. 

This can lead to a more authentic understanding of oneself and one’s desires.

Indeed, the very name of our coaching school, Animas, comes from the concept of a life lived courageously where courage is looking at what is true right now.

This might lead to questions such as:

  • What are you avoiding?
  • What are you not saying?

It could equally lead to the coach reflecting a tendency for the client to deflect or minimise things that are uncomfortable.

Authenticity and Congruence: 

The coach would aim to support the client in identifying and moving towards what feels most authentic and congruent for them. 

This might involve identifying values, interests, and passions, and exploring how these can be more fully expressed in the client’s life.

  • What values lie behind these behaviours?
  • What is really driving this desire?
  • What matters to you about this?

Organic Change: 

Rather than setting rigid goals and trying to force change, the coach would encourage the client to allow change to happen organically. 

This might mean being open to unexpected opportunities, trying new approaches, and allowing the process of change to unfold naturally.

The coach might explore what is emerging by asking questions such as:

  • Where do you find your attention going as we work together?
  • What’s feeling important to you?
  • What’s your sense of what is emerging for you?

The coach might equally make observations of what they have noticed as a way to shine light into the spaces the client may not have noticed.

Section Conclusion

Overall, while the coach is still working towards facilitating change, the focus in the paradox of change approach would be more about helping the client to accept and understand themselves as they currently are. 

By doing this, the coach creates an environment where natural, organic change can occur. 

This can ultimately lead to changes that are more sustainable and aligned with the client’s true self.

paradox of change

Phenomenology and the Paradoxical Theory of Change

Anyone who knows the 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching, will know that, at the heart of this model, is phenomenological stance.

From a technical standpoint, phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that explores the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. 

It emphasises direct experience, unmediated by the interpretations, categorisations, or biases that we usually impose on our perception of the world. 

Put in more simple language, however, the phenomenological stance is about putting the client’s lived experience front and centre of the coaching conversation without an assumption that it must immediately be challenged, interpreted or reframed. 

In other words: theory, objective truth, models, the coach’s knowledge, commonsense and any other “external” frameworks come second to the client’s subjective experience in the first instance.

The paradoxical theory of change is inherently phenomenological in its approach. 

The focus on the here-and-now experience of the client, and the aim to understand the client’s perspective and experiences from a non-judgmental stance aligns closely with phenomenology. 

The coach encourages the client to fully experience and explore their present feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.

As stated already, the paradoxical theory of change suggests that change occurs when someone becomes fully aware and accepting of what they are in the present moment, rather than striving to become something they are not. This acceptance of the present state, and the exploration of one’s current experience, is deeply aligned with the principles of phenomenology. 

By helping clients focus on their immediate subjective experience, a coach working phenomenologically can help their client toward self-acceptance and, paradoxically, meaningful change. 

This acceptance is not a passive resignation but an active process of embracing one’s phenomenological experience, leading to greater self-understanding and eventually to change. 

Goal Setting and the Paradoxical Theory of Change

So where does all this leave a coach and the coaching focus on goal-setting or, at least, clear outcomes?

The paradoxical theory of change doesn’t necessarily render goal-setting redundant, but it does call for a shift in how goals are approached and conceptualised. 

Traditional goal-setting often involves establishing a future state that one wishes to achieve and then making a plan to get there. This can sometimes lead to a form of self-rejection, where individuals view themselves as inadequate or incomplete until they reach their goal.

When working from the perspective of the paradoxical theory of change, the emphasis is more on accepting themselves as they currently are. This doesn’t mean that one can’t also work towards future change or improvement. Instead, it suggests that meaningful, lasting change is more likely to occur when it’s rooted in self-acceptance and authenticity.

In terms of goal-setting, this could mean that instead of setting rigid goals based on an idea of who or what they should be, individuals might instead set goals that are more flexible and that arise naturally from their current state of self-awareness and acceptance. The idea is that by understanding and accepting oneself, one can more clearly see what changes are genuinely needed or desired.

So, in practice, a coach might guide their clients to focus less on setting and striving towards traditional goals, and more on developing self-awareness, self-acceptance, and an understanding of their present moment experience. 

From this foundation of self-understanding and acceptance, the coach can help the client to identify and pursue changes that are congruent with their true self, rather than striving for an idealised version of themselves.

In this way, goal-setting becomes less about trying to “fix” oneself or become something entirely different, and more about identifying ways to grow and develop in a way that is authentic and self-affirming. 

The goals are more likely to be a natural extension of the individual’s authentic self, rather than something imposed from outside or based on a sense of inadequacy or self-rejection.

My personal perspective on goal-setting and self-acceptance

From a personal point of view, rather than the strictly theoretical, I resonate with the paradoxical theory of change very much and yet I am also an avid visionary for my life.  

Not only do I set specific goals, but I develop larger scale narratives of what I want my business and life to be like. This provides me with a sense of direction and something meaningful to set my sights on and yet I remain flexible to how my life unfolds along the way, based on who I am becoming and what I feel in that moment.

It doesn’t seem to reflect on any level of self-acceptance (although perhaps I am in denial) but rather offers a way of looking ahead even as I accept myself as I am today.

To me, this seems to offer a perfect blend of the paradoxical theory of change and its focus on acceptance with the, as I deem it, necessary future-orientation that I believe humans benefit from.

Section Conclusion

In summary then, the paradoxical theory of change does not make goal-setting redundant, but it does shift the emphasis from achieving a desired future state to becoming more fully oneself in the present moment. 

From this place of self-acceptance, meaningful and authentic goals can arise naturally.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change and Coaching Approaches

The paradoxical theory of change is a broad concept that can be applied to many styles of coaching but there are some in which its stance is a more natural fit.

Gestalt Coaching

Given that the paradoxical theory of change is a core concept in Gestalt therapy, Gestalt coaching, which applies Gestalt principles in a coaching context, is naturally aligned with this approach. Gestalt coaching focuses on raising awareness and promoting self-acceptance, which can lead to authentic change.

Existential Coaching

Existential coaching focuses on issues such as freedom, responsibility, meaning, and authenticity. It encourages clients to confront their situation as it is and make choices that are in alignment with their authentic self. This philosophical approach complements the paradoxical theory of change.

Mindfulness-based Coaching

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental way, which aligns well with the paradoxical theory of change. By promoting a mindful awareness of current experiences, this approach can facilitate self-acceptance and natural change.

Person-Centred or Humanistic Coaching

This approach, inspired by the work of Carl Rogers, emphasises unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence. The coach provides an environment in which clients feel accepted and understood, fostering self-acceptance and organic change.

Psychodynamic Coaching

While not always directly associated with the paradoxical theory of change, psychodynamic coaching can facilitate a deep self-awareness and understanding, which can in turn promote self-acceptance and lead to genuine change.

Transpersonal Coaching

Transpersonal psychology integrates spiritual aspects of the human experience within the framework of modern psychology. It focuses on self-development and self-transcendence, which aligns with the concept of self-acceptance and organic change.

Section Conclusion

Each of these approaches emphasises in some way the importance of understanding and accepting oneself as a precursor to change, reflecting the essence of the paradoxical theory of change. 

Remember, though, that every coaching relationship is unique, and the most effective approach will depend on the specific needs, goals, and context of each individual client.


My aim in writing this article was not only to describe the paradoxical theory of change but to examine what it means in practice and how a coach might work differently with a client when guided by its underlying assumption of how change happens.

As I look back across the article, I have a sense that I only partially succeeded and, in a sense, this seems like a feature (rather than a bug) of the paradoxical theory of change itself. 

It is not about method or approach so much as a stance towards the inherent worth of an individual and their natural propensity to change when they are in a state of self-acceptance.

Yet, self-acceptance is itself a moving target since the self is not static. Thus the true practice of a coach working from the premise of the paradoxical theory of change is to move with the client’s changing self-awareness and to simply stay in the moment with what emerges.

As per the classic phrase, the coach must trust the process that change will occur over time by helping the client stay tuned into who they really are and what is coming up for them.

Author Details
Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.
Nick Bolton Avatar
Nick Bolton

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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