MindShift: Understanding and Shifting Mindsets

mental model

Jaime, a school principal, was working with a teacher around her grading system—she was wanting to make her grading more equitable and accurate, and had adopted a no-zero/minimum grade policy. Nothing about her course design had changed, however, so all that had really shifted was that missing work was credited with 50% instead of 0%. Jaime was struggling to get this teacher to reflect on what her grading beliefs really were, deep down, but she couldn’t see or access those deep-rooted unconscious beliefs that Jaime felt were holding her back from making a transformative shift in her approach to teaching and learning.

This is the work of a coach, in essence: facilitating the process of shifting a person’s mental model from one configuration to another. Put another way, a coach’s job is to help someone else manage change or adopt a new perspective or way of thinking. This requires, as Jaime knew, digging into the deeper self, rooting around, and surfacing core values and beliefs—oftentimes values and beliefs we are not aware we hold, and which can secretly interfere with us making conscious change. There are several models that help to explain this mind shifting process, and provide the coach with tools to support their client through the transition from holding onto an unproductive mental model to adopting a more helpful, values-aligned mindset.

Jerry Connor and Karim Hirani, in their book The 4 Greatest Coaching Conversations, reference Assagioli’s Egg of Being in order to help us understand the structure of individual mindsets.

Assagioli's Egg

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist, developed the theory of psychosynthesis, and conceived a map of the Self much like an egg. At the bottom sits our Lower Self, housing our unconscious, entrenched beliefs, often developed a long time ago and without our explicit awareness. In the middle we find our Conscious Self, that which we are aware of and which we can easily access in our day-to-day, present life experiences. At the top resides our Higher Self, our future or aspirational self, which connects to our personal sense of meaning and purpose. Finally, all around us, is the Ecosystem—the collective set of beliefs and behaviors in our culture that often impact our personal mindsets, often and again without our awareness. Connor and Hirani’s coaching conversations seek to surface and bring awareness to the different parts of our Selves. Their “Be” conversation, for example, surfaces mindsets housed in our Lower Self; their “Inspire” conversation brings awareness to our aspirational values and sense of purpose.

In Cognitive CoachingSM we learn the iceberg model of Reference, Deep, and Surface Structure based on the work of Noam Chomsky and others. The bottom of the iceberg, deep below the water’s surface, is the Reference Structure of ourselves, the deeply imbedded and automatic root of our thoughts, behavior patterns, and knowledge. Above the Reference Structure, but still underwater, is our Deep Structure, where our values, beliefs, identity, and mental models are stored; these are still subconscious, typically below our level of awareness. Above the surface of the water, that which can be readily seen, is the tip of the iceberg, the Surface Structure, what we are aware of and where we pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues in our environment and relationships with others. The work of the Cognitive Coach is to help surface these often unexamined Deep Structure beliefs at work within us, to better understand ourselves in order to choose growth through a mental or cognitive shift. During a Problem-Resolving Conversation, for example, the coach may invite cognitive shift through accessing one or more states of mind, perhaps consciousness through metacognition, or efficacy through reflection. The states of mind help raise the Deep Structure values, beliefs or identity to the surface for the client to examine.

Image By Biogeographist - Page 6 of File:CDP October 2018 quarterly check - Slide deck.pdf, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another name you may be familiar with, Elena Aguilar, references the Ladder of Inference as a helpful graphic to explain how people move unconsciously from an experience, to making meaning of it drawn from our own cultural biases or societal backgrounds (remember the Egg’s Ecosystem?), to drawing conclusions which crystallize into a belief and eventually informs our actions.

In her Coaching for Equity book, Aguilar states, “It’s empowering to recognize that our beliefs are built on specific information, often on data that is incomplete or even problematic.” Reminding us that a belief is simply a “strongly held opinion,” she goes on to say that understanding how our beliefs were created helps us take responsibility for their impact on ourselves and others. The coach focused on equity, for example, may help their client unpack a problematic perspective (“Kids today are just lazy!”) to better understand their own beliefs about work ethic, student expectations, and recent societal shifts regarding schooling, homework, and family time.

What all of these models have in common is the idea that all people have different levels of consciousness and awareness, and that oftentimes the work we need to do as adults is to access, surface, and label our deepest core values, beliefs, and mental models on which we build our identity. The coach asks: Which of these are productive for us as we grow, learn, and teach others, and which are counterproductive or harmful to our own goals and aspirations?

Whichever model Principal Jaime chooses, his top priority is to help his teacher identify and understand her core beliefs around grading so that she can grow as a person and show up as a more conscientious educator for her students. His coach, in turn, will likely work with him to remember that all change—especially deep-rooted mind shifts—must be supported in a safe, trusting, nurturing environment to be at all effective. His coach will work with him on setting aside his own values triggers in order to best support his teacher through her cognitive shift.

What might you use to identify and access your deeply held beliefs, biases, values and opinions? How might these be impacting, consciously or unconsciously, your actions and interactions with others?


Aguilar, Elena. Coaching for Equity: Conversations that Change Practice. Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2020.
Connor, Jerry and Karim Hirani. The 4 Greatest Coaching Conversations: Change Mindsets, Shift Attitudes, and Achieve Extraordinary Results. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2019.
Costa, Art and Robert Garmston. Cognitive CoachingSM Advanced Seminar Learning Guide © 2021 by Thinking Collaborative, LLC.