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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Time Commitments Create Certainty in Coaching Conversations

This article is inspired by the work of David Rock and neuroleadership. You can find a copy of his paper on the SCARF model here.

Nestled within the International Coaching Federation's core competencies for coaches, specifically competency 3.9, is a seemingly obscure tidbit about managing time within the coaching session.

Partners with the client to manage the time and focus of the session

While some coaches might adhere to time commitments with religious fervor, others might view them as hopeful suggestions that may or may not apply to them. Who cares if they go over 10 minutes?

The client's brain is the one that needs a sacred time commitment.


There are many social triggers that generate an approach (positive) or an avoid (negative) response. One of these is a sense of certainty, or how accurately the brain can predict the near future. Brains are designed as pattern-seeking human computing devices, constantly seeking data to verify predictions about how things should happen.

Brains don't continuously seek knowledge of the future out of a desire to control reality (though most people wouldn't mind that). Instead, brains are seeking out and constantly validating patterns because its efficient. There's too much information constantly bombarding the five senses for brains to filter and make sense of in real time. Instead, brains seek patterns to help lighten the cognitive load.

This keeps things running smoothly until something emerges that breaks the pattern. Anything novel or unique captures the conscious attention. This is wonderful when its something pleasant, like a box of chocolates or a random hug from a loved one. It's arresting, however, when it's a broken commitment, such as how long a coaching session is supposed to last.

Time commitments

Simple promises, such as arriving to a coaching meeting on time or ending after an agreed upon interval, aren't so simple that they can be overlooked. When these agreements are breached, they create an avoidance response in the brain. Like trying to ignore a Check Engine light that just popped up on the car's dashboard, these errors in certainty are a magnet for the brain's attention.

Rather than opening up and maintaining vulnerability, violating time commitments subconsciously cause the client to wonder what else might not be sacred, what other commitment might be the next domino to fall. To keep the brain secure in its need for certainty, successful coaches make and keep conversational time commitments.

For those moments in which a conversation might need to be extended, coaches can pause and simply ask, "It feels as if we're onto something here. We're almost out of time, so I wanted to check in and see where you're at. We can end right here or we can continue for another 10 minutes. Which one works best for you?"

To keep brains awash in beneficial neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine, successful coaches honor their time commitments with their clients.

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