Building Blocks

by Cinnie Noble

The other day I was watching a friend’s granddaughter laboriously pile square blocks on top of one another. She gleefully stood up as the edifice she was building became taller than her. Proudly, the toddler made sure we saw and praised her masterpiece. In one fell swoop she knocked over the blocks – giggling and clapping her hands. It was adorable. This charming scenario has become somewhat of an analogy, in my mind, about blocks that coaching clients build and break down, as well as a number of similar sentiments that arise in this regard.

As coaches it is common to witness our clients encounter blocks during the course of our engagement. Like the child in the above scenario, they build them — though not necessarily at such a conscious level. That is, though our clients (and us, too) may not appear to build blocks with the same sort of pride and glee, there is usually some purpose. And that purpose likely reflects the tendency to rely on well-honed and predictable patterns of acting and interacting that have kept them within their comfort zone. Fears of all sorts, unmet needs, lack of confidence, unresolved matters, vulnerability and insecurity, pessimism, despair, and various other emotions all contribute and pile on top of one another until the tower of blocks feels daunting and impenetrable and bigger than we are.

One of the things about blocks is that we do not necessarily recognize how and when we build them. We might not process that our blocks may be devices that protect us from things that need our attention before we feel safe to move on. Or, we may not see them as justification or defensive symbols that keep us from taking risks and advancing to places where accountability increases. Or, we may admit that we intentionally form barriers – afraid of failure, or even success.

As coaches we know that, counterintuitive as it may seem to our clients, celebrating the blocks – even the act of building them – also presents opportunities for reflection and learning.

Building and Breaking Down Blocks

Identifying blocks is, of course, not as easy as with the toddler’s game. However, coaches use various techniques to help clients gain clarity on what drives and constitutes their impasses – to be able to ultimately break them down. We may, for instance, use questioning skills and metaphors. Examples include: How do you describe the blocks? What’s inside them that is standing in your way? On what foundation do they stand? What is the mortar binding the blocks? How are the blocks helping you? What don’t you know about them? If the blocks could talk, what would each tell you?

Where the analogy with the child’s building blocks and clients’ impasses gains even more strength is when the blocks are knocked down and there comes the empowering acknowledgement: “I can do this!” To facilitate this evolution, coaches use visualization and forward-thinking questions. For example: What do you expect to feel like when you knock over the blocks? How might the blocks be helping you? What power and other strengths do you have to break down the blocks that you aren’t using yet? Who will you be when you overcome the blocks? What else will be different for you?

Other Coaching Techniques

Other techniques that work well for clients who are visual, may be to ask them to draw what the impasses look like, or what the blocks will look like when they overcome them. Some may find it helpful to compare an impasse to one they observed or read about in a movie, television show, book, etc. in which a character encounters a dilemma. Asking the client to describe what it was like for that person and what was done to overcome their blocks often engenders hopefulness and provides ways to identify possible action steps. Asking how the impasse tastes, feels, sounds, etc. can also be powerful for some people. These methods and others are useful for tuning in to how clients process their worlds and their efforts to overcome challenges to success.


In whatever ways we help coaching clients to discover their blocks and how to overcome them, using creative methods to shift their mindset often results in positive energy that opens up different ways of understanding them. By inviting our clients to tap into their strengths and inner resources to break down their blocks also results in the huge release that comes with relying on themselves to conquer them. And that is as much fun for them to experience as it is for a child building a tower of blocks.

Cinnie NobleCinnie Noble is a lawyer, mediator and certified coach (PCC) specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You.

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