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  • Writer's pictureAustin Aloysius Tay

The Science of Behaviour Change : How Contextual Behavioural Coaching Drives Results

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In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, people seek coaches to help them overcome obstacles, unlock potential, and lead more vital lives. But with so many approaches, how can coaches empower fundamental transformation?

Contextual behavioural coaching integrates robust, empirical research on human psychology to foster positive behaviour change. This evidence-based framework creates a customisable path to help clients thrive.

Understanding Contextual Behavioral Coaching

Contextual behavioural coaching is grounded in a field known as contextual behavioural science (CBS). This analyses behaviours in light of their context to predict better and influence outcomes (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Wilson, 2012).

CBS builds on behavioural psychology principles but further explains complex human language, cognition, and behaviour. Concepts like relational frame theory provide a modern behavioural account of how humans derive meaning and form rules that govern actions (Hayes, 2001).

With precise, flexible principles backed by fundamental research, CBS offers coaches a robust framework for facilitating change. Contextual behavioural coaching applies this science to coaching in a pragmatic way.

A key focus is psychological flexibility – a client’s capacity to take values-driven action despite complex thoughts, feelings or experiences that arise (Hayes et al., 2006). Techniques like metaphor and mindfulness help clients alter their relationship with unhelpful thoughts and move toward what matters (Foody et al., 2014).

Why Contextual Behavioral Coaching Works

There are good reasons why contextual behavioural coaching helps drive transformation:

1. Targets Experiential Avoidance

Many clients struggle to make changes because complex thoughts, emotions, or memories show up. Out of aversion, they refrain from taking values-aligned action. CBS provides tools like acceptance and cognitive defusion to reduce this experiential avoidance so clients can move forward (Hayes et al., 1996).

2. Focuses on Values

Values create a compass to guide committed action. Clarifying what matters for a client provides purpose and motivation to tackle obstacles (Wilson et al., 2010). Progress flows from meaningful qualities of living, not just symptom reduction.

3. Promotes Psychological Flexibility

Clients learn to act on values even amidst challenging inner experiences. This psychological flexibility is key for adapting to situations and constraints (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). Coaches guide clients to dance with difficulties through metaphor, mindfulness, and experiential exercises.

4. Provides Flexible, Precise Principles

CBS offers a customisable framework based on functional processes, not predefined techniques (Hayes et al., 2012). Coaches combine methods to match each client's needs and objectives.

5. Supports Measurement

Tools like the Valued Living Questionnaire assess psychological flexibility and values progress (Wilson et al., 2010). This allows coaches to track effectiveness and guide intervention.

6. Offers an Extensive Toolset

With over 125 trials across clinical and nonclinical populations, CBS has a vast toolbox to address diverse behavioural challenges (Levin et al., 2012). Coaches tailor each approach.

7. Aligns With Coaching Mindsets

Unlike therapy treatment packages, CBS focuses on goals, awareness, and the coaching relationship to support growth. This integrative perspective fits well with coaching.

Research on Contextual Behavioral Coaching

A growing body of research confirms why contextually behavioural coaching delivers results:

- Multiple meta-analyses show CBS interventions like ACT reduce anxiety, depression, addictions, stress, and more, with effects equal to other empirically-supported treatments (A-Tjak et al., 2015; Ost, 2014).

- CBS methods help clients across life domains, from mental health to weight loss to occupational stress (Lillis et al., 2009; Forman et al., 2013).

- Psychological flexibility strongly predicts vital outcomes like work engagement, performance, learning, and well-being (Bond & Bunce, 2003).

- An ACT-based workplace intervention reduced employee absenteeism among those at risk for disability (Dahl et al., 2004).

- Coaching focused on values and committed action improved career satisfaction and performance more than traditional coaching (Spence & Grant, 2007).

- Even brief ACT coaching boosts outcomes like exercise enjoyment and fitness (Ivanova et al., 2015).

With a vast evidence base supporting CBS principles, contextual behavioural coaching is a proven path to help clients thrive.

5 Key Takeaways on Contextual Behavioral Coaching

For coaches looking to enable impactful change, here are five key takeaways on contextual behavioural coaching:

1. Assess Psychological Flexibility

Measure clients’ ability to act on values when facing unpleasant internal experiences. This offers a focus for coaching.

2. Clarify Values

Uncover what matters to clients to motivate behaviour change. Link actions to chosen life directions.

3. Use Acceptance Strategies

Apply defusion, mindfulness, and metaphor to handle complex thoughts, feelings, and memories when they arise.

4. Build Committed Action

Support clients to keep taking small steps toward values even when challenging. Momentum builds willingness.

5. Customise the Approach

Combine CBS tools and tailor them to each client’s needs and context based on the function of their behaviour.


A-Tjak, J. G. L., Davis, M. L., Morina, N., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A. J., & Emmelkamp, P. M. G. (2015). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84(1), 30-36.

Bond, F. W., & Bunce, D. (2003). The role of acceptance and job control in mental health, job satisfaction, and work performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(6), 1057-1067.

Dahl, J., Wilson, K. G., & Nilsson, A. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy and treating persons at risk for long-term disability resulting from stress and pain symptoms: A preliminary randomized trial. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 785-801.

Forman, E. M., Hoffman, K. L., Juarascio, A. S., Butryn, M. L., & Herbert, J. D. (2013). Comparison of acceptance-based and standard cognitive-based coping strategies for craving sweets in overweight and obese women. Eating behaviors, 14(1), 64-68.

Foody, M., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., Törneke, N., Luciano, C., et al. (2014). RFT for clinical use: The example of metaphor. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 3(4), 305-313.

Hayes, S. C. (2001). Relational frame theory: A functional analytic interpretation of human language and cognition. Behavior Analyst Today, 2(2), 4-9.

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Contextual behavioural science: Creating a science more adequate to the challenge of the human condition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1(1-2), 1-16.

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour research and therapy, 44(1), 1-25.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.

Hayes, S. C., Wilson, K. G., Gifford, E. V., Follette, V. M., & Strosahl, K. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 64(6), 1152-1168.

Ivanova, E., Yaakoba-Zohar, N., Jensen, D., Cassoff, J., & Knäuper, B. (2015). Acceptance and commitment therapy and implementation intentions increase exercise enjoyment and long-term exercise behavior among low-active women. Current Psychology, 34(4), 834-850.

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.

Levin, M. E., Hildebrandt, M. J., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). The impact of treatment components suggested by the psychological flexibility model: A meta-analysis of laboratory-based component studies. Behavior therapy, 43(4), 741-756.

Lillis, J., Hayes, S. C., Bunting, K., & Masuda, A. (2009). Teaching acceptance and mindfulness to improve the lives of the obese: a preliminary test of a theoretical model. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(1), 58-69.

Ost, L. G. (2014). The efficacy of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour research and therapy, 61, 105-121.

Spence, G. B., & Grant, A. M. (2007). Professional and peer life coaching and the enhancement of goal striving and well-being: An exploratory study. The journal of positive psychology, 2(3), 185-194.

Wilson, K. G., Sandoz, E. K., Kitchens, J., & Roberts, M. (2010). The Valued Living Questionnaire: Defining and measuring valued action within a behavioral framework. The Psychological Record, 60(2), 249-272.


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