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Coaching Conversation Fire Starters: Using TED Talks to Enhance Executive Coaching (Part I)

Starting a powerful conversation can be challenging for both coach and coachee. Using a conversation fire starter can help set the session tone, open the mind, and get the creative juices flowing. TED Talks can be used as fire starters to help raise key issues for discussion in the coaching conversation. TED Talks have been a valuable source of information for business leaders, lifetime learners, and executive coaches since its establishment in 1984 (TED, n.d.).

TED Talks provides listeners with presentations and ideas from entrepreneurs, executive coaches, business leaders, scientists, researchers, doctors, psychologists, and individuals from every age, demographic, and race. The wide net of discussion, ideas, and information provided by TED Talks is a valuable resource for today’s executive coaches. Because of the vast knowledge available through TED Talks, the top TED Talks as identified in TED Talk-created playlists and TED Talks’ top 2021 presentations have been aggregated for your review. By mining the most significant TED Talks, high-impact and valuable data that could address your executive coaching needs and the needs of those you coach are nearly guaranteed to be found.

2021 was a tumultuous year for the executive coach and business leader alike. Executives were tasked with managing the impact of COVID-19, hiring challenges, and the new work-from-home revolution. Many executives worked with their executive coaches in brainstorming new ideas, solutions, and strategies for overcoming these new challenges, changes, and business hurdles. From TED Talks’ list of top presentations in 2021, the following are most congruent with the challenges, roles, and needs of executive coaches and business leaders today.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, shares his experience with the feeling of languishing. He shares how the “acute anguish” of COVID-19 gave way to “chronic languish.” He explains that languishing has been around before the pandemic, and explains why he believes “flow” is a key cure to languishing. Adam defines flow as “mastery, mindfulness, and mattering” and discusses how incorporating flow into the workplace is important for business leaders’ and employee well-being.

Current research points to an overall decline in public mental health with symptoms like depression and anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Clifton, 2021). Adam Grant, in his presentation and article, associates these mental health challenges with increased feelings of languishing during the pandemic lockdowns and changes. When executive coaches are aware, not only of the mental health challenges during the pandemic but also the potential for feelings of languishing, they can better identify when their clients are facing these challenges and ask questions congruent to these issues. Furthermore, executive coaches can also inform their clients of Adam Grant’s theory of “flow” while also brainstorming, questioning, and discussing how this information can help the business leaders they coach.

The changes COVID-19 has brought to the marketplace have spurred many discussions on work-from-home, inflation, the great resignation, and vaccination policies. These discussions can be difficult and involve a multitude of different ideas, perspectives, and beliefs. In this TED Talk, Julia Dhar reviews how to have constructive conversations despite differing beliefs or ideas. She shares constructive conversations between parties with vast differences in opinions and ideas including three factors. First, “at least one party in the conversation is willing to curiosity over clash.” Secondly, see constructive conversation as “a climbing wall, not a cage fight.” By seeing constructive conversations as a “climbing wall,” both parties can continue to develop, formulate, change and/or strengthen their perspectives for future discussions. Lastly, a constructive conversation is “rooted in purpose.” When a purpose for a discussion is understood by both parties can “lay out their vision for the future” and accomplish intentional identified goals together.

Discussions on how to manage the changes brought by COVID-19 will continue to evolve; as will the discussion on vaccine mandates, mental health, work-from-home, the great resignation, supply chain challenges, and other various topics. It is important that executive coaches know how to navigate these discussions with skill and tact when brainstorming with executives, fellow coaches, and peer advisory groups. By understanding how to have constructive conversations in the midst of differing perspectives, executive coaches can embrace curiosity, develop their arguments, and discuss various topics with a unified purpose.

Executive coaches often work with their clients to make new goals and habits. However, it can be difficult to start and continue new habits such as being more mindful or exercising more.

Sociologist Christine Carter addresses this difficulty in her TED Talk. She believes that in order to be successful when forming a new habit, individuals must have a “willingness to be bad” at the new behavior. She states that “being good requires that our effort and our motivation be in proportion to each other. The harder something is for us to do, the more motivation we need to do that thing… New behaviors tend to require a lot of effort because change is really hard.”

Christine recommends that in order to establish new habits, individuals should “abandon their grand plans at least temporarily” and be okay with doing something “minuscule” towards a goal or new habit. By compartmentalizing big goals into small tasks that are easy, Christine points out that you are “initiating a behavior” or habit that establishes a neural pathway in the brain for a “new habit which makes it much more likely that we'll succeed with something more ambitious down the line.” And from there, habits can expand “organically.”

Working towards goals, changing perspectives, and creating new habits is a common topic for executive coaches to discuss with the business leaders they coach. By understanding how to go from point A: having an overall goal, to point B: making it a new habit, executive coaches can further support the impact and goal/habit development in their clients’ lives. Christine’s advice can be used in the executive coaching process through questions such as, “how can we break this goal down into bite-sized pieces?” and “what small effort can you commit to every day as you work towards this goal?”

Dr. Emily Nagosky and Dr. Amelia Nagosky have an insightful discussion on their own experience of burnout and what burnout really is. They discuss stress, stressors, physiological responses, the objects of our stress, and the stress response cycle. They also discuss burnout in the workplace and how this affects the body. In their discussion, they recommend having compassion on your own emotions and reducing stress responses through various techniques. They also answer questions from the audience about bringing mental issues to managers. Dr. Emily and Dr. Amelia claim that the cure to burnout is not self-care but instead, (i) having others around you who care, and (ii) and living in communities who care for each other.

This information is vital for executive coaches to understand and discuss with the business leaders and executives they serve. As burnout continues to be a hot-button topic amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the continual changes in the workplace, business leaders are looking for ways to not only address their own feelings of burnout but prevent the feelings of burnout in their employees. Executive coaches can also use the information provided in this TED Talk as a source of insight on how to tackle their own feelings of burnout.

Several TED Talks have made their mark in the TED Talk and academic communities. TED Talks released a list of their top 25 Most Popular TED Talks of All Time. From this list, we have mined the following articles that we believe are most tangent to the executive coach and business leaders today.

Brene Brown has studied shame, connection, and vulnerability for years. In her research, she found that those who felt that they were worthy of love and belonging were courageous about being imperfect. “They had the compassion to be kind to themselves and then to others first,” “they had connection as a result of authenticity,” and “they fully embraced vulnerability.” Individuals who were courageous enough to live with vulnerability were individuals who have a sense of connection with others and a sense of belonging.

A recurring theme on the Arete Coach podcast has been the theme of executive coaches being themselves, abandoning imposter syndrome, and showing up to executive coaching sessions with their genuine self. Don Meyers in Episode #1034 of the Arete Coach Podcast references his desire for self-authenticity in his coaching when he states, “I’ve been sorting myself out now since 1988, so I hope I'm being a whole lot more authentic than I was back then.” Garth Jackson in Episode #1040 of the Arete Coach Podcast also references his authentic vulnerability when he states, “Now what I realize is, really what people want is the authentic Garth. So, I work very hard to show up as the authentic Garth. When I say, work very hard, get rid of all that stuff around how I believe I ought to appear to others and really just show up and be me and allow people to judge that for what it is.” When executive coaches embrace vulnerability and display their genuine and truest selves, they increase their ability to make unique and deeper connections with their clients that foster greater learning and development.

Julian Treasure reminds the audience of the power words have in conversation and outlines seven things to avoid if you want people to listen. These seven things include gossiping, judging, negativity, complaining, excuse-making, exaggeration, and dogmatism or the confusion of facts and opinions. He also suggests four “cornerstones” for powerful speech: honesty, authenticity, integrity, and love. Furthermore, Julian reviews several tools and warmups that speakers can use to captivate audiences.

Executive coaches do their work through discussion and speech. The words and the way they present their words have a great impact on their clients, business leaders, and executives. Being able to speak with honesty, authenticity, integrity, and love for those a coach is leading makes discussion and communication more genuine, interesting, and impactful for their clients. Using the tools discussed by Julian can help coaches properly ask their questions with the correct inflation, tone, and timing.

From the TED Talks playlist, “How to Be a Great Leader,” the following presentations have been selected because of their significance to the executive coaches and business leaders of today.

This famous TED Talk has been viewed over 57 million times and comes from the author of the best-selling book “Start With Why,” by Simon Sinek. In Simon’s presentation, he reviews several companies and leaders who started with “why” such as Apple and the Wright Brothers. Simon claims that when leaders start with a “why” for their business, idea, or creation, they are more likely to succeed. He uses a diagram he calls the “golden circle” to represent the succession of “why,” “how,” and “what” that business leaders should embody for optimal success. According to Simon Sinek and his research, when businesses start with a “why” they are more successful and impactful.

In each episode of the Arete Coach Podcast, guests are asked what their “why” is. Having a “why” is essential to being a great coach. This “why” pushes coaches to learn more, develop their coaching methods more, and impact those they coach despite challenges and hardship.

Fields Wicker-Miurin shares the story of Benki, a leader of the Ashaninka Nation. Benki worked hard to defend his land against deforestation and continue the legacy of the Ashaninka Nation. His leadership was passed onto him by his grandfather when he was 10 years old. Despite his young age, Benki was a great leader for his people embracing change and working towards the resolution of the challenges facing his people. She also shares a story of a woman named Sanghamitra in India who changed her career to helping those with HIV/AIDs. Sanghamitra changed the traditional strategy for fighting HIV/AIDs and has since run the leading NGO in India. Wicker-Miurin also shares the story of Dr. Fan Jianchuan, a collector of contemporary Chinese history. She explains that these people are leaders who inspire her. They did not have access to leadership manuals but they all have “drive, passion, [and] commitment. They've gone away from what they did before, and they've gone to something they didn't know…” She emphasizes that we can use people like those she discusses in her presentation as models, helping the next generation of leaders change the world for the better.

A key feature of a skilled executive coach is the commitment to being a lifelong learner. This TED Talk reminds us that executive coaches can embrace lifelong learning not only by involving themselves in new training courses and research but also by examining leaders of today and of the past for inspiration and insight.

Drew Dudley explains the importance of everyday leadership in his TED Talk presentation. He shares the impact that he unknowingly had on someone else’s life. Drew claims that leadership should be redefined as what he calls “lollipop moments” or daily moments where you have the opportunity to impact others’ lives for the good.

Executive coaches can harness the power of these everyday leadership moments and increase their impact on the lives of those they coach. They can also encourage their coachees to embrace this form of leadership as well. By choosing to make seemingly small but positive and highly influential impacts on others’ lives every day, both executive coaches and the clients they serve can work towards achieving their goals and impacting the world around them.

Roselinde Torres shares that although companies globally are investing more time and money into leadership development, many companies are still suffering the effects of poor leadership. In researching what makes a leader great in the 21st century, she found that “relying on traditional development practices will stunt your growth as a leader.” She states that leadership in the 21st century is defined by three questions. First, “where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?” Secondly, “what is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?” Lastly, “are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?” She summarizes by stating that great leaders of the 21st century prepare for the “realities of today” and the “unknown possibilities of tomorrow.”

Roselinde Torres’ presentation offers a wealth of powerful questions that executive coaches can ask their clients. Often, a goal within executive coaching is the development of leadership skills. By asking these questions, executive coaches can help their clients develop leadership skills congruent with the 21st-century workplace.

Tim Harford shares the story of Archie Cochrane and how his story is an example of what he calls the “god complex.” Tim describes the “god complex” as the assumption that one understands everything. However, Tim points out that the world, marketplace, and economy that we live in is much too complicated for the “god complex” to be helpful. In this presentation, Tim emphasizes the importance of trial and error as a source of valuable knowledge.

This TED Talk is a reminder to executive coaches and business leaders alike about the importance of failure. Often in the Arete Coach Podcast, interviewees are asked what a failure they have learned from is. Each of these responses has represented a unique learning that has impacted the lives of the great coaches on the Arete Coach Podcast. Sometimes executives and business leaders bring their failures to executive coaches, looking for guidance or advice. However, it is the role of an executive coach to ask the question “what can you learn from this failure?” and “how can you use what you have learned in the future?” By reminding business leaders of the value of failures, or trial and error, executive coaches ensure that their clients are not missing out on opportunities for growth and development.

In his TED Talk presentation, David Logan reviews the five types of tribes, or people groups, and the value systems of each tribe. He explains how tribes that function on level five, function only on their values and a noble cause and gives an example of a level five tribe that made a great historical impact on society. After reviewing each level of tribe, David shares examples of leaders who spoke to all levels of tribes and shares the importance of being able to do so. He also discusses how leaders can help their communities and organizations advance to greater tribal levels.

The information presented in David Logan’s TED Talk is invaluable to the executive coach because it is an example of how executive coaches can encourage their clients to higher levels of thought or tribal levels as described by David. It also encourages executive coaches to ponder how they are supporting the tribes or groups around them.

Four-star general Stanley McChrystal shares his experiences and lessons of leadership from his time in the military. He shares the impact that virtual communication and generational differences have had on those he has led and the way he leads others. Stanley emphasizes the importance of listening and learning from others before leading.

This TED Talk is a great source of knowledge for executive coaches who are helping their clients develop their leadership skills. Executive coaches can use the concepts and examples that Stanley provides in his presentation to educate and inspire their clients towards more effective leadership methods. This presentation encourages coaches to ask their clients, “do you believe listening is an important part of leadership? If so, how do you listen to your employees?”

Former UCLA basketball coach shares in this TED Talk an insightful difference between winning and succeeding. While John was a basketball coach, his insight and perspective are still valuable to today’s executive coaches. Instead of focusing solely on winning basketball games, John focused on the attitude of his players and if they truly did their best. John shares a quote in his presentation that states, “Thou didst thy best, that is success." As executive coaches encourage their clients to develop and achieve new goals it is important for them to remember what success really is: trying your best. They can use this lesson and these words from John Wooden as a source of encouragement and inspiration for their coaching clients.

Main takeaway

TED Talks offers executive coaches a unique platform of knowledge from many individuals in a variety of different industries. Executive coaches can use this platform to help start discussions on others’ success and insights, ultimately accelerating their own clients’ success. Jim Rohn is quoted as saying, “It’s important to learn from your mistakes, but it is better to learn from other people’s mistakes, and it is best to learn from other people’s successes. It accelerates your own success.”

What are your favorite TED Talks? We'd love to know! Share them below.


Clifton, J. (2021, December 3). The Next Global Pandemic: Mental Health. Gallup.Com.

TED. (n.d.-a). How to be a great leader. TED Talks.

TED. (n.d.-b). The most popular talks of all time. TED Talks.

TED. (2021). The most popular of 2021. TED Talks.

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