Can coaches ‘make’ clients change?

When I opened the email – and I had certainly never heard of the sender – I saw that it promised me something amazing. If I signed up to a particular training course, I could learn ten questions which would guarantee that my clients would change! Really, truly, they would not be able to help themselves!

If only. The human approach to change is not so simple.

Here is one example. Some years ago I observed a session given by a coach who was just finishing his training. This young man was a coaching natural: he created easy rapport, he knew how to set goals, he asked good questions and could subtly balance support with challenge; he created an energizing and friendly climate. His client was a well-paid manager of about his own age facing a tricky job interview where he would be facing a selection panel none of whom knew him.

This was the third two-hour coaching session in a series of four. How to get through the interview successfully was its goal and the session was set up so that chunks of answering practice questions were, at the client’s eagerly-made request, interspersed with feedback.

The coach offered positive reinforcement on the crispness of the client’s answers to sample questions, on his enthusiasm for his work and on the convincing way he was able to describe his skills. The coach also – bravely, warmly and very skilfully – offered some more negative points and these were all on sensitive subjects. He pointed out that the client was wearing a suit and shirt – the ones that he proposed wearing for the interview – that were clearly well past their best, that he had dandruff on his collar and that his hair needed cutting. There was a discussion about the way the client frowned when he was thinking, and about how this could convey the impression that he was scowling. Even more bravely, the coach was able to say that, like many Londoners who had grown up in a disadvantaged environment, the client was confusing ‘think’ with ‘thing’, pronouncing common words such as ‘something’ as ‘somethink’.

Of course none of this should matter because it is all superficial but in practice it matters a lot. Someone whose appearance is dishevelled might raise the possibility that they have a dishevelled attitude to their work and may lack self-awareness in general. Someone who cannot do ‘received pronunciation’ may unwittingly convey a sense that they are uneducated or unintelligent. To get a job you need to look and sound the part. All of this was thoroughly explored in the coaching conversation.

The client thanked the coach profusely and left looking exhilarated. After he had gone, the coach and I discussed what had happened and I congratulated him on how well he had handled what could have proved very difficult.

What was the outcome? The client returned for his final session. He was wearing the same shabby suit, still had dandruff, his hair was even longer and he was still doing a lot of frowning. He was still saying ‘somethink’. He had not got the job and was feeling bitterly disappointed.

If I had not seen this session for myself I might have assumed that this talented trainee coach could have made a number of familiar mistakes – for instance, giving the more negative feedback too abruptly, too harshly or too vaguely. Or that he had only concentrated on the negative, thus raising the client’s resistance. In my own view, none of this was the case.

This client might have failed the interview for any number of reasons, but the chances are that his poor self-presentation was a serious bar to success. When gently asked what had got in the way of replacing the suit and the haircut, the client’s reply was, ‘too busy’.

I remind myself of this coach and client when training and supervising other coaches or in my own work. We cannot make clients do anything. Sometimes, despite our most heroic and skilled efforts, and despite what they say, the client is simply not ready or able to change – even when the stakes are high.