I am in that hallowed temple of white goods, John Lewis. My quest is to replace a leaking, hopelessly inefficient American-style fridge-freezer that has clearly had its day. I have no idea why one model is more than double the price of another or what features I should be looking for, since the world of fridge-freezers has clearly moved on since 2001. Such is the competition for a salesperson’s expertise on these subjects that JL has a queuing system. As the customer, you wait meekly until your name is called.
After 15 minutes it is my turn. But my salesperson does not look happy. He forces himself to do eye contact and asks me in a slightly sulky and notably lacklustre way how I am today. Because of how the question is asked it feels impertinent and I am tempted to give some kind of tart reply but somehow find the self control not to. We drift to the fridge-freezer section where he languidly waves an arm at a few appliances and asks, again forcing himself to give some kind of grimacing smile, what I am looking for. In the world of rapport, connection cannot be faked. I find myself matching him all right, but I’m matching sulk for sulk, sigh for sigh, reluctance for reluctance. No surprise then to find that although I entered the shop determined to make and pay for my choice, I left without doing so, feeling irritable and disappointed.
All coaches, even the most saintly, know that we can be guilty of the same thing. Maybe we do a better job of disguise but we never fool our clients, they spot it all right. How do they know? Here are some signs
- Playing with jewellery, fingers, hair, phone; foot-tapping
- Glancing at the clock too frequently
- Slouching; an air of tiredness or vagueness
- Avoiding eye contact
- Smile is a mouth-twitch and does not reach the eyes
- Impatience – interrupting in order to give platitudinous advice.
More importantly, why does this happen? One obvious set of causes is external. Some distracting event has happened that threatens equilibrium and confidence – a disagreement with a boss or partner, a personal crisis about performance or money, a worry about a loved person. Experienced coaches learn to anticipate and manage the way this kind of concern can intrude and if it is something really serious will cancel a session, briefly explaining why, rather than risk damaging a client’s trust.
It’s the internally-triggered stuff that is much harder to spot and to control. You find that you don’t like this client or that you have a strongly negative reaction to their opinions. You find yourself harshly judging their appearance or behaviour. You drift off while they are in the middle of some important story. You feel frightened because you are too junior or bored because you are too senior to coach this person, or you find that you are anticipating what they are going to say before they say it and then offering some kind of pat reply along the lines of having seen it all before.
If so, this is about you not the client and the coaching will come to a swift end, usually because the client simply evaporates: fails to make another date, never completes their programme and never explains why. Ask yourself what your responses to the client tell you about yourself. Ask whether you should have taken this client on in the first place. And get yourself to your supervisor pronto and invite them to ask the killer questions that for certain you will have been avoiding asking yourself.