What happens when a coach gets stuck?

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In this instance, I am the client. I am desperate for help to manage chronic pain. Pain is the special subject of my coach. I have explained to her that I am sceptical about how far mind-based approaches will work and that I am already familiar with many of the techniques.

Unfortunately, this coaching went badly wrong.

First, the coach’s rapport seemed faked: the give-away was her overuse of my name, something she did roughly every ten sentences. Where she should have just listened, she ploughed on with what appeared to be her standard pain-management programme. When I politely protested that I had already tried several of her techniques and that they had not worked, she seemed irritated. She gave me a ‘homework’ assignment despite my telling her that I could not see the point of it and that I was unlikely to do it.

Could a different coach have helped me? Most probably yes, by exploring more carefully what I needed and building a more authentic relationship with me. By the time I ended the engagement I had lost faith in that coach. (Happy ending: surgery was miraculous and has permanently ended the pain.)

Symptoms that something is wrong

It is much more common than you may think for a coaching conversation to get stuck. When it doesn’t appear to be following the smooth trajectory of GROW or OSCAR, you may panic. The session is getting a circular feel. Anxiety kicks in. Your impostor syndrome wakes up.

Here is what to look out for:

Talking about yourself: ‘Oh that happened to me, too’

You reach for a handy theory: a diagram, a model, a handout

Maybe an ‘exercise’ can help? Something perhaps involving walking around the room, playing with Lego, drawing, changing chairs?

The client has named the problem. It sounds familiar. You believe you know the solution, so you tell them what to do

You find yourself doing fake empathy: ‘I’m sooo sorry you feel like that’ – but you are aware that you don’t really feel sorry. You feel anxious and irritable: when can this session be over?

You agree with the client that everyone else is in the wrong

You overdo the summarising because you have to say something, anything, to fill the silence

Later, after the client has left, you find yourself searching for an unflattering diagnosis – oh yes, that’s it, they are ‘narcissistic’, have a ‘borderline personality disorder or are ‘in denial’

When preparing for your next session you feel intense dread; you hope the client will cancel.

None of these tactics will solve the problem. The client may nod politely as you tell them about yourself, but your experience will be nothing like theirs, so they reject it. If you are feeling hostile, believe me, the client will sense it. When the client names their goal, the chances are that this is an alibi problem, one that disguises the real issue. This may feel too embarrassing or too complex for the client to explain, so your suggested solution is pointless, along with your would-be helpful theories and handouts. Clients are not fooled by ‘exercises’ and they can spot the overuse of ‘techniques’, even if they never tell you so.

What to do

Instead of panicking, recognise what is happening. The chances are that you have stopped the deep listening which is the foundation of all good coaching. You have become pre-occupied with yourself: am I good enough? What do I ask next?

Steady yourself. Let your shoulders drop, expand your chest. Slow your breathing. Observe what is going on – how does the client look? What language are they using as they talk about their concerns? When you do this, the next question will usually suggest itself.

Ask yourself whether you have established the genuine goal. It’s easy to confuse the topic the client brings with the coaching goal for the topic. For example, the client says, ‘I’m feeling stressed at work’. This is the topic – a safe, familiar confession, but what does it mean? What is ‘stressful’ for one person will be an enjoyable challenge to another. What form does the stress take? When does it happen? How intrusive is it? Then, crucially, ask the client, ‘What help do you need from me on this?’ The answer will usually narrow the topic to something you can both work on.

Consider naming your difficulty.

‘I’m feeling stuck here, I’m not sure what to ask you. What’s going on for you right now?’

Nine times out of ten this will produce an honest and helpful response, even if it is uncomfortable to hear. Coaching is not something we do to a client. We are not ‘treating’ them as a doctor or therapist might. It’s a two way process between equals, always. When I have asked clients this question, the answers have sometimes surprised me:

I’m so sorry – I’m very hung over from a binge drinking session with my brother last night

I’m allergic to cat hair and I’m beginning to feel tightening in my chest. I think it’s your cat’s dander getting to me

You look a bit distracted – are you OK?

I think you misunderstood what I said about this problem – it’s not x, it’s y…’

Coaching does not always go smoothly, despite what you might have heard on your training course or read in books. It’s a bumpy, unpredictable process with one imperfect human working with another. It’s not true that ‘everyone is coachable’.

A failure of my own

I started this blog with a story about the failure of a coach where I was the client. But I end it with a failure of my own. Here the client was in a new and very exposed senior role. That sounded familiar and I embarked on the coaching buoyantly.

But the client had discovered that her selectors had lied: there was an enormous financial problem which they had concealed from her. She had no financial expertise and no one in her team was qualified to help. She was the product of an elite environment where there was intense pressure to excel and excel she had: her career up until that point had been one glossy success after another. Now she was out of her depth. She was overwhelmed. Her confidence collapsed and with it her mental health.

I experienced many of the symptoms I describe above in desperately trying to give value for the substantial fee I was charging. This engagement ended after four sessions and should have ended much sooner. In ruefully discussing it with a merciful supervisor I realised that I had fallen into another trap: the hero-rescuer. I had believed that as a very experienced coach, if I just carried on nobly, squashing down my concerns, I would be able to coach this client. I could not. Later I heard that she had resigned after a serious breakdown. She had needed help that was beyond me.

All coaches, however experienced, will find themselves in similar situations from time to time. It goes with the patch. You can minimise the chances of it happening by contracting scrupulously and saying no if instinct tells you that this is not the client for you. But sometimes, however much care you take, you will get stuck. One of the secrets of successful coaching is to let go of the need to be right. To do that, every so often, you probably have to have the sobering experience of being wrong.

Try the approaches I have suggested here. And make sure you have the best supervisor you can afford.


Photo by cottonbro studio