Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is by learning how not to do it. With that idea in mind, this article shares examples of bad coaching habits that you should avoid if you want to be a successful coach.
As you probably already know, coaching is partly the process of asking powerful questions to help the client deal with a challenge and improve. The coach works in partnership with the client to concentrate on certain issues, being focused, attentive, and reflecting back what has been heard. The coach offers suggestions only as a last resort and only with permission. In normal coaching conversations, the coach talks no more than 25 percent of the time.
In contrast, here are 18 examples of what not to do.
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If you are in a position to coach someone, you likely have experience and knowledge. You are also probably accustomed to stepping in and solving problems for people. When coaching, it can be extremely tempting to just give the client the answer, but when you jump right into solving the client’s problem for them, you aren’t coaching them. You could be advising, directing, teaching, or telling, but you aren’t coaching.
The problem with fixing the client’s problem is that just because you know the answer and would be able to implement it doesn’t mean your client can. Coaching allows you to explore the best answer given where the client is right now along with their own unique talents, experiences, and style. The right solution for you might not be the right solution for the client. At the same time, even if your solution is correct, that doesn’t mean your client is ready to implement it. Coaching allows you and the client to explore what challenges they face ahead.
What if you can’t focus on the coaching because you are so sure you know the answer? If you are really certain that you are smart enough to know the right answer for the client, I suggest saying, “Do you mind if I jump in? I have a lot of experience with this issue, and I think I have a possible solution . . .” Share your idea, but let the client decide if they are ready to accept it. Then decide if you should continue being a consultant and advisor or if you should get back to being a coach. The latter means that you once again ask open-ended questions based on what the client wants to do. The former means that you use facts and logic to keep making your case. Be explicit with the client whether you are wearing the hat of a consultant, teacher, manager, or coach. Otherwise, your client might get confused.
I used to see myself as a smart guy who could solve any problems. I left coaching sessions feeling great about myself, but clients didn’t implement my suggestions. When I allowed clients to solve their own problems, however, they felt smart and also felt that I was providing great value.
Don’t fix. Coach.
Two: Knowing the answer and manipulating
If you know the answer, don’t torture the client into figuring it out on their own with a series of Socratic questions. That’s not coaching. At best, it is teaching the way they do in law school. At worst, it’s manipulation—your attempt to get the client to come to the same conclusion as you have about a decision. From the client’s point of view, it can feel condescending, tedious, and obnoxious to have to endure a series of questions knowing that the coach already has the answer.
Coaching is for situations when you and the client jump into the unknown.
Don’t play the game called “What’s in my pocket?” If you already know the answer you want the person to also know, and you are not flexible about it, don’t torture them. Simply tell them.
I worked with one manager who had a tendency to play this game. After interviewing his employees, I discovered that they called this manager’s process “torturous self-realization.” They loved his coaching style when it made sense for him to coach them, but when he already knew the answer, his employees found his approach to be inauthentic, tedious, and an inefficient use of time.
Don’t interrupt when you coach. This deceptively simple rule can be hard for coaches who process information quickly.
If you interrupt, you might cut off the client just when they are about to say something crucial.
Get comfortable with silence. Wait a beat or two to be sure your client has finished speaking. Sometimes silence is the best coaching question of all because it encourages the client to think more deeply about the issue and go beyond the usual.
Four: Distracted coaching
If you are in a noisy place, have crises to handle, are on the phone, or checking your email on your laptop, you are not in a position to coach.
Coaching requires focus. Also, your clients deserve your attention.
Don’t coach when you are distracted.
Five: Stacking questions
Stacking questions means that you ask your client more than one question at a time.
For instance: “Tell me about the people involved in this issue. Also, what do you see as the main ways to resolve the issue? And, when you do resolve it, what are your action steps?”
Even though the coach might be thinking of many different questions, a client can usually focus on, let alone remember, only one question at a time.
Be patient. Let the process unfold. Ask one question at a time. If you do, you might also find that the next logical question is different from you had expected.
Six: Checklist coaching
Checklist coaching means that you already have a list of questions to ask. There is no need to listen and no room for creativity or flexibility.
Sometimes coaches falling into this habit don’t even seem to be listening to the client. They ask one question, maybe grunt acknowledgment, and then move to the next. The client doesn’t feel heard. The coach is more like a journalist conducting an interview than a coach.
Instead, let the coaching process unfold naturally. Ask questions based on what you hear the client tell you. If the client doesn’t seem to know what to say, you might introduce a different line of inquiry to ignite new ideas, but avoid rote, checklist-based coaching.
Seven: The diagnostic
The diagnostic sounds like this:
“Have you tried A? Have you tried B? Have you tried C? Have you tried D?”
It’s similar to having an algorithm or flow chart and similar to a doctor trying to diagnose a disease.
This kind of approach is good for solving problems and for consulting, but it is not good coaching—good coaching asks open-ended questions and allows the client to come up with their own ideas.
If you think a particular situation warrants a diagnostic approach, let clients know this is what you are doing so that they don’t expect coaching.
Eight: Hiding suggestions
Some coaches hide their ideas in the form of a question, thinking that asking any type of question is good coaching.
“Have you tried X?”
“What about trying Y?”
“When will you set up a meeting with him to discuss this?”
It is better to be less directive and to ask questions that let clients lead the process.
“What are your ideas to solve this challenge?”
“What can you try?”
“Who can help?”
Nine: Bringing up some sort of fad book or trend
Some coaches are suckers for the latest trend or fad. Whether it is taking emotional intelligence far beyond where the initial author intended, claiming pseudoscientific applications of neuroscience, becoming a fan of the latest approach to personal transformation, or glomming on to the latest positive psychology guru, you can bet there are coaches waiting in line to share it with clients.
These coaches come across more as evangelists pushing a particular philosophy. They make the coaching profession seem flaky. Worse, prospects view these coaches the same way we think about religious evangelists who knock on our doors on Sundays. We want them to go away.
Don’t look for fads. Let the client’s problem dictate your approach instead of pushing an approach and hoping it solves a problem for the client. Ask great questions, listen, and focus on the client’s specific situation rather than forcing the client into a specific box.
Applying frameworks or concepts from various disciplines can be valuable, but wait until the client’s situation calls for it.
Ten: Never-ending, open-ended questions
Some coaches believe you can never offer advice or observations to a client. They insist on only asking open-ended questions.
As a result, their coaching feels more like therapy. It also becomes frustrating. One executive who came to me for coaching after firing a coach who did this called this form of coaching “an expensive waste of time.”
A balance exists between jumping too quickly to suggesting solutions and not offering observations or insights at all. It is perfectly acceptable to offer your ideas and insights. In fact, clients expect it. If you wait until you have thoroughly explored the client’s issue and possible solutions from their point of view and then ask permission to share your insights, the client usually appreciates it.
Eleven: Caring more than they do and getting frustrated
Sometimes it feels that you care more about the client’s goals and aspirations than the client does. They simply won’t do what they need to do to achieve the goals they claim they want to achieve.
It’s frustrating to feel this way.
Many parents also face this issue, for instance, when their child declares they want to go to Harvard, yet won’t do their homework.
When this happens, avoid the temptation of getting too attached to your client’s goals and becoming disappointed.
You can certainly talk openly about the client’s lack of effort and coach them about what might be going on to prevent the required actions, but if you start judging the client, become exasperated, or even chide them during coaching sessions, you have jumped into the realm of bad coaching.
Twelve: Getting trained on the client’s time
You can coach a client without being an expert in their field or even about the situation they are facing.
If you find you are asking clients to bring you up to speed on key terminology, how to do their job, or in-depth play-by-play about what happened recently, you might be doing things that are valuable to you but meaningless to the client.
These types of questions are called situational questions. A few can be helpful in the way a bit of salt can enhance a meal, but you are not helping anyone if you get carried away.
One of the powerful aspects of coaching is that you don’t have to have content knowledge to ask the kinds of questions that help the client improve. This statement might not make sense right now, but you will discover it is accurate the more you coach. Once you realize this, coaching becomes easier, more fun, and more effective.
Thirteen: Doing the client’s dirty work
What do you do if the client asks you to coach employees who are not performing as they should?
One option is to go and coach them, but be careful. Sometimes clients ask the coach to step in and coach members of their team when what they really want is for you to do their dirty work for them. It is often better to coach your clients on how they can be more effective in leading and influencing the other person.
For instance, I worked with a client who was leading a major performance improvement program. He asked me to talk to one of his executives who wasn’t participating in the program and coach him to get on board and find opportunities to improve productivity in his area.
What would you do in that situation? In my judgment, my client wasn’t asking me to coach this executive. He was asking me to influence the executive to get on board with the program. That’s my client’s job! On further exploration, I learned that my client was a bit afraid of this executive and didn’t like confronting him. So we worked on strategies for my client to get over this fear and how best to influence this executive.
Remember: Coaching isn’t about stepping in and doing a client’s work. It is about helping clients be more effective so that they can do the work without you.
Fourteen: Failing to put in place ways to track progress and measure results.
Like any other profession, coaching is about getting results. If you neglect to agree on a clear intent and outcome with your client, you won’t know if you achieve results. If you don’t put a way to measure progress in place, you won’t know if you are on track. If you don’t track progress, you won’t know when you have concluded the engagement. Any coaching outcome – from improved confidence to new attitudes and behaviors, stronger relationships, and individual or team performance – and be measured if the coach and client are creative enough.
Fifteen: Piling too much homework on your clients.
Executive and business coaching clients are busy enough. Don’t give them homework when they have enough to do leading their organizations or businesses. Instead, at the end of your coaching sessions, ask them what insights they had, what they will do as a result of those insights, and let them tell you what their homework should be. The best homework is not homework at all, but rather application of new insights that helps the client improve performance and that fits naturally into what they have to do anyway.
Sixteen: Blaming the client when they don’t participate fully in your coaching.
You can always tell a less seasoned coach by how likely they are to blame the client when the coach/client relationship isn’t getting results. If the client isn’t participating or doesn’t seem coach-able, has it occurred to you that it might be because of your coaching style or approach? The best coaches first point the finger at themselves and ask, “What do I have to do so that my client is more active in the process?” I recently took a group of 30 coaches in a large coaching organization through an exercise where we listed every excuse their clients give for not participating in the coaching relationship. They created a list of 18 reasons. As we went through each excuse one by one, the coaches realized that they had control and influence over every one of them. If the client isn’t fully participating, maybe you are pushing to hard. Maybe you are not having the right conversations. Maybe you failed to contract up front with the client about expectations and responsibilities. Maybe you aren’t building rapport and trust effectively. Odds are good that, if the relationship isn’t going well, the effective coach can find a way to get it back on track.
Seventeen: Dead air during coaching sessions.
The manager of a group of coaches shared with me, “I listen in on some of my coaches during their sessions with clients, and sometimes I hear dead air. They just run out of things to say. Sometimes they just start talking about social things like family, what the client is doing over the weekend. It’s awkward and a waste of the client’s time and money.” This kind of report is terrible news for the coaching profession. It is simply unacceptable. If you don’t know what to ask during a coaching session, at a minimum, ask the client what they want to focus on. Better, have a set of assessments, toolkits, and methodologies to anticipate and help clients through their most pressing challenges. If you aren’t dynamic enough to keep a client engaged over the long haul, you might want to reconsider whether coaching is the right profession for you. Indeed, in the case of this manager, we discussed whether some of the coaches she oversees should be in her firm or not.
Eighteen: Being a therapist instead of a coach.
Any basic coach training program teaches the difference between coaching and therapy. However, once you are in the field, it can be challenging to recognize the temptation to step into unintentional therapy. This happens a lot when life coaches and self-proclaimed transformational coaches over-step their boundaries and start asking clients about their past, when they pursue traumatic childhood moments that clients have whether the clients want to discuss them or not (and whether they are relevant or not), or they just want to go deep because they think catharsis and tears are a requirement for a good coaching session. Recently, I’ve witnesses more than a few business coaches get into areas that are best left to family therapists. Some family-owned businesses are fraught with complex and dysfunctional family dynamics. Coaches without counseling backgrounds are simply not trained to handle family systems when a husband, wife, and children are part of a family system, bringing their own personal baggage to the business, and often working at cross purposes to the needs of the business. The coach can coach on business issues in tandem with a family therapist, but crossing over into family therapist is a recipe for negligence. Tread carefully, and have a couple of family therapists to refer clients to when family issues get tricky (which is often).
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