Guidance on how directive to be as a coach

One question that many newer coaches struggle with is: How directive should you be with clients?

Coaches who come from an executive background often tend to be too directive. After asking the client one or two open-ended questions, they jump right in with solutions. They might even try to be crafty and hide their solutions in questions, as in, "Have you tried…." or "What about…?"

While this is a great way to show how smart you are, it is not very good coaching. It is not even very good consulting or advising.

If you are working with intelligent, capable leaders, executives, business owners, and managers, they already know more about their capabilities and situation than you do. Think of them as a steam boiler, full of steam. Until they let that steam out, they are not going to be especially open to your ideas. They are too full! However, if you let them vent, using powerful open-ended questions, then the steam comes out, space is created, and then they are more likely to want to hear your advice.

I learned this the hard way, because I used to be the smartest  coach in the world — which really meant I was the dumbest coach in the world, because I had to show everyone how smart I was. However, even though I felt great after client meetings, my clients didn't. They rarely implemented my ideas.

Only when I got better at listening, having a dialog, and understanding their world did I start to make progress. Even then, if I introduced my own observation after lots of inquiry, I used that as a way to learn more about the client and their thinking than to learn

what I would do if I were in the client's shoes.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are some coaches who do almost nothing but ask open-ended questions during the entire coaching session. They want the client to figure everything out on their own. This can be extremely frustrating to clients, who often expect a coach to provide insights, wisdom, and even advice. One client hired me because, he said, his previous coach was "an expensive waste of time who felt like a therapy session and went around in circles with questions for an hour."

You don't want to be that coach either.

The middle ground is to ask powerful questions that move the client forward towards insights that are valuable to them, that make the session worth 5 to 10 times your fees and their time. Then, when the steam boiler seems to be empty, that's a great time for you to ask the client to summarize what insights they have had and then to offer your own insights and observations, if you have any. Then you can have a dialog about those, and ask the client where to go from there.

That way, the client arrives at their own conclusions where possible, and you are also there to provide valuable insights when appropriate.

It also helps to have frameworks ready to go that provide efficient, effective lines of inquiry that move you and the client forward on key issues. For instance, you want to explore different topics with a client if the issue has to do with engaging employees as opposed to when the issue is about resolving a conflict with one's manager. That's why The Center for Executive Coaching provides you with a proven toolkit of 27 coaching methodologies for the most common challenges leaders face.

Every coach needs to find a balance among ego, results, and relationships. If you focus too much on your ego, it is all about showing how smart you are. If you focus too much on getting results, you end up coming across as pushy and even coercive. If you focus too much on preserving the relationship, you will come across as passive and weak, avoiding what needs to be said.

I hope you find this valuable guidance!

Would you be interested in talking more about whether the Center for Executive Coaching might be a fit for you? If so, please review our program at and then contact me


I very much look forward to hearing from you!

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