Handling difficult coaching clients – a case study

If you have ever had a client you consider to be difficult, you are not alone. I had a client—let’s call her Y—who sought me out, expressing a desire to bring about a radical career change in her life.

We had an energetic discovery session. Y shared that she felt stuck in her ways professionally and was frustrated by the fact that she tended to seek out hum-drum jobs that she was over-qualified for. She was keen to find a new profession that played to the training she had done years before in sociology despite never having pursued a career in this area until now.

Resisting transition

Having embarked on our coaching journey, it became clear early on that the initial connection we had was lost. I worked to build rapport with Y and develop trust but noticed that she was holding back from sharing her story. She was also resistant to engaging in any of the exercises and techniques I drew on to tackle her challenges.

The few times Y did open up a little and became emotional, I gratefully acknowledged her openness. I felt that we were finally getting somewhere, and then she would shut down again.

Lack of motivation

As much as I wanted Y to trust me as her coach, I realized that her resistance to bringing about change in her life was entrenched. Y appeared unwilling to lower her guard and reluctant to make the leap of faith to make our coaching relationship work.

She would arrive at our sessions not having done her homework, explaining that life got in the way. Regularly, I would share with her that change is overwhelming and should be tackled in bitesize chunks to make it more manageable. I would share with her strategies for handling hesitation and procrastination, such as limiting external distractions and focusing on completing one high-priority task before starting another.

While I offered Y a safe space to explore goals and desired outcomes, it appeared that she lacked the commitment to execute on the goals and outcomes she desired.

Ambivalence

I would never judge Y although struggled with her apparent ambivalence during our sessions. I would highlight to her that successful outcomes were dependent upon a commitment from both of us. And that, while I was her accountability partner, she also needed to hold herself accountable to achieve her goals. 

Six hours later

Y and I persevered with our coaching over 6 one-hour sessions. Increasingly, it felt like we weren’t making progress. Each session felt to me like I was climbing a mountain with Y watching from the sidelines.

I shared the observation with Y that she appeared to want the spontaneous outcome of finding her perfect job in a new industry but appeared to lack the motivation and commitment to make it happen. 

When you think things haven’t worked out

I beat myself up for not being able to make things work with Y. I was frustrated by the fact that I felt incapable of coaching her towards an effective conclusion. I turned this into a statement about my inability to deliver results with my clients.

It took a while for me to realize that successful coaching outcomes require everyone in the coaching relationship to take ownership of the desired change and the process of bringing it about.

All’s well that ends well

Sometime later, Y contacted me to say that she had indeed found a job in the field of sociology and that she had greatly benefited from the coaching journey. I nearly fell off my chair.

Alisa Salamon

Alisa Salamon

Alisa is a certified career transition coach in the UK who helps people carve out a new career or take their existing career to new heights. Book a free consultation with Alisa to find out more.

2 comments

  • Thank you for this, Alisa; it’s very timely for me as I reflect on this past year and a couple of experiences like this that I had turned into a ‘failure’ on my part and a statement of my capabilities.
    For me, a strong reminder of two things:
    People need to trust you, not like you
    We are just one part of the coaching relationship, and the only part we have full responsibility for
    Thank you

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