Ep 98 – How to Handle Difficult Coaching Clients

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Show Notes

This is part of the series about Managing Coaching Clients. Find the show notes for this episode at prosperouscoach.com/98 and the whole series at prosperouscoach.com/manage.

This subject isn’t talked about much in the coaching world. But it is a real thing. I decided to be brave and broach the subject with you because I know, as a new-ish coach, you’ll appreciate the straight talk.

What I’ve discovered having conversations with therapists, lawyers and other coaches is that all professionals that serve people in a fairly intimate way, especially one to one, are likely to have difficulty with some clients.

I’m talking about the kind of difficulty that can ruin your day and raise dread for future conversations if you let it.

I’ve had my share of upsetting coaching sessions and coaching relationships over 20 years as a coach. I’ve flubbed up so many times, was inarticulate and cloddy in my attempt to clear the air.

Some situations have resulted in significantly improved — even excellent relationships. And some have ended the coaching relationship altogether.

You might be surprised that sometimes the best thing to do is part ways, hopefully respectfully.

Over time, as I’ve enrolled clients into longer term VIP and higher ticket programs, there’s been an increasing need to attract clients who are the right fit. I put a fair amount of energy into assessing fit.

And, I’ve made errors in judgment. What I mean is that I thought I’m a good fit for them and they are a good fit for me but I was wrong. This is a delicate balance because coaching or mentoring is an honored role and trust must go both ways for it to work well.

In the past, some of my clients have put me on a pedestal – not something I want or encourage. Perhaps it’s because I have a podcast and speak authoritatively or because I have decades of expertise and I’m helping coaches to launch their own business … there can be a perceived power differential. I did an episode about this which you can find at prosperouscoach.com/89

I prefer a collaborative relationship. More and more I verbally encourage my clients to self-advocate and to give feedback throughout our professional relationship.

I’m a highly sensitive person so if I let it, a difficult client relationship can literally make me sick. My body is a sensitive instrument that alerts me quickly if energy is off. So, true to my teacher archetype I’ve been studying this challenge and creating a process for myself.

I hope it will be helpful to you or that it sparks your own creation of a process you can rely on.

Avoid Labeling and Instead Reflect

So first, it’s best NOT to think of any human being as DIFFICULT. That or any label will bias your experience with the individual and inadvertently give you permission to turn off self-awareness.

Every coach knows this … it takes two to tango. There are two personalities in the room and each brings their communication weaknesses and crystalized beliefs, which are unhelpful.

Every coach knows this too … the only person you can change is yourself. So that’s your locus of control.

As soon as you realize something is off between you and your client, reflect on your own beliefs and behaviors first.

What is YOUR part in the difficulty?

4 Steps to a Clean Perspective About Your Coaching Relationship

#1 Separate facts from interpretation

This is a tried and true coaching technique. Jot down what has really happened, what was actually said and done by both of you. Separately write down your interpretation of that – your feelings and what the voice inside your head tells you is so. Look at this dispassionately and realize how far your interpretation goes to escalating the drama.

#2 Release your ego and attachment

It’s likely that whatever is going on is not directly about you. So release beliefs like “They don’t respect me.” “They don’t like me.”

#3 Raise compassion for you and them without assigning a story

Realize that your client has many things going on in their life that could affect coaching sessions. And realize that you too bring baggage to the table.

#4 Think through your next step

There are a few different things you can do when energy is awry with coaching clients, including doing nothing, saying nothing. With some of my clients time is the healer. We get to know each other, recognize and respect our diversity and find common ground without any kind of intervention. It’s just a matter of learning each other’s ways and making micro adjustments.

But sometimes intervention is needed.

Could it be very light? For example with one client I realized I wasn’t receiving feedback and she wasn’t celebrating her wins. There was a sense of dampened experience so I simply encouraged her to celebrate her wins and share her feelings. Soon, feelings of all sorts rolled out and the logjam was broken. She was real with me and took excellent care of herself. The energy shifted beautifully.

It’s important to remember that your clients are highly intelligent. Each individual is differently skilled. You and they may be compatible through difference rather than similarity.

It could be that a more earnest discussion may be needed. Invite your client to a conversation outside of session. Be direct while also owning your part. It’s not easy but you can do it. It might sound something like this …

“I’ve noticed this and also noticed it’s affecting me this way. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed anything and if it’s affecting you too? That will get the discussion going. You may be amazed at what comes out.

Encourage honesty. Share your truth without blame. If it feels possible, work towards specific agreements and encourage creative options.

For example, an option would be to take a short hiatus in the work for an agreed amount of time and both consider if the relationship and program is a good fit. If you come back together, make sure new agreements are in place that allow for honest feedback and healthy interaction.

If you decide to end the professional relationship, negotiate a partial refund.

I know this sounds very hard to do. But, as with all relationships, allowing dysfunction to go unspoken only causes more heartache.

I choose to believe that difficulties with clients are a wake up call for me. I clearly needed a nudge for some reason. Most often it’s about giving my power away. That may sound funny but when we give our power away it causes all sorts of upsets.

I’m not talking about power in the sense of lording it over someone but rather personal power in the sense of maintaining self-respect, integrity and self-love. A big life lesson for me is learning to stand fully in my power rather than second guessing my intuition or letting my desire to help others become a power leak.

I believe I’m not alone in this life lesson. Coaches are heart-full helpers and often over givers. I hope this helps you in some way with your clients. We are all creative, resourceful and whole even within a challenging relationship situation.