Challenges and Adventures in Coaching

By Dr. Leslie Austin

Most professional coaches, consultants, and managers choose to do the work they do because a) they like working with other people, and b) they are service-oriented and want to be helpful and useful to other people. But as surely as the sun rises in the east every morning, at one time or another each of us has felt completely stuck, frustrated, even thwarted in our coaching efforts. Alternatively, we may suddenly have a major breakthrough with a client but have no clue as to why or how we got there. In either case, we may not know what to do next.

We might be working with a client who is resistant or even argumentative, or perhaps more confusing, simply disengaged. Clients who seem to be going nowhere productive week after week make us wonder why they bother coming for coaching at all, or more disconcerting, how and why we are failing them? At times like these it can become difficult to not personalize the problem, to not seek for fault or blame, either in the client or in ourselves. We have all had that quiet, terrible sinking feeling: uh-oh, what do I do now?

The easiest thing to do is consult with a trusted peer for feedback. But what if no one is available? And of course there are lots of techniques and methods we can use to try to resolve challenging moments in our coaching work. But what if our training and backgrounds aren’t clearly offering a way to move forward? Fortunately, there are a few simple general guidelines we can use to help us navigate our way out of feeling stuck.

First: remember you don’t have to know the answer to what’s not working, you only have to ask good, neutral, non-judgmental questions to get the flow in the session moving again. If you frame what you’re proposing as speculation (“I wonder if you’re feeling this way…”) it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Any response will start to get you both unstuck, be sure to thank your client for any reaction they may have. If you can set your ego aside and not have to be “smart,” you’ll be able to realign with your client much more quickly.

Second: focus on what’s right, not on what’s wrong. Ask yourself, “what information is this stuck energy presenting to me that I may not be seeing? What feels important here that seems to be missing?” If you go quiet for a moment and listen in, often the first thing that pops up turns out to be very helpful if you share it with your client to have them validate, refine, or change what you’re presenting to them. Again the point is, it doesn’t matter if your hunch is right or wrong, but sharing it with your client quickly brings them back in to a collaborative relationship with you.

Third, sometimes it’s helpful not to force a resolution when the coaching work has stalled. If you can do this kindly, in a neutral or encouraging tone, you can empower your client by asking them to consider what they might need that they are not getting, or how they might like the coaching to be different. If you set it up as something to be curious about, a “conversation for speculation,” your client will likely come to the next session with some good ideas — ones which came from them!