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Coaching conundrums: What to do when a client proposes action that you think won’t help?

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COGSThis month's conundrum is about action – the steps that the client proposes to take as a result of the coaching conversation. Most coaches would agree that it is a good thing for a client to leave the session ready to take action. But what if that enthusiasm is directed towards a step that the coach thinks won’t work, for some reason or other?






Graham is a senior manager for a large distribution company. He has been discussing with his coach how he can avoid getting bogged down in day-to-day operational issues and how he can develop his role in a more strategic direction. The session has been going well, with Graham identifying many resources he can apply to this project and opportunities for making progress. We join toward the end of the session.

Coach: Graham, given all the things we’ve discussed and ideas you've had, what do you suppose is a good first step you could take to move closer to what you want?

Graham: That's easy, the first thing I'm going to do is to give all the tasks I've been burdened with to my direct reports – it's about time they worked a bit harder.

Whilst this is heading in the desired direction of more delegation, it may strike the coach as a rather large step. The coach may think Graham could choose better, suspecting that if Graham gives all his tasks to his direct reports without any thought to their time or level of skill, this smacks more of abdicating than delegating.

One way out of the conundrum of how to respond is the temptation to make a direct challenge, along these lines:

Challenge the client

Coach: Don't you think that's a bit much – giving them all your tasks? Can't you think of something a bit more realistic to start with?

Graham: Really, you think it's a bit much? What would you do then?

By challenging Graham in this way, the coach has undermined his confidence and now Graham is looking to the coach to tell him what to do. This is unlikely to be a good idea, as Graham still knows his own circumstances better than the coach can, and is perfectly well placed to find his own solution.

Let's try a more solutions-focused approach to this, deploying the idea of Small Actions. When you hear what appears to be a big action, you find another way of asking for a smaller one. We pick up the conversation from when Graham says, "It's about time they worked harder..."

Accept and build

Coach: You're proposing handing over all your tasks. Mmm. I wonder, what's the first small step you can take towards this?

Graham: Yes, that's a useful way to look at it. I suppose I could jot down a list of tasks I want to hand over, that would be a good start…

Scale for confidence

Another option for checking the appropriate size of action is scaling.

Coach: How confident are you on a scale of one to 10, where 10 is supremely confident and one is not at all confident, that this is a well chosen step that will help you be more strategic?

Graham: I'm quite confident, I'd say a five.

Coach: A five. Is that high enough for you?

Graham: No, not really. I'm a bit concerned that if I hand over all my tasks at once, my people may get a bit overwhelmed or get it wrong and I'll then spend all my time fixing their mistakes.

Coach: So what's a more useful step you might take then?

What would you do when a client proposes action that you think won’t help? Would you choose one of the options above? Or perhaps you have another tack you'd take. We'd love to hear your thoughts, so please let us know.

To read last month's conundrum: What to do with a client who is unhappy at being sent for coaching click here.

Photo of Paul Z JacksonPhoto of Janine Waldman

As a coach, how often have you faced a difficult situation with a client when there appeared to be no way forward - or a choice of ways without it being clear which would be best?

In a new TrainingZone.co.uk column, a 'Coaching Conundrum' – a situation which has left a coach puzzled – will be examined by Paul Jackson and Janine Waldman of The Solutions Focus. The idea of Coaching Conundrums grew from their coaching practice, in which they noticed certain situations recurring from client to client. Other coaches also raised similar issues.

Now, they'll be sharing these moments - when a coach has a tough choice of what to say or do next during a session – and offer some ideas for resolving the situation.

"Our view of what's useful will reflect our own approach, which is to take a 'solutions focus'. This is a pragmatic and minimal approach which unearths what a client wants, what resources they have available and then encourages them to take small steps in the desired direction," say Paul and Janine.

"Of course, we can't say for sure which approach or particular choice would be best for any given conundrum but we hope the advice offered will help coaches think about how they would respond in a similar situation. We also hope that this will stimulate debate amongst the coaching community, so if you want to suggest a different way of handling the given challenge, please add your comments."

While each Coaching Conundrum will be based on a real case, we will preserve the anonymity of all clients and their organisations.

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