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Coaching conundrums: What to do when your client isn’t willing to make progress?


In this regular feature, a ‘Coaching Conundrum’ - a situation which has left a coach puzzled - is examined by Paul Z Jackson and Janine Waldman of The Solutions Focus. This time they address what to do when your client doesn't appear willing to make progress.

As coaches, we sometimes meet clients who know what their problem is but seem unwilling to do anything about it. Robert, for example, is a high-ranking executive who is concerned about his lifestyle. Here is part of the conversation between Robert and the coach.

Robert: I really need to be healthier. I had cancer a few years ago and fortunately recovered. Yet I still eat unhealthy food, I don't exercise much, I'm overweight and I work very long hours. I know if I keep going like this, it's likely to kill me but I just don't seem to be doing anything about it.

Coach: So you want a healthy lifestyle and to live longer?

Robert: Yes, it seems so obvious yet I'm doing nothing about it. You'd have thought I'd have learnt by now.

Note the temptation here might be to explore the problem. Suppose the coach explores Robert's reluctance to act. The conversation might continue:

Coach: So why aren't you doing anything?

Robert: I'm not sure, it's really difficult. A bit of laziness, a bit of thinking that bad things won't happen again.

Coach: What would it mean for your family if anything were to happen to you?

Robert: It would be pretty devastating for them - I know they'd miss me as a person, not to mention the financial implications.

The conversation has led to unhelpful analysis and rather depressing 'problem' talk, neither of which appear to be taking a direct route to motivating Robert to take action to get what he wants.

Alternatively, a coach taking a solutions-focused approach might heed the advice of songwriter Jackson Browne - "Don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them" - and instead look for the client's resources, as follows:

Coach: Tell me Robert, was there a time recently when you were a little bit healthier?

Robert: Yes, when I first started this job, I was very careful about what I ate; I avoided the corporate lunches.

Coach: How did you do that?

Robert: It was simple really, I just planned ahead a little. I would bring lunch in with me and if I didn't, instead of eating big work lunches I'd head out to the local deli and get a healthier sandwich. I just don't have the time for that now.

Coach: Tell me more about times you have been healthier.

Robert: I used to go out in the evenings for walks after work - that was refreshing and my son would come with me. It was a good time for us to catch up. My son's at university now so I don't go for walks.

Coach: So you used to plan ahead and go for walks after work?

Robert: Yes, things were definitely better then.

The conversation continues with Robert outlining the benefits of having a healthier lifestyle and looking for more Counters - examples of when he's been closer to what he wanted.

The coach spoke to Robert a month later.

Coach: Robert, of all the things you've done since we last met, what's better?

Notice the coach has chosen to start the session by asking for resources.

Robert: Well, I thought about our discussion last time and remembered how I used to plan my food. I thought that I didn't have time to do this but I do have a PA who can organise things for me. I asked for her help and she's been great - she rings ahead at corporate lunches and orders healthy food; she makes sure there's sandwiches and salads available when I'm in the office. It's made a big difference.

Coach: That sounds really useful. What else is better?

Robert: This idea of going for walks. I realised that I don't like walking on my own, so now my wife walks with me when she can. We get to go out maybe once or twice a week and I've been thinking of joining a rambling club as I like company when I walk. There's still room for improvement here but it's a great start. For the first time I'm feeling motivated to do something about this.

By uncovering resources, Robert developed clues about what could work for him. These resulted in useful, appropriate and willingly-taken actions.

What has worked for you as a coach with unwilling clients?

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?

Paul Z Jackson and Janine Waldman of The Solutions Focus share with us those moments when a coach has a tough choice of what to say or do during a session - and they 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 in 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 is based on a real case, we will preserve the anonymity of all clients and their organisations.

If you’d like a live Coaching Conundrums event to develop the coaching skills in your organisation or team - including dramatised coaching sessions - please call Janine on 01727 840 340 or email

To read the last coaching conundrums click on these titles:

Coaching conundrums: What to do when your client is feeling defeated by the recession

Coaching conundrums: What to do when you think your client is not telling you the truth?

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

Coaching Conundrums: What to do with a client who is unhappy at being sent for coaching?



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