“They Weren’t Coachable” And Other Stupid Things Coaches Say When Their Clients Don’t Get Results

Today I just have a full-blown rant for you. This usually isn’t my style because I like to give you actionable things to work with, but we need to talk about this.

There’s a phrase coaches use when a client isn’t getting results, and that is “they’re just not coachable”. Other things a coach might say is that they don’t prioritize their work, they’re not an action taker, or they have shiny-object syndrome, among other things. These are all ways the coach potentially blames the client for not getting results (previously, myself included), and they’re not okay.

Before I go on, I want you to know that this isn’t the individual coach’s fault; coaches are taught this rhetoric. We’re taught that only certain people are coachable and as long as we tried our best the burden lands on the client for not getting results. And I will tell you, I bought into this until a few years ago.

The first time I heard this concept challenged was in mid-2020 when I got my ACE Certified Coach designation with David Goldsmith (Co-Founder of the ICF) and David Peterson (Director of Leadership and Coaching at Google). They encouraged coaches to improve their skills so it would broaden our ability to work with more people, including people we might previously have thought to be “uncoachable”.

Then in 2021 I began working with the most amazing client who taught me so much about my skills and gaps as a coach. They were very well-decorated in the coaching industry and really wanted to make a change in their business. They sort of knew what they wanted, they definitely knew why they wanted it, and week after week we would meet to move towards it. The problem was, they never made any progress. No matter what I tried as a coach, I couldn’t help them break through whatever was preventing them from taking action. When I brought this up with the team I was working with, I was told “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink” or “they’re just not coachable, you’re doing your best so that’s all you can do”.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t let this go. Here was this passionate person showing up for all the calls, truly doing their best, and seemingly completely coachable. I couldn’t help but think this was really on me, somehow.

I never did get to keep working with them for long after that, but when I found the Self-Belief Coaching Academy I knew I was on to something. My lack of understanding about how self-doubt holds people back was the main reason I couldn’t make progress with this client. It wasn’t that they were uncoachable, it was just that my coaching skills needed development in that area. I’ve written at length about self-doubt if you’d like to explore that more.

To be clear, coaches aren’t responsible for their client’s results, but that doesn’t get the coach off the hook. And not every coach has to have skills in this area. It is completely fine to not work with people in difficulties like this BUT they absolutely cannot blame it on the client for being uncoachable. The coach needs to be clear about where their skills lie, and when they should refer on to someone who would be a better fit. The truth is that most people are coachable, it’s just that most coaches don’t have the skills to coach all people.

We also have to consider that the coaching industry was built primarily by and for white men, which means the rhetoric and narrative around its use can be incredibly problematic. The industry is in the process of relearning how to use this powerful modality in a way that doesn’t do more harm, that’s inclusive of different cultures and identities, and respects and addresses the different experiences people have in life. (My go-to resource for this work is Trudi Lebrón, and I still have a lot to learn).

Despite finding a modality I believe in and that works for me, it doesn’t mean that I can effectively work with all types of clients. There are absolutely times where clients still struggle to move forward, or when I don’t have the expertise to help them in the way they need, but you will never hear me call someone uncoachable, ever again.

What I will do is advocate for coaching mastery, and I’ll continue to pursue it without fail. The next step in my journey to mastery is hiring an official coaching supervisor. This is not a common practice in North America or in the coaching industry, but it is growing and becoming the gold standard for professional coaches. I begin in September, and I couldn’t be more excited. It will give me dedicated time to reflect on my sessions, myself, and my skills, with immediate application for improvement.

Coaches, we have to do better. No one expects perfection of us, but we must be aware of these dynamics at play and stop putting the blame on the client without looking internally first. If you’re not a coach, take a careful look at your coach’s abilities when you’re hiring a coach.

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