When you and your coach have similar ideas about what coaching is and how it works, things between you tend to flow smoothly. You’re both dancing the same dance. You each know what’s going on and what the other expects of you.
But, sometimes, you and your coach differ on at least one basic assumption about coaching. There’s a mismatch. What the coach does and says rubs you the wrong way, or you get the feeling the coach thinks you’re not holding up your end of the deal. You’re each dancing a different dance, and it doesn’t flow. You move one way, and the coach moves the other.
Many of these differences are subtle. Something doesn’t feel right, but maybe you can’t quite put your finger on why.
In this article, we’ll look at the major areas I’ve observed over the years that cause friction between coaches and clients.
Though these differences are often subtle, they can have a powerful impact on your experience working with a coach. I hope this list will help you get clearer about what you want in a coach. It’s also here to help you figure out what the problem is if you ever find yourself working with a coach and something feels off.
Note: For the sake of clarity, I present each item on this list as if there are just two options. In reality, the two positions are generally two ends of a spectrum, and coaches and clients generally fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
Key differences among coaches
Linear or whatever strikes your fancy
Some coaches work in a linear way. They work on one project at a time with you. They help you come up with an action plan, and execute each step of that plan in order. They won’t let themselves — or you — be distracted by other ideas that may occur to you, other paths you could take.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have coaches who work with you each session on whatever you feel like working on, whether it has anything to do with what you talked about during the previous session or not.
Directive or not
Some coaches advise you and/or give you assignments and check that you’ve done them. They may believe that one of the main benefits of working with a coach is getting the coach’s advice and guidance and/or having assignments and accountability to ensure the client will take action and achieve his goals.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have coaches who don’t think it’s a coach’s place to tell her clients what to do. They may believe that it’s an insult to a client’s dignity to be told what to do and/or that the role of a coach is to help foster a client’s independence and trust in her own judgment and intuition.
Equal partner or guide
Some coaches see themselves as equals of their clients and work with their clients as equal partners.
Other coaches see themselves as their clients’ guides. These coaches feel they have superior judgment, insights, and experience in at least one area, and their job is to give their clients the benefit of their expertise.
Some clients appreciate having a coach who takes charge and guides them. These clients may not respect or respond well to a coach who treats them as an equal. These clients say things like, “Why would I pay someone to coach me who doesn’t know any more than I do?”
Other clients may even be a bit offended by any attitude of superiority from a coach. They want to work with someone who treats them as an equal, who’ll respect a client’s ideas as much as her own.
No pain, no gain or enjoying the journey
Where you and your coach stand on the “no pain, no gain” question can influence your interactions and attitudes in a profound way.
Some people believe that it’s necessary — and even good — to suffer to achieve things in life, especially impressive things. You have to do things you dislike, find boring, and maybe even offensive. It’s just part of life. You suck it up, push through it, and get it done. You won’t even remember the pain once you’ve accomplished what you want.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have people who believe that life is to be enjoyed, that the journey is the destination. And that the best way to succeed is to do things you find enjoyable, that come naturally to you, that play to your strengths and interests.
If you and your coach are on different sides of this major question, you can run into considerable friction.
Standard plan or tailored approach
Some coaches figure out a successful way to do a particular task, like helping a salesperson increase his sales, and their coaching consists of, essentially, guiding each client through that approach.
If the coach has come up with an effective approach that works for many people, her clients benefit from being on a tried and true path that they know will help them succeed. They benefit from all the insights and knowledge the coach has picked up over the years about her particular approach. But they may have to do things that are unnatural and uncomfortable for them, in which they’re not talented, and it may be hard to keep motivating themselves to carry through with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have coaches who completely tailor their approach to each particular client. They may take their clients through a deep and thorough inquiry to understand them enough to come up with steps that fit the client’s interests, skills, resources, knowledge, and preferences. Clients benefit from having a plan that suits them, that’s comfortable for them, that plays to their strengths, but they don’t have as much reassurance of the results, like they would with a tried-and-true, standard approach.
Questions or answers? (Or who does most of the talking, the coach or the client?)
Some coaches see their job as drawing out answers from their clients by asking questions and doing a lot of listening. The client does most of the talking during a coaching session.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have coaches who see their job as giving their clients information, advice, guidance, and answers. During a coaching session, the coach does most of the talking.
I’ve met clients who are offended at the thought that a coach would do most of the talking during a session, and I’ve also met clients who don’t see the point of working with a coach if the coach isn’t going to say much. This is another one of those areas where a mismatch between you and your coach can cause many little and big sparks of tension and discomfort, though you may not be able to put your finger on why (well, you wouldn’t have been able to, before you read this).
Demeanor and personality
Coaches differ wildly in their personalities and demeanor. A coach can be bubbly and fun or serious and grounded. Intense or easy-going. Formal and distant or act like your close friend from the get go. Gentle or harsh. Sensitive or insensitive. Working with a coach who’s a good fit for you in personality and demeanor can help the relationship run smoothly. Note: Your coach can be very different from you, and you can have a wonderful, flowing relationship with her. Finding someone who’s the same as you isn’t necessary. You want someone whose personality is a good fit for you.
Comfort or challenge
Some coaches set up a coaching environment that’s warm, comforting, and supportive. They’re accepting of their clients and work with their clients’ natural energy and enthusiasm. No pushing, no trying to change their clients, and no criticism. A client working with this kind of coach may feel that his coach is one of the only – or perhaps the only – person who accepts him as he is and be grateful that he has a safe, supportive place to go to regularly.
Other coaches feel they best serve their clients by pushing their clients. They share hard truths with clients, point out ways in which their clients are messing up or holding back. Clients may feel that these coaches tell them truths other people don’t see or aren’t willing to share with them. These coach may push their clients to do things they’re afraid to do, that they’re not comfortable doing, to take risks, to try new things.
No need to worry about getting a perfect match
Having an enjoyable, productive relationship with a coach doesn’t depend on getting a coach who is exactly what you want in every respect. As with all relationships, chemistry is a major factor. This list can help you understand the range of options you have with coaches and get a sense of what you want. You may realize that a few things are deal breakers for you, and, otherwise, you may feel comfortable staying open to getting to know a variety of coaches and seeing which ones feel right to you.