Coaching the Uncoachable: 4 Tips

I did a quick search — and apparently there are “uncoachable” clients:

  1. They have a “fixed” mindset rather than a “growth” mindset — so they believe that performance is innate or the expression of a trait rather than something developed by effort. These would be the clients that tell you: “but I can’t change because I have always been (insert favorite adjective).”
  2. They blame other people — someone else is responsible for their problem, so they cannot do anything about it.
  3. They are pessimistic or negative — they don’t have hope anything can change and therefor they don’t.
  4. They don’t react well to criticism — they become defensive when they are asked to change anything.

Ok, so let’s look at the coach who is making the judgement of “coachability” or “uncoachability”. They see a client and think:

  1. That they cannot do anything because the person has a fixed mindset and that won’t change.
  2. That they cannot do anything because the client is responsible for change and not they.
  3. They diagnose the client as uncoachable, therefore there is no hope that anything can change.
  4. The coaching isn’t working and therefore the blame is on the client.

You see what I am getting at? Who is the “uncoachable” here — the coach or the client? Labelling clients as “uncoachable” is maybe a nice and face-saving way to react to coaching processes which are not going well, but it is really the coach waving a white flag of defeat. Before I tell you what you might explore doing before labelling a client “uncoachable”, let me give you number one reason why someone can really be “uncoachable”:


They could need another coach, they might not need coaching but help from another profession (medical, psychological, financial, …), they don’t have anything that they want to be coached on. Sometimes clients simply have very good reasons not to want to be coached. Then shrug your shoulders, say: “I am sorry that I am not the right person to help you here” or “Great that you got this on your own!” and rest assured that you did all that you can.

Now to the 4 signs of “uncoachability” (sorry… the more I am writing about this, the more irritated I become with the term… we need a different one, maybe “lack of coaching skills on the part of the coach”? — ok that’s too long…)

The client has a “fixed” mindset.

So, for example, they are telling you that they cannot network because they hate small talk and they are just not a “people person” (I have had these discussions with German engineers). How about exploring together what difference better networking skills would make for the client, is it something they do want to learn or not? If not, that MUST be fine for the coach — the client set the agenda. Always. If they do, start looking at the differences in how the client behaves in different circumstances — do they enjoy chatting with some people? What are they doing when they enjoy it? Thereby, you slowly soften the self-assessment of “I am not a people person”.

They blame other people.

Of course! Other people are horrible, sometimes. Acknowledge the client’s perception of “it is difficult”, for example: “My boss is such a micromanager, he says that he wants to empower us, but then he demands ad-hoc reports and solutions to HIS minuscule issues within seconds”. You might reply: “Wow, I understand how this kind of behavior is difficult for you — how are you coping?” and once the conversation has turned toward what the client is already doing to make their situation better, you might come to a coaching agreement around “coping with the situation as it is”.

They are pessimistic.

BUT — they did come to the coaching session. Be very gentle and ask them what, if anything, gives them hope that the coaching can be useful. Maybe there is good reason to be pessimistic and there is little hope for changes. If that is the case, you can always work on ways for the client to cope.

They don’t react well to criticism.

If your client becomes defensive in a coaching situation, you as coach have at some time broken rapport. The client perceives you as attacking them — so they become defensive. So…. don’t attack your client :-). If your client seems hurt or upset by a question you asked or a comment you make, apologize! Then ask about the client’s perception and stress that their perception is the one that matters. Even better – learn to phrase your comments in gentle, appreciative and understanding ways.

It feels like I have been ranting a bit today — but really, I do feel very passionately about holding our clients in positive regard. Diagnosing them as “uncoachable” when I am not doing my job just feels so wrong to me. Let’s not do that and let’s partner with our clients instead.

Rant over….

Do get in touch if you would like to learn more about ways to coach in full partnership with our clients. We offer regular meetups where we discuss cases, offer information on programs, ponder coaching situations etc. Register here:

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