August 25, 2023

When your coaching client does not seem to care: How to avoid the "terrible trifecta trap" for coaches.

Some coaching clients don’t seem to be affected by anything. Whatever happens to them, they take it with a shrug of the shoulders and a stoic smile. As their coach, you might wonder if this is all there is to it, after all, you might respond very differently. A concrete example might be that your client is telling you about the loss of their pet (or worse) which would leave you devastated but they are speaking about it very matter-of-factly.

Here are a couple of traps for the coach in this situation:

Taking yourself as “the norm”

You would be devastated and therefore you assume that “everyone” would/should be devastated. You start assuming that something about the client must be “not normal” and maybe even enter into hypotheses of what may be “wrong”. This takes you out of the relationship with the client – you are thinking “about” the client and not “with” the client which – in my view – is neither ethical nor helpful for the coaching relationship.

Interpreting the client

If the client is not responding emotionally as you would expect and you have started to hypothesize, you might go further and diagnose the client’s behavior with the help of a framework that you know. It could be that you have been taught about the “grief curve” and now assume the client is in the “denial” phase. You might think that the client “needs” to move on to grief and acceptance and ask the client: “how do you (really) feel about losing your pet?” or “What would you feel if you allowed yourself to feel?” or something to that extent. Many of these frameworks teach coaches about the “normal” progression of clients. The grave danger is that the coach using the framework starts thinking that they know where the client needs to go next. They leave curiosity behind and start directing the process moving out of partnership with the client.

Assuming you are right

The “terrible trifecta” ends with the coach assuming that they are right. They don’t offer the framework respectfully and tentatively as possibly helpful to the client. Instead, they assume the client needs to move to the next step in the framework. If the client disagrees, they are “resisting”. Again, the coach leaves their not-knowing stance, lose partnership, lose respect and enter into ethically murky waters.

So what do you do if your client responds to a situation with an affect that is very different from yours?

Personally, I would notice it but not necessarily do anything with it if it has nothing to do with the client’s goal. People are different – different events effect people differently and people show their emotions in different intensities. There is no right or wrong way to respond to what happens.

If I was puzzled to the extent that I’d stop listening to the client and feel myself entering into phase one of the “terrible trifecta” by thinking: “This client is weird!” or starting to compare my own imagined response to the client’s, I’d stop and move back into partnership. Maybe, I’d say something like: “O wow, you seem quite unfazed by what you have just told me, am I picking this up the right way?” Or simply be transparent: “I’m so sorry you lost your pet – I’d be devastated. You are speaking in quite a stoic manner, is this in any way meaningful?” And then I’d accept the answer. However, I would always aspire to not compare myself with the client in the first place.

If you would like to discuss these or other scenarios, learn about our courses or just hang out with a bunch of likeminded coaches, why not join one of our free meetups and exchange sessions?

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