The conundrum of the uncoachable client (or the untreatable patient or unservable customer) is similar to that of Schrodinger’s Cat in Quantum Mechanics. You don’t know till you open the box and experience the reality of whether the cat is alive or dead; in this case whether the client has been coached or not, or the patient alive.
There are no uncoachable clients, only unclientable coaches.
In the case of a coach and client, this context is even more confusing, since there could be multiple interpretations of what the client expectations are, the coaching outcome is, and where the responsibility of the coach lies. Till a few years ago, professional coaching ethics of some schools maintained that the coach is not responsible for the outcome, and the client is; that the coach is only responsible for the process. Some coaches may still believe that to be true. From a deeply spiritual philosophical perspective, I can see the truth in this. However, at the practical level of contracting, it makes no sense to say that one who does the work and gets paid for it is not responsible for the scope and quality of the committed outcome.
What is true is that no coach can coerce a client to an outcome. The client needs to desire that outcome and be motivated and committed to working towards that outcome. In a normal coach-client interaction when the clients seek a coach out and pay for the service, generally this situation should not result. To the best of my knowledge in such cases it is usually the client who finds the coach inadequate and may complain.
Where this situation seems to occur and has been documented by several coaches and expressed in coaching supervision is when corporate sponsors decide to provide coaching to their executive leaders to shift their behavior, some of who may have no desire to change the way they behave. The client has no desired outcome, even if the sponsor has, which the coach believes that he/she has been contracted for. This does not make the client uncoachable. It makes the sponsor irresponsible, and the coach not willing to face up to the sponsor.
There are multiple ways of handling the myth of uncoachable client syndrome.
- Always, but always, there should be an unambiguous three-way contract between the sponsor, the client, and the coach as to what the sponsor and the client agree that the client should be coached on. The likelihood of a senior leader client disputing this is slim. If that does happen, the coach has recourse to refer the sponsor and client to that contract. As this has been said many times, ‘always be contracting’, is the ABC of coaching.
- There is a possibility that the client may change the outcome that he/she has agreed to in the contract, or this can shift as coaching proceeds. Most coaches I know would accommodate the client, and would possibly request that the client communicates this at the stakeholder feedback sessions. To some coaches, the sponsor may represent the client and not the leader being coached. In such cases, it may need to be clearly discussed and agreed at the contracting level as to whose interests the coach would work towards and whose confidentiality the coach would protect. In my own case, I always specify that my accountability is to the person I coach, not the sponsor.
- There is a possibility that the client may find it difficult to work towards the outcome that he/she agreed to. The client may not be ready, and there may be other issues that the client faces that need to be resolved more urgently before the contracted outcome can be addressed. Many of us face such situations and work with the client to make that happen.
The core issue here is the client-centricity of unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence that should be the key ethical outlook of coaches. The client does have the answers. It is for the coach to help unravel them. Blaming the client as uncoachable is not coaching behavior.
In alignment with this philosophy, we coined this phrase in Coacharya, ‘The client is never uncoachable; it is the coach who may be unclientable.’ Perhaps not Queen’s English, but a primer in coaching ethics all coaches ought to remember.