At the same time, if the coach is closely adhering to the idea that information and ideas cannot be shared, clients can miss out on the expertise they seek from the coach. It’s a shame if the coach has information that would be of great service to the client, but she doesn’t share it out of fear of guiding the client or following her own agenda. So if a coach isn’t supposed to share information or expertise with clients, why bother seeking out a health coach, for example, or a business coach? People seek out those who have experience in the areas of life they want to improve because they feel that the coach understands what they’re going through, has perhaps even been there herself, and has knowledge and expertise in the area.
It certainly is important for the coach to avoid having her own agenda—and, especially, to avoid making any agenda known to the client. One of the valuable aspects of coaching is creating a safe, nonjudgmental space for the client. If the client thinks the coach has a certain opinion about what they should do, or what they aren’t doing, it can also create a rift between coach and client and leave the client feeling hesitant to really explore all the options. For example, if a client feels that a coach is really focused on helping people quit their jobs, the client might be afraid to admit that maybe he doesn’t really want to quit. It’s important for the coach to be clear that while she may be an expert on a certain subject, she is not an expert on the client’s life or what may be best for the client, and is there to support the client in making his own decisions.
Trying Not to Lead the Client Can Result in Leading the Client
Another tricky aspect of coaching people in a certain niche arises when the coach, due to his expertise, is aware of certain options that could be helpful for the client to know about and yet, because he knows he’s not supposed to lead the client and feels like he can’t share outright, he ends up asking leading questions to try to get the client to come up with the same idea he has in mind.
I saw this issue in action in a coaching session I recently observed. The coach had experience in sales and marketing and was coaching a client who was struggling with how to get the word out about his business. It seemed quite clear to me as an observer that the coach was wondering if the client had considered or tried using social media to promote the business, but because she was trying to avoid making a direct suggestion, the coach asked roundabout, leading questions like, “Are there any other types of platforms you could use to help people find out about your product?” “In this day and age, with all the technology available, are there other forms of media that you could try?” But the client seemed to not have any awareness of social media, and was only able to come up with ideas around more traditional forms of marketing.
This is a great example of a situation where the client isn’t able to explore all the options because he simply doesn’t have experience in the area in question. The client might be missing out on great possibilities for how to market his business because he’s not aware of the options and therefore can’t find his own new or different solutions.
The way I see it, in this situation the coach is doing the client a disservice by not sharing her observations on the topic—and even more so if the coach ends up (perhaps inadvertently) trying to guide the client somewhere.
By trying so hard to avoid giving advice or sharing her ideas, the coach ended up spending a large part of the session asking leading questions, trying to get the client to come up with the idea she had in mind. While taking great care to avoid taking over the session with her own ideas, the coach’s agenda was actually greatly influencing her coaching. As stated in the ICA Coaching Skills and Attributes module,
Coaching is more than just listening until the client comes up with a solution you agree with… We call this ‘being comfortable in the not-knowing’, an acceptance that your role is to support the client to find their own answers, not to have the answers sitting in your head waiting for the client to stumble upon them.
It takes practice to get comfortable with that sense of “not-knowing,” especially for an expert who is accustomed to knowing! The coach may know certain information, but needs to recognize that she doesn’t know whether that information will be useful to the client or what course of action would be best for the client. In those matters, the client truly holds the answers. The coach must remember that the coaching relationship is a partnership, and the coach and client are on a journey of discovery together.
Going back to the earlier example, a lot of time was lost (and frustration experienced, I believe, by both coach and client) as the coach danced around the idea of social media as a marketing tool. They could have gone straight to the heart of the issue if the coach had simply said something like, “Would you be interested in hearing about some of the approaches I know others have taken in this kind of situation?” This would still leave the client in the driver’s seat, and would allow him to choose whether to hear some other ideas. It wouldn’t mean that the coach was giving advice or telling the client what was right for him and his business.
The client might very well have said yes, he’d like to hear other ideas, and they could have explored those options, or he could have said he’s not interested and they could have moved on to other ideas. (Again, this is where it’s essential for the coach to not be imposing her own agenda; if the client isn’t interested in hearing other ideas, or doesn’t like the ideas she shares, the coach needs to let it go and move on to whatever the client does want to discuss.)
If the client were interested and the coach shared some sales and marketing approaches other business owners have used, the client could still choose what was the best avenue for him, so the support the coach is providing is still more in line with coaching than consulting. A consultant, on the other hand, would listen to the client describe his situation and challenges and would then offer specific advice: “Here’s what you should do. Set up Instagram and Pinterest accounts, share lots of fabulous images of your product, and get other people interested and spreading the word. Next month, do a contest…”
Ways to Effectively Share Resources and Information with Clients
According to the International Coach Federation (ICF), some of the reasons someone might work with a coach include a “desire to accelerate results,” a “lack of clarity with choices to be made,” and “core strengths need to be identified, along with how best to leverage them.”  Most important to this discussion is that “a gap exists in knowledge, skills, confidence or resources.” If a gap exists in the client’s knowledge, skills, or resources, how will they obtain those things by working with a coach? By the coach sharing resource information!
In fact, the coaching competencies identified by the ICF address this topic. Competency 9: Designing Actions includes items such as “Engages the client to explore alternative ideas and solutions, to evaluate options, and to make related decisions,” “Challenges client’s assumptions and perspectives to provoke new ideas and find new possibilities for action,” and “Advocates or brings forward points of view that are aligned with client goals and, without attachment, engages the client to consider them.” Even more specifically, Competency 10: Planning and Goal Setting, includes the task “Helps the client identify and access different resources for learning (e.g., books, other professionals).”
The phrase “without attachment” mentioned in Competency 9 is the foundation of how a coach can effectively share information as part of the coaching process. Whether engaging the client to explore alternative ideas, advocating points of view, or identifying resources for learning, the coach is not attached to the ideas expressed or to the outcome. It is up to the client to choose what is right for her.
I recently observed a great example of sharing without attachment by my own coach. During the session, I was talking about my challenges on a particular issue, and how I might want to review some of the resources I have on the topic. At the very end of the session, my coach asked, “Have you read the book ______________? It’s all about what you’ve been talking about today and might be a great resource.” He didn’t say I had to read it, or attach any other importance to the idea; he simply knew about something that might be helpful and wanted to share it with me—and I greatly appreciated learning about it!
Going back to the social media example above, the coach may have been concerned that if she were the one to bring up the idea of social media, she would be guiding or leading the client, which she had been taught not to do. But as the ICF competencies described above illustrate, an important aspect of coaching is helping clients explore new possibilities, ideas, and perspectives they may not have considered before. In this way, offering to share other ideas with the client is not guiding them to a particular outcome but simply expanding the list of available options. As noted at SageLeaders.com, “Coaching does not impose a decision on a client as much as it facilitates awareness of the choices they have and the implications of those choices in relation to desired results.”
By using certain language, the coach can clarify an intention to facilitate awareness of choices rather than to impose advice or decisions on the client. In an effort to keep the client in the driver’s seat, the coach might ask permission to share information, in the same way the coach would ask if the client would like to try a particular tool or exercise, thereby ensuring that the client stays in control of the session.
I took this approach in my own coaching when I encountered a situation where I knew the client didn’t have the information she needed, and my expertise could be of great use. As my client was explaining a particular challenge, and voicing her frustration that she just didn’t know any way around the situation, I said, “I know how frustrating that is, and I’ve been there myself. Would you like to hear about some of the ways I’ve handled this?” The response was an eager “Yes!” and I gladly shared some specific software applications that I knew could help solve the problem. Again, I didn’t have any attachment to whether she actually chose to try out the software, but she was grateful for the information and it gave her renewed confidence that there was indeed a way to improve the situation.
Another way in which the coach can help facilitate awareness is not just in terms of the information shared, but in encouraging the client to explore her reaction to what’s shared. The coach can create an opportunity for the client to learn more about herself by asking questions such as: Which of these ideas resonates with you [or doesn’t], and why? What does this idea bring up for you? What did you learn [about yourself, or the situation] from those suggestions? Does this information give you ideas for further steps to take?
How New Coaches Can Improve Their Skills in Sharing Ideas and Resources with Clients
Much of what I described in the previous section comes down to a distinction between giving feedback and giving opinions. We will be more effective coaches if we can develop an understanding of the difference between the two and focus on how to effectively give feedback.
This passage from the ICA Coaching Skills and Attributes module offers a helpful place to start:
To give feedback, ask permission from the client first. Try these: “May I share what I’m hearing?” “Would you like a different perspective?” “Can I share with you what I am getting from that?” Then simply mirror back to the client the way you see or hear something. For example, a coach may say to a client, “I hear you are really angry about that, do you want to talk more about it?” There is no judgment here about the emotion being conveyed by the client. It is simply being noted for the client, who can then evaluate the feeling, respond and move forward. An opinion sounds more like this: “Well let me tell you what I think about that!” or “I think it might be best if…” Feedback serves the client’s awareness, and does not impose the coach’s thoughts or beliefs.
…Often we are planting seeds that may sprout later. It takes courage to give feedback, and be willing to patiently wait and see how your observation can have a positive effect on the client’s thinking and life.
Remember, clients really want feedback from coaches. They entered into a coaching relationship to get something and to get somewhere! They expect feedback to help move them into action, so give it freely and generously. Of course, timing is important. So be sure to listen and know when to ask for permission.
There are a number of ways we can know when it’s the right time to give feedback. First, actively listening to and getting to know our clients will help us know what is right for a given person and when, as well as how the client might react to our feedback. We can also develop and trust our intuition and our emotional intelligence to guide us in determining what a client needs.
We might also consider exploring all of the possible avenues first before sharing information, especially in a situation where a client asks a direct question, such as: “I don’t know what to do, what do you think?” Ask yourself, Will telling the client what I think serve him, or is there some other way? Sometimes, a client can feel so stuck that he just wants to be told what to do. Even if it ends up not being the perfect solution, just being given some direction can be very useful. When a client is really struggling and feels like he doesn’t have any idea what to do, it can feel very frustrating if the coach simply keeps asking questions. On the other hand, if the coach asks the right questions, it can help the client get unstuck and figure out what to do. Knowing your client and trusting your intuition can help you determine whether it’s best to keep asking questions or it’s time to take another approach.
When we see an opportunity to share feedback, we can also ask ourselves, Why am I sharing this? Is it to support the client or is it about me? Our priority should always be to do what serves our clients, and if we recognize that our motivation for sharing something is to make ourselves look good, or to show our expertise, we shouldn’t do it.
We can also improve by observing what happens when we do give feedback or share information. Noticing what the client does next helps us know whether we were effective in our approach. And we need to remember that it’s not necessarily the client choosing the option we offered that means we were effective. If a client rejects our feedback or idea, even better! We’ve simply offered alternative solutions that then helped them refine their own.
In the end, practice is what will make the difference. Coaching is an ongoing journey, and over time a lot of these questions and challenges will simply melt away. The ICF recognizes that different skills tend to be present in coaching at different levels, and their table of ICF Core Competencies Rating Levels illustrates how we can expect our coaching to develop over time. I’ve been told by more experienced coaches that as we practice and improve, a time will come when we won’t have to think twice about how to share information with clients and when. Until then, I hope this paper has offered some helpful food for thought and techniques to use in your own coaching.