Coaching Techniques

How To Handle A Difficult Coaching Session (And When to Refer Out)

Need help navigating a challenging coaching client? Lumia Coaching co-founder John Kim shares tips and strategies drawn from his own coaching practice.

February 3, 2022
Originally published in November 2018, this blog has been updated to incorporate new resources and information.

Handling A Difficult Coaching Session

John Kim

By John Kim, Lumia Coaching co-founder

‍Many believe a difficult life coaching session is one where you feel like you don’t know the answers. But sessions are not about giving your client answers.

Life coaching is about guiding and supporting, helping your clients to come up with their own answers. Creating a space for them to have revelations. Then doing your best to make them accountable, encouraging them and making them feel like they’re not doing life alone.

But sometimes, you’ll come across a difficult session that will block you from this process. I’ve found that there are two types of coaching sessions that are the toughest.

1. When the client has very little motivation.

Some clients have very little motivation.

They don’t give you anything to work with. They are vague and don’t seem like they want to be there. You’re confused about why they hired you. Maybe you find out their wife or girlfriend made them seek coaching. Or they know they need “something” but are not sure what.

So it’s like pulling teeth. The sessions feel flat with lots of awkward silences. You ask him what he would like help with in his life and he answers, “I don’t know. I just know I’m not happy.” 

So you keep digging and it’s exhausting and you start to dread the sessions.

woman in a conversation at a coffee shop, looking bored

Quick story.

I had a client once who saw me every week for nearly a year. He came to me because his marriage was in trouble, but he never wanted to talk about his marriage. I would ask him questions about it and he would dart around it and talk about other things. But he seemed to enjoy the sessions even though we didn’t talk about much. 

Or at least I didn’t think we did.

I learned later that it wasn’t about what we talked about. It was about him feeling alone in this world and just needing a friend.

And this is what was difficult for me as a life coach, because I didn’t sign up to be someone’s friend. If we’re not “helping” people, we don’t feel worthy as a coach.

Turns out, my resistance had more to do with my insecurity as a coach than with this “difficult client”. 

So I accepted where he was at and what he needed and decided to lean into it. I even told him to bring a beer for one session so we could really bro down.

If you haven’t had any clients like this yet, it may be hard to imagine. Just “hanging out” with someone may feel like you’re not doing your job. But remember, the content of the sessions isn’t as important as the space that’s created and the dynamic of the relationship.

Clients need and value an authentic connection with you more than anything else.

And this is how you mentally adjust to these types of difficult sessions. Once you accept that coaching clients are paying for the space you are creating and for time with you as a unique individual, the sessions won’t be difficult anymore. You’ll put less pressure on yourself to be a “life coach” and just be. And there is tremendous power in Being. It pulls you out of your head and the labels we put on ourselves.

What about situations where what clients are REALLY buying is “access”?

If you have grown a social media following, the other piece to this, and what clients are paying for, is the experience of engaging with someone they’ve been reading or watching. It might seem superficial but there is value there.

The client I mentioned above has been following me for a while and I’m sure a part of why he wanted to work with me was because he was a fan of The Angry Therapist

If this happens to you, remember that they are paying for that access. It’s fair because you’ve worked hard to build a following. You’ve produced a sh*t load of content and spend endless hours engaging with your community.

Remember, you have to meet the individual client where they are at. And you have to be okay with sessions going slow or lacking light bulb moments. You have to be okay with just “hanging out”, if that’s what they need. 

Of course you should care about the wellbeing of your clients and have goals for them, but do not place expectations on how their sessions should look for you. Because the best sessions are the unexpected, the ones where it takes a life of its own. And that can’t happen if you are tracing a blueprint.

2. When your personality clashes with your client.

Clashing with a client results in difficult coaching sessions. And guess what? Personalities clash sometimes.

This has happened to me several times and it will happen to you. Because you are a person and you have a story and triggers and preferences. There are some clients you will love as people… and others not so much.

First, don’t beat yourself up.

There may be many reasons why they are rubbing you the wrong way that you are not aware of. They may be triggering something in you or reminding you of someone who has hurt you. You may just have different styles. Whatever it is, it can be a blocker from helping the client.

So what do you do when you come across a client you feel as if you dislike?

Take a minute and ask yourself: 

  • What is it about this client that you don’t like? 
  • Is it who they are, their attitude, life choices? 
  • Are they treating you with disrespect? 
  • Do they remind you of someone? An ex? A friend who annoys you? Your dad? 
  • Where is the resistance coming from?

Always look inward first.

Once you understand why you feel as if you don’t like this person, ask yourself if you can look beyond it. Maybe you need to process it with your own therapist or life coach. Remember, leaning into and exploring people who give you resistance can be rich soil for growth.

Or maybe you’re not at a place where you want to take this on. That’s completely okay. Don’t put pressure on yourself just because you’re a life coach. You should do what you feel is best and fair for the client.

If you’re not in a place to open this box, don’t. Refer them to someone else.

two women in a heated argument

Quick story.

I had a client whose wife was a victim of assault. He trusted me and was completely transparent which I appreciated, but he confessed that he felt like it was kinda her fault. It was really difficult for me to hear that or understand his point of view. He also had a lot of angry energy, which is a huge trigger for me.

I could have explored my resistance and worked through it I’m sure. He wasn’t a bad person. He was hurting.

But I wasn’t in a place in my life to process and work through this. And that was okay. So I referred him to someone who I thought could help him more than me. I didn’t tie my value as a therapist / life coach to this situation or my unwillingness to work through it.

That being said, if you have a pattern of not wanting to get outside your comfort zone and work through your resistance with clients, then that’s something you should look at closely.

Instead of fearing difficult sessions, just know that they come with the journey of coaching.

They’re inescapable. But they are gold to learn and grow from.

Happy coaching.

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