March 31, 2014

Transforming Impasses: What’s really happening when your clients get stuck

One of the primary benefits of being a coach, from my vantage point, is having a particular area of expertise – an issue or a challenge that you become really adept at working with. Tools are amassed, strategies develop, and any good coach ultimately cultivates a set of skills that’s effective for helping his or her clients to achieve certain types of goals.

Unfortunately, however, we all know that some clients will show up who don’t follow the protocol.

She says she wants to reach a goal but she doesn’t do the work.

He signs up for the program but he doesn’t follow through.

When we come across challenging cases like this, it can be hard to know what to do or how to move past it. The discrepancy between what a person SAYS he or she wants doesn’t seem to match up with the action.

So, it begs the question, what’s really happening here? The clue to the answer, in my mind, involves comprehending the underlying forces that are at play.

It’s often said in the coaching world that our histories don’t matter, but at the risk of sounding contrarian, nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s our life experiences, and formative relationships, that teach us everything we think we know about how the world works – and what we’re capable of achieving in it.

That doesn’t mean that we need to stay stuck in the past, but if you want to understand what’s holding a particular client back (and move past the block), the answer will lie in that rubble.

  • Did this client get the message as a child that his or her success was a threat to others?
  • Does she have a continued relationship with someone who benefits from her playing small?
  • Did he receive negative messages when he was young about his potential being limited? Is there still a part of him that believes that what he learned is true?

Being open to exploring these questions, and gaining understanding about where this impasse is coming from, can make or break our work with a client – because we often can’t solve a problem when we don’t know what it is.

That said, I want to share a tool with you that’s particularly powerful; it has the potential to radically change the way that you approach your work with your clients, although in many ways it’s quite simple:

Studies show again and again, (and again), that across all forms of psychotherapy, the primary catalyst for change lies in the relationship between practitioner and client. No matter what interventions we employ, and no matter what school of thought we belong to (be it CBT, psychoanalysis, or what have you), what creates change in therapy is the transformative relationship that develops between therapist and client.

This is the case because our learning as human beings happens through relationships: As children we learn about our sense of self-worth by the way people treat us, and we learn about our potential via the messages we get from others.

This information is then corrected in other relationships as well, and one can only assume that this applies to coaches, too.

So you get to be the model for your client, and you get to provide what we call in the therapy world a “corrective emotional experience.” What does this mean, exactly?

If no one has ever believed in your client before, your faith in their potential will be more powerful than any “intervention” you could ever employ.

If people sometimes feel frustrated with them, your patience will be vital.

Figuring out what your client’s “relational expectations” are, and how to improve them, can sometimes be easier said than done – but if you can crack this code you can unlock the power to move mountains.

What I’m talking about here isn’t about treating “mental illness” (because having blocks as a result of past life experiences doesn’t make a personal mentally ill) – it’s just about treating the “whole person.”

We simply can’t keep pretending that our histories don’t matter, because they make us who we are: filled with contradictions and competing desires. Complex. Nuanced. And deeply human.

This post has been written in conjunction with the launch of a new service: Consultation for coaches. If you’re a coach who’s reached a stumbling block in your work with a particular client, I’m available to meet for individual hours to help you to figure out where the impasse is coming from, and how to move forward. More information about that can be found here.

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