Calling it Quits When There’s Coach-Client Dissonance
The message stood out in my inbox.
“HELP!” it commanded.
My curiosity piqued, I opened it to read the brief story of someone who’d recently found himself in a new leadership role and wanted coaching support. We set up an introductory call for the next day. By the call’s end, he’d enrolled as a client.
It was clear that he was driven, goal oriented, and had a strong personality. I don’t remember if he called himself an “alpha male” or if I mentally applied the label. Either way, there was a certain energy he projected that told me he was going to be an interesting client. Never one to shy away from interesting, I thought, “I can handle this!”
And besides, my roster was a bit thin at the time, so a new client was a welcome relief.
As you’re reading this, do you see what I see?
You’re seeing what I missed (or ignored) at the time: The “HELP!” subject line should have been an immediate red flag. He enrolled too quickly before talking to other coaches. A challenging client is one thing, but if from the get-go, I’m thinking, “I can handle this,” well…it’s not an ideal mindset. And finally, setting aside those warning signals because of a light roster? By now, you should be facepalming like crazy.
By the third session, I knew without a doubt that we weren’t a good fit. Sure, there were glimpses of connection and movement that offered slivers of hope. And I reasoned with myself, thinking, “This is an opportunity to shore up my weak areas as a coach. He’s my client for a reason.” (Are you catching this bonus red flag!?)
I was hoping he would be the first to say it wasn’t working. As it turns out, I had to break it off. Because of his communication style, I decided to do it through email, which proved to be the right choice. In the end, there was no ill will, only lessons learned.
Yet despite those lessons, in the years since, I’ve found myself in two more client mismatches. Except each time, I realized it more quickly and was able to bring the relationship to completion through conversation. In one case, the client wanted more consultation than coaching. In the other, I came to believe the business model they were attached to wasn’t viable, and I couldn’t see a way forward.
The truth is, despite your best efforts, client mismatches will happen. How can you avoid them? The short answer: Clearly define your ideal client. Develop strong agreements and mutual expectations. Don’t say “yes” from desperation. Trust your intuition. Be willing to say up front, “We’re not a good fit.”
What happens when everything looks good on paper and starts out promising, but a few sessions into it, you realize you’re not two peas in a pod? The new ICF Core Competency Model explicitly states that we are expected to “partner with the client to end the coaching relationship in a way that honors the experience.” How do we do that?
Identify the Breakdown
Where did you get the first red flags?
What was your rationale for moving ahead anyway?
Where was the disconnect?
Was the root cause a one-off issue, or is it a pattern?
Own What’s Yours
It’s fair to consider how each of you played a role in the situation. Maybe the agreement was fuzzy. Perhaps their needs shifted. Even with best intent, mistakes happen. Knowing where the partnership was not set up for success is helpful when deciding what to say to the client, as well as in establishing new agreements with future clients.
Be Compassionate with Yourself
Resist judging yourself harshly, especially if you discover you were coming from financial scarcity. Name it, claim it, but don’t shame it.
Co-create the Completion
Ask your client how they would like to bring the partnership to a close? What do they need to feel complete? Consider those same questions for yourself. Treat the conversation as an opportunity to offer continued value by staying curious, leaving space for new learning, and offering appreciation. If appropriate, acknowledge and celebrate whatever results the client experienced.
Reflect on What You Learned
Even if you know it’s the right thing to do, you can still doubt your abilities. It’s true that we can always identify areas for skill-building, and it’s most powerful to build those skills when you are working with your ideal clients.
For every client mismatch, there are 10 more that put you in your coaching happy place. Be grateful for all of them. Experiencing the occasional dissonance makes the resonance sing brighter.
Rich, rewarding coaching partnerships happen when there’s mutual trust, respect, safety and commitment. Don’t settle for anything less. You both deserve to have it all!