“I just don’t know how to make this coaching stick” said a frustrated leader to me recently. He’s an executive coaching client and he is trying to coach a direct report to change his behavior.

His tone of voice reminded me of the frustration I have felt when I am just not getting through to an executive coaching client. Coaching doesn’t work for many reasons. The coachability of a leader determines whether the coaching has impact.

The skill of the coach also has a significant impact. According to a 2017 LinkedIn report, learning how to coach others is the most important leadership priority for organizations today. As leaders and coaches for our people we need to grow our own skills to overcome the resistance to change in our coachees.

Ten Ways to Overcome Resistance

When your coaching is not getting the desired results, use the list below to diagnose what’s missing. Coaching is not about pushing people to change their behaviors. It’s about partnering with them to help them discover what it is that they are committed to, and what is preventing them to make a change. It’s about helping them get self-aware so they can be more powerful in the choices they make.

Have you built trust? Trust is an absolute foundation of a good coaching relationship. Without trust between the coach and the leader being coached (the coachee), the coachee is not able to lower their guard. This is essential to the coaching relationship. Ask a coach ask yourself, what is the quality of the trust in the relationship. Do you believe in your coachee? We can unconsciously feel others judgments and intentions toward us and if the coachee doesn’t trust you or is feeling judged or “made wrong” by you, your impact will be limited. I know that my caring for my client is felt by them and creates a safe space for their growth. In fact, Google’s research on teams has suggested that “psychological safety” is the most important foundation of great team performance.

Have you discovered motivators? Any sustained change requires commitment rather than just compliance. Understand what the coachee’s vision is for themselves. What does success look like to them? What’s important to them? What are their goals, dreams, and desires for their career and life? What is the link between their own goals and the behavior change you’re coaching them on? What values or fears are motivating their behavior? Ask yourself is my coachee an equal partner in the coaching process or am I dragging them along on the behavior change I want?

Are you nurturing their confidence? Any change effort that a coachee undertakes requires tremendous energy on their part. It also requires confidence in themselves. You can help build trust, motivation, and confidence by reminding the leader about their strengths and what’s already working well. Focus on catching the coachee doing something right, even if it’s not perfect!

Are you raising self-awareness? I don’t believe anyone comes to work deciding that they are going to be a horrible leader today. Leadership performance gaps mostly exist because people are not aware of their impact on others. You can use assessments (360-degree feedback, self-assessments) help people understand their impact. What are you doing to build that self-awareness?

Have you together set clear and measurable goals? What are the two to three specific behaviors you are both aligned to the coachee shifting? These need to be specific and observable. How will they measure their progress on these behaviors? Which stakeholders do they want to engage and get input on the progress they are making?

Do you bring curiosity or judgment? When someone is not following through on their commitments, instead of judgment, skilled coaches bring curiosity. This helps the coachee lower their guard and get curious themselves (instead of judging themselves or being defensive). They get new insights about what stands in the way of sustained behavior change.

Are you practicing presence? Presence is slowing down and being fully here in this moment, listening deeply. As coaches, we can get involved in a “story” in our own heads or the “story” that the coachee is repeating to themselves. Instead, we must be an objective observer to notice what’s happening in the moment that the coachee may not be aware of and bring it to their attention. For example, when what a coachee is saying is at odds with their body language and tone of voice, it’s okay to observe “I notice you’re saying you want to improve your peer relationships, but I’m not hearing a lot of conviction in your voice”. Then just be silent, and listen. Silence is a great coaching tool.

Presence also helps us notice the underlying emotion the coachee may be feeling but not be fully aware of. Our unconscious emotions can create a huge unconscious resistance to change. For example, when we feel anxiety or resentment or fear, we may not be able to make clear decisions or take action. A coach’s presence helps the coachee become aware and process difficult emotions.

Are you being honest and courageous? Honesty builds trust in the relationship. Without honesty, the coaching is simply a pleasant conversation without much hope for change. Are you being as honest and courageous as you can be as a coach? As hard as it is to practice as a coach (after all you’re supposed to be the expert), showing vulnerability creates great trust. It allows the person being coached to feel safe in being vulnerable too. I often find myself saying “okay I’m stuck here. I feel like I’m pushing you too hard. Where do we go from here?”

Do you drive accountability? It is your job to help the person being coached improve their performance. Keep the coaching goals and measures front and center. Let them self-assess and give them feedback.

Do you help them make powerful informed choices? As a coach, we must believe that our coachee is empowered to make good choices for themselves. Ultimately, if a coachee is not committed to an action, create a safe space for them to say so, and discover what they are committed to. It may be deeply held value that is preventing them to take action or a fear that is keeping them stuck. It is your job to explore with them the consequences of not making a change, but the person being coached is ultimately at choice whether they want to change or not. As a coach, this is perhaps one of the hardest truths to recognize.

As I look back to some of my coaching where the results were less than stellar, I can now see through this list where I myself didn’t bring enough presence, clarity, courage or accountability to the coaching conversations.

Our jobs as leaders is not just to deliver the results, but in the process grow the people we lead. This perhaps is one of our greatest leadership legacies. I know that in looking back, I am deeply grateful to the people who believed in me, who saw my potential even before I could see it. As leaders and coaches, we must constantly grow our own skills in order to grow others. The practices of being a great coach make me a better leader and a better human being. This last piece is what keeps me most energized about my work.

How are you going to use this list to self-assess how you can improve your impact in a coaching relationship?

This article first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.

If you are part of an organization that hires executive coaches, reach out to me for the “Tool-Kit for Executive Coaching Impact“. It helps HR leaders optimize the impact of their executive coaching program.

Showing 4 comments
  • Alison Goldstein

    Henna, I got a lot of information for my personal growth from this article. I’m a Transition and Business coach myself and your top ten tips gave me some new strategies to consider. Thank you!

  • Willa

    Feel the coach’s own state first, Allow all occurences, if you have an uncomfortable feeling at that monent, You can tell him how you feel. When the coach is open to the member, The defense of the member will slowly disappear

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