Coach and Client Relationship

November 17, 2011  |   Executive Coaching Blog   |     |   0 Comment

In this article I look at how important it is for six executive coaching clients that their executive coach had the skills to enable them to achieve their coaching goals. They set themselves stretching goals and recognised that at times this could make the coaching personally challenging.


This in itself may not be surprising. However most of the literature on the executive coaching relationship sees it as a separate aspect to the skills and techniques of coaching. The study also investigated whether clients found a directive or non-directive approach in coaching more helpful to their development.


This article is based on research with clients in executive coaching. The identification of the participants and their companies is confidential. It was agreed that the research can be published as long as anonymity is maintained. The figure in brackets after the quotes is the number assigned to each research participant.


Do Doubts About the Skills of a Coach Influence the Relationship?


A strong theme that emerged from the interviews with participants was the way in which their perspective of the coaching relationship was influenced by the ability of their coach to help them achieve their developmental goals.  It was apparent that for all participants the coaching relationship existed for the purpose of their development, and doubts about achieving this may lead to reservations about the relationship:


“A strong relationship where you’re making no progress because they [the coach] haven’t used the skills to allow you to progress, well you’d then start to question ‘have I got a good coach or not?’  If you start to question have I got a good coach or not, the relationship starts to go backwards…” (P5, 20)


A recurrent theme that arose in many accounts was the way in which participants differentiated between the nature of the relationship with a friend and the more purposeful nature of their relationship with their coach.  Coaches were seen to add value to the relationship through their ability to further the development of the participants, examples of this were, “…at the same time I feel she is adding immense value, it doesn’t leave me with a sense of ‘well I could have just sat chatting with a friend for two hours” (P1, 28), and “the relationship with poor skills just becomes a good mate” (P5, 20).  It is noticeable that both participants use the word ‘just’ in their quotes, ‘just becomes a good mate’ and ‘just chatting with a friend’.  The participants all had objectives for their coaching and this was the reason for the coaching relationship.  Perhaps one other reason for the differentiation between a good friend and their coach was the fact the coach was being paid to provide a service.


My Coaching Needs to be Stretching


In the achievement of their goals the participants recognised that they needed to be “stretched” (P3 1),challenged” (P2, 12) or taken out of their “comfort zone” (5, 2) and although there was a view this may make the coaching personally difficult, there was an expectation that their coach would be able to help with this:


“And being honest that’s exactly what I needed [exploration of an area of his life], because, you know, and therefore it’s felt uncomfortable at times because he’ll ask questions you don’t normally expect to answer with a work hat on, but they are good for me and actually I now look forward to his challenges…” (P3, 4)


The pace of development was also valued “I am amazed how quickly we got to something I really could use.  It didn’t feel like ‘let’s have three sessions’ before I kind of thought ‘I’m getting somewhere with this…’ (P1, 4).


Is a Directive or Non-Directive Approach Better?


In achieving their goals all participants obtained greater personal insight and awareness from the non-directive approach taken by their coach and in some cases this in itself served to strengthen the relationship. Participant 4 explained this in relation to his coach’s use of probing questions:


“…I suppose it it’s that whole kind of cause and effect thing, isn’t it, you know, he’s trying to get to the cause of the issue rather than just talking about the effect.  Which deepens the, it has to deepen my level of honesty and openness which therefore kind of helps that relationship [coaching relationship], I guess.” (P4, 19)


The use of active listening, confirmation of understanding and questions were referred to on a number of occasions as allowing participants to find their own solutions to their problems.  This was important to the participants who appeared to be resourceful and saw the role of the coach as facilitating their development, for example:


“I actually appreciate the way he plays back to confirm what he’s heard, on top of this active listening, um, and then gives me questions that help me determine my own, I can feel it, I can feel it being done to me, as it were, that as he takes me through those, the answer, my own answer is forming in my head”  (P6, 6)


As well as the non-directive techniques used by their coaches there was also an appreciation of the advice or suggestions made by coaches.  However the appropriateness of giving advice was linked to a clear understanding of the participants’ situation.  This understanding was described by Participant 2 as providing the space to give advice:


“…you [his coach] fully understand the environment, you fully understand the context and then you provide advice, you create a space for providing me with advice that helps me deal with something that I haven’t got a solution for is massively important” (P2, 19)


In addition to understanding the situation it was important that the coach had demonstrated an understanding of the participant before giving advice or an opinion:


“I think what’s happened over time…is whereas he did a huge amount of listening at the start, and let me talk and work…because he now understands what works with me and doesn’t, he will give me an opinion and I have asked him for an opinion as well, rather than me always getting there…” (P3, 12)


This quote suggested that the balance between a non-directive approach and offering opinions, or advice, could change as the relationship became more mature.  In the few instances where the coach did something to negatively influence the relationship it was often linked with giving advice, or making suggestions that did not match the participants’ readiness for them, for example, “You know, I need to come up with the solutions rather than sometimes that advice or opinion…”  (P4, 9).  Participant 4 went on to describe how the inappropriate move into advice giving led to him challenging his coach and disrupted the flow of the coaching conversation for him:


“So if he’d come up with something and I wasn’t sure what he meant I’d say ‘well, what do you mean by that?’…but what I probably do think, kind of internally, is well actually ‘are you seeing the bigger picture?’ type thing.  But then I also sort of double question myself” (P4, 10)


A Summary


The participants were clear that the coaching relationship existed for the purpose of enabling them to achieve their goals.  For this reason their perception of the skills and competence of their coach did have an influence on their perspective of the coaching relationship.  The participants placed value on the non-directive techniques used by their coach; however advice, suggestions and opinions were sometimes helpful, provided the coach had a good understanding of the participant and their situation.  In the literature there are mixed views, in both coaching and therapy, about whether or not techniques and skills are part of, or separate to, the relationship.  Bedi (2006) finds that, although most theories of relationship place little emphasis on therapist’s techniques and skills, clients may incorporate them in their view of the relationship.


There is evidence in the literature that executive coaching clients, as in this study, stress that good coaching is results orientated (Hall et al., 1999) and that they value the tools and models used by coaches to assist in their development {Passmore, 2010}.  Baron and Morin (2009) find a correlation between coaching techniques and the coach-client relationship, and observe that their findings contradict the existing research in therapy, which gives far greater emphasis to relationship than technique in outcomes.  One explanation for an increased influence of techniques in coaching may be the differences in the characteristics of the client and their goals (Baron and Morin, 2009)




Baron, L. and Morin, L. (2009) ‘The Coach-Coachee Relationship in Executive Coaching: A Field Study’, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 85-106.


Bedi, R. (2006) ‘Concept Mapping the Client’s Perspective on Counseling Alliance Formation’, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 26-35.


Hall, D., Otazo, K. and Hollenbeck, G. (1999) ‘Behind Closed Doors: What Really Happens in Executive Coaching’, Organisational Dynamics, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 39-53.


Passmore, J. (2010) ‘A Grounded Theory Study of the Coachee Experience: The Implications for Training and Practice in Coaching Psychology’, International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 48-62.






Keywords: Executive Coaching, Executive Coaching Research, Executive Coaching Research Study, Coaching Skills, Coaching Relationship


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