How to Tell if a Coaching Conversation Is Going Wrong

Last week, during a workshop I presented on coaching, a participant asked these questions: How can you tell if a coaching conversation is going wrong? What do you look out for as cues? Good questions, I thought.

First—let’s define a conversation that’s “going wrong.” A conversation that’s going wrong is creating an emotional chasm between the coach and client—and when there’s relational-distance, coaching will be far less impactful. A conversation that’s going wrong is one where trust is disappearing, vulnerability has vanished, listening has ceased and questioning has become static and robotic. Coaching conversations should be buzzing with learning and inquiry—so a conversation that’s gone wrong is one where the learning opportunity has drained out and we’re both just waiting for it to be over. That’s a conversation that won’t meet it’s goals, hopes, intentions—neither my own nor those of my coachee.

Here’s how I know a coaching conversation is going off the rails. The first sign is that my heart is closing up. I start pulling back. I get less curious. I feel judgment about what the other person says. I get irritated or annoyed. As soon as my mind and heart start taking these journeys, the conversation has moved on a dangerous track. The good news is that I can pull myself, and therefore the conversation, back on track.

If I miss noticing these signs in myself, or I can’t get myself back on track, then what I might notice are my clients’ cues that they aren’t feeling emotionally safe or intellectually open. This often manifests in body language—I may notice my client crossing her arms over her chest, or leaning away, or facial expressions that can indicate distrust. Especially if there is a change in body language, this can be a cue that my client feels unsafe or disengaged.

Cues that the conversation is headed in an unproductive direction can also be found in what my clients say. I may notice a change in the quality of my client’s responses to questions I ask: they might become short, superficial, less reflective or curious. They might get defensive or blame external circumstances or others for the challenges they’re facing. In short, they may just seem like they don’t want to talk to me.

Consider these two responses to the same question.

Coach: How are you making sense of the challenges you’re having with managing your afternoon classes?

Response 1: I think there are some students in those classes who really trigger me—I’ve been aware of that for a while and it feels like just bad luck that they’re all in the afternoon. But that’s because of the way students are tracked in our school. I also think that by afternoon I’m just so much more tired than I was in the morning and I have less patience. And it feels like I’ve put so much effort into trying to build relationships with them and they just keep being difficult…

Response 2: I don’t know if I’m really having problems managing them as much as our school’s behavior management system doesn’t work.

The second response is one from a client who is less engaged in the conversation, who is slipping out. That’s a response that for me is a cue that this conversation is not headed where I hope it will head–towards new insigAPS 3 11_5.jpght for the client, towards empowerment and new action.

I think you can tell when a conversation is going well. Look at this photo of a coach and a teacher (in the Aurora Public Schools, Colo.). How do you think this conversation is going? How can you tell? Ok, maybe it’s too obvious: you see the smiles and open body language—and the conversation was going really well.

So what can you do when things aren’t going well?  The best news on this front is that if you start with examining your own role in the derailment—your own judgment, emotions, and mindset—then you have a leverage point to make changes right there to bring it back. I’ll expand on this further in an upcoming blog.

For now, perhaps as you coach today or this week, pay attention to the cues that indicate both that the conversation is going wrong as well as that it’s headed in the right direction.