Something’s Got to Give: Conflict-Avoiding Coach and Resistant Client

By Janet Baird, a Bright Morning Senior Associate and contributing blogger

I will go out of my way to avoid confrontation, so when I first began coaching what I feared most was the idea of a resistant client. Or even worse, one who wouldn’t meet with me at all. So of course, not soon after I began my biggest fear was realized. 

Enter Lisa. 

Lisa got into teaching in her 50s as a second career. In our first meeting, she made it very clear that even though she was new to teaching, as an accomplished professional she didn’t need a coach. 

I headed back to my office, slumped into my chair and wondered to myself how I was ever going to meet with Lisa every week this year. 

So for the first few weeks of the year, I did what I do best when I fear confrontation: I moved into a state of avoidance. Instead of planning for our conversations I would just haphazardly stop by her classroom to check in on her with the generic How are you? How are things going?… all while standing in the door to her classroom. I wanted to be able to “check the box” for a weekly coaching meeting without risking what I feared might happen if I really tried to coach. I didn’t know how to deal with resistance, so I tried to avoid it. This was my first mistake. My avoidance only reinforced Lisa’s beliefs that she wouldn’t benefit from a coach, because she definitely wasn’t benefiting from the way I was “supporting” her. 

I had made my mind up. Lisa was a resistor. This was my next mistake. I had determined that she was resistant to coaching before I really even gave coaching a chance. I viewed all our conversations through the lens of resistance, so I missed opportunities and entry points into establishing a coaching relationship. I labeled her, which is always a dangerous practice. We weren’t building any trust, and without trust, there couldn’t be a coaching relationship.

After a couple of months of our superficial coaching relationship, I realized how I was operating was creating too much anxiety for me. I explored that anxiety, offered some self-compassion for all the mistakes I had made along the way and extended compassion to Lisa as well. I tried to see this from her perspective.  And then I worked towards expanding the story of our coaching relationship. What is possible if I hold onto this belief of resistance? This was the moment where I stopped making mistakes and started moving forward. 

My next step was making the decision to shift my perspective and work on building some trust. I sat down to prepare for an upcoming meeting and decided that my main goal for the conversation would be to share my philosophy of coaching and be upfront with my style and approach. I wanted to create a space where she could share her thoughts on coaching and ask any questions that she might have. I suggested she do the core values activity and I shared my values with her.

To my surprise, our next couple of conversations went okay. They weren’t earth-shattering, but they helped me shift my perspective of her. I worked really hard at building trust in our relationship. I knew I had to start with myself and how I was showing up. I love the How to Build Trust resource for this stage of the work. It is so helpful to explore how you are showing up and what changes you need to make if you are working towards building a trusting relationship. 

Next, I began to intentionally build trust in order to chip away at resistance. I took an asset-based approach and asked Lisa if I could come and observe her teaching an upcoming lesson that she was excited about. I shared how I wanted to see her shine. I focused on the bright spots, and she responded by inviting me in more and more. I wanted to help shift her thinking that coaching was a punitive relationship. We slowly built trust, and I noticed less and less of what I had initially perceived as resistance. 

I’m not going to lie, it took time, but we made steady progress and by the end of the second semester, we had established a strong coaching relationship. 


Here are my three biggest takeaways from my work with Lisa:

  1. Avoidance doesn’t work. I have found this to be true with almost everything in life, but it is especially true when dealing with resistance. Avoiding conversations that need to happen only makes matters worse. 
  2. Perception doesn’t need to become reality. What I quickly realized was that often I was playing into the resistance and allowing it to take on a life of its own. I was quick to label her as a resistant teacher which did nothing to help our coaching relationship. During this phase, you need to check your implicit bias as well. Why are you so quick to label this person as resistant? What is coming up for you as a coach when you think about this client? Is this based on observable facts? What’s possible if you hold on to this belief?
  3. Trust helps to chip away at resistance. Do whatever it takes to build trust as this is the foundation of any healthy coaching relationship. When trust is present, all things are possible. You can have those difficult conversations that are essential for growth. Check out Elena Aguilar’s online class The Art of Building Trusting Coaching Relationships to further this skillset. 

Bottom line: If you want to be a transformational coach you can’t shy away from resistance. Commit to making a change, check-in with the perceptions you are holding and be willing to unpack them, and intentionally build trust.