You have just landed yourself a bright, shiny new client. They came to you from a referral or from your great looking web site, but you’ve never met them before. So, you look at them like they’re the next in line to be rewarded at the lolly shop and they look at you more like a bull stares at a new gate. For a moment, you puzzle over each other.
Where do you start? What’s going on inside your new client’s head?
Firstly, although they are willing to spend a goodly sum on seeing you, they probably don’t know much about what coaching actually is or what might happen. They have expectations that are, in all likelihood, not based on coaching reality. I had one client who, as a result of Chinese whispers, thought I could read his mind! First things first – you don’t want them getting buyer’s remorse because of false expectations.
Secondly, although they think they know what their problem is, you can bet they don’t know what the real problem is. It’s going to be your job to help them dig deeper and find the source. Not understanding the coaching process, they may think you are going to play the role of a good counsellor who listens to their problems. So now we have a process clash.
Thirdly, they don’t understand what’s causing their issues and their problem feels “honest to God complicated” to them; quite the puzzle. You don’t see it that way, you’ve seen a hundred just like this before. But don’t make the mistake of making them feel second rate or cheap. Doctors never do this to you and when they do, you never go back to see them.
Fourthly, they don’t have a clue how to get out of the issue. It’s a forest, an uncharted wilderness. You can see a clear path and whilst the answers may not appear easy to them, they are usually pretty simple. Helping the first time client see this is quite the challenge and this is going to have to go one of two ways: they are going to have to trust you or; you are going to need to lead without taking over.
Lastly, they’ve come to you hoping you know what to do. This last one is a pickle, because they don’t understand the coaching process yet and they may expect you to fix it like a good consultant. You’re not going to do that. However, getting this client to disavow overreliance on props, supports, experts and consultants is part of the first conversation.
The knowledge trap
So let’s talk about you for a minute. You’re the consummate professional. You’ve been in the game for a while and you know the ropes. However the problem with knowledge is that you forget what you know and you forget what it’s like not to know. If you have kids, you might have watched them struggle to walk, but you cannot recall learning to walk yourself. You listen to them do their times tables, but you find numbers easy now and cannot recall the sick feeling of embarrassment when you couldn’t do those tables in class.
This is the same with your client’s very first encounter with coaching. The curse of knowledge is that you carry a lot of assumptions around: language, metaphors, insights, frameworks, experience and stories. They have none of that. This means you’re going to need to generate a lot of this information for them, at least once but probably two or three times. This is a pattern that will repeat itself over and over for each new client or team or group you coach. So let’s talk strategies…
Get yourself a framework
Maybe you’re the kind of person who takes each conversation as it comes, spurning hard-coded format because it squashes creativity. If that’s true, you’re going to be spending quite a lot of energy recreating some form of the first coaching conversation again and again. This is actually a creativity drain, so the strategy may be working against you. Structure in this case sets you free.
Create a spiel you can run for each new client
A spiel or run sheet ensures you explain everything highlighted above. Run it at the start of at least the first two sessions. This will address their unfamiliarity – putting them at ease. In order to address their fear of the unknown, develop a standard coaching contract and explain what the process is all about. Talk about the number of meetings, the overall cost, payment plans and anything else they need to know.
Explain the coaching frame
Coaching really is quite different. It is a no-judgement space, a co-created conversation between the two of you and it assumes they are the experts in their own lives. Contrast it with counselling, psychology and consulting. Field their questions for clarification. From here, putting the client’s brain at rest and stilling their concerns can continue to be achieved throughout the session using the following three procedures:
1. Facilitate safety and control
When faced with the unknown, our brains tend to do something called downregulation. Operation of our rational brain (the prefrontal cortex) reduces, and the operation of our emotional brain, specifically the traffic controller (the amygdala) ramps up. Therefore, the more confused, concerned, worried and anxious the client becomes, the closer they get to having rational thought hijacked by their emotions. You don’t want that.
However, this is normal. So, to address this issue, give the client more choice and more control; thus ensuring your client feels known, understood and safe. This might be as simple as a hand shake, using their name, giving your name, offering water or even asking them where they would like to sit instead of dictating it. You facilitate a secure environment, make sure the place is comfortable and ensure the conversation is confidential. You also allow the client to guide the conversation as much as possible.
2. Build a coaching alliance
As you go through the first conversation, there will be moments when you might trigger a threat response. Perhaps your question digs too deep, too fast; perhaps they saw a frown on your face when their phone beeped. This can set off a freeze, flee or fight response (in their brain stem) and all coaching related learning ceases.
This can be overcome by building rapport and establishing trust. Match body language, use the client’s own words, understand what the client is really saying, repeat some of their key ideas or statements back to them and so forth. Think about how people have established trust with you, especially people selling you something. It will have involved them putting aside their pre-prepared questions and listening to you. They would have tried to figure out what you were really saying and clarified it with you. They probably gave before asking you to receive. Coaches can and should do the same.
3. Establish and use empathy
Whilst, in the truest definition, empathy means to walk in someone else’s shoes and that skill is more a counsellor’s job than ours, empathy gives the coach incredible power and ‘stickability’ when used appropriately. The client has two types of mirror neurons. Firstly, there is a react system which says, “I understand!” It stirs them to become involved in the action similarly to when you’re at a sporting match and you join the roaring crowd. The coach can enable this system by being present and calibrating the client’s state. There is also a respond system that says, “I am understood!” It stirs the feeling that we are together and you ‘get’ me. For the coach, pacing with the client plays to the respond system. Let’s discuss these two approaches.
In this first session, and of course for great coaching, in all sessions, really practise being present. Be right where the balls of your feet are. Lean in, be nowhere else. Focus on them. Next, practise really acute calibration of their breathing, their cadence of speech, their vocal volume, body language, eye movement patterns and so forth. Be delicately attuned to their state and watch for changes. Finally match yourself to their speed, a process which is called pacing. You must both move at the same pace if the client is to feel you are ‘going there together’. Once you do, they will feel strangely at home and comfortable.
Remember, you’ve done all this before but your client hasn’t. Avoid buyer’s remorse by establishing expectations. Be aware of the knowledge trap – you’ve forgotten how much you know and how little they do. They think they know what the problem is, but that’s not the problem and you are not a counsellor. They do not know that issues have deeper causes. You can see the path out, it’s not so clear to them. They may want you to fix them, but you’re not a consultant. Ensure the client has a great first session by: avoiding amygdala hijack by facilitating safety and control; stopping brain stem threat response by building rapport and establishing trust and; ensuring empathy and engaging the mirror neuron system by being present and employing careful calibration and pacing.
Robert I Holmes
PCC, CALC, MAIMC, MPSA
B.Comm, P.G.Dip.Acc., C.B.Fac., M.Div., Th.D
Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and high performance. He is a Founding Partner of Frazer Holmes Coaching, www.frazerholmes.com who specialise in personal development. As the Director of Marketing and Brand Development for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA), he oversees the promotion of the Coaching Industry in the Asia Pacific. As the Research Fellow at the NeuroCoaching Institute, Robert is undertaking his Ph.D in the effectiveness of coaching on trauma and PTSD in the Army. He is also an international journalist (Inc. Magazine, HR Monthly, Brain Speak, Flying Solo, Coach World, Carol Roth) and has authored six books on leadership, coaching, business and theology as well as fiction.
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