Five Things a Coach Should Never Say
Updated: Jan 18
Finding a good coach can be really hard. No two people coach the same and despite the fact that everyone that gets into this work truly wants to help people, there is a lot of variability in quality. The industry is unregulated which means anyone can call themselves a coach without a certification or any formal training. That means that in order to make sure you're getting what you paid for you need to know what to watch out for.
I'm embarrassed to say this but when I'm out at parties I have a really hard time explaining what a coach does. I know how to explain that a coach uses techniques to build motivation and confidence and get you focused on values-driven goals. But sometimes people ask, "yeah but how does it work" and I have a hard time explaining it in a way that doesn't involve rambling about theories of applied psychology and putting people to sleep. What I have discovered is that for whatever reason, I have an easier time concisely explaining what it isn't.
So if you're looking for a coach or working for a coach, I'd like to present some things that a coach should not be saying along with a little explainer that helps to uncover a bit about what coaching is and what it's meant to achieve. I hope it can give you some insight into what this work is and is not about.
How Does that Make You Feel?
Ah. The comforting words of the TV therapist. It seems harmless enough. It's even on the right track - good coaching should get you out of your head and into your emotions. Real change is about really being with our emotions and seeing how they work together with our thoughts to create our behavior. Coaching is about harnessing that synthesis to build motivation that you can feel in order to create real changes.
So what's the problem?
Ok so it's honestly no big deal if someone asks you this, but zooming in on the phrasing helps to highlight what coaching is and isn't.
The question is just kind of stereotypical and it feels cheesy because it's not really personal. And honestly it's why part of us chuckles when the TV therapist says it. In the real world, a coach that says this might be trying to ask the next question rather than really being there with you. If I'm a client, I want my coach to be with me in the moment and ask things that are tailored to my needs.
Frankly, this is a hard question to answer. Most of us don't know how we're feeling at any given moment. Coaching is so powerful because it helps us get into a part of our selves that we likely aren't very familiar with. A better question would be "what's happening in your body right now?", "How do you experience that?", "What changes do you notice while you're talking about this?". All of these are ways to bring in the true emotional experience and get some insight.
Do you think...?
Do you think those pants are a good choice? Do you think the dishes aren't clean because you are loading the dishwasher wrong? Do you think you should keep telling that joke?
If someone you cared about asked you any of these questions, you'd probably be annoyed. Why? Because these are all subtle judgments. Questions that begin with "do you think" really mean "I know something about this situation that you don't and I'm going to try to lead you there with a cleverly disguised question".Your coach doesn't need to ask you these questions because your parents and older siblings will ask them for free.
Coaching is a way to help you trust your own good judgment and because of that, a good coach begins with one belief: You are creative, resourceful, and whole. They might subtly challenge you at times with questions like "What advice would you give someone in your position?" or "How would you handle this if you couldn't fail?" but the buck always stops with you. A 'do you think' question implies that you're not the expert of your own life, it subtly leads to you questioning your own judgment, and it works against the aim of coaching which is to help you make clear and confident decisions about what is best for you in your life.
Have you tried...
This one is similar to the last one but different in a fundamental way. "Do you think" implies an opinion. "Have you tried" implies advice which coaching is not meant to provide.
Most people opt out of their dreams, choosing instead to chase some smaller thing that is safer or more palatable to others.
I think it's a common misconception that people hire coaches because they can't manage their own lives and need someone to walk around behind them helping them make decisions. For some people the first part is true - I know I've sought out a coach at times when my life has felt unmanageable. But I didn't need someone to help me make decisions. I needed to get back to a place where I could confidently drive my own life. Advice completely cannonballs that.
Here's the bigger reason, advice is something your coach shouldn't be providing you: in a lot of cases people don't even want what they think they want. Most people opt out of their dreams, choosing instead to chase some smaller thing that is safer or more palatable to others and that will minimize the risk of failure. It's simply human nature and it's so prevalent that "The War of Art" Author, Steven Pressfield has given jobs that fall into this category a name: shadow careers. If we get right to work of trying to, say, make your terrible job more tolerable (a thing that SO many people come to coaching trying to do) we could completely miss the need for a complete life shift that's screaming to get out.
People who aren't actually coaching give advice: "You should wear a silly shirt once a week to remind yourself to be lighthearted in your job. That will be $300". The good coach gets curious about why you even want that thing. They poke holes in it and ask you to make an argument for it. They challenge you to really consider what makes you tick, not just how to make the next decision. And trust me, there is power in that kind of work. That work helps you use the problem at hand to deduce your core mission on this planet - an insight that will help you solve many many more problems than the one at hand. A coach that's trying to get straight to the outcome of a single problem is giving you a fish when they should be asking you if you even like fish and whether or not having it will get you what you actually need in this life.
Where do you think that came from?
Let's come at this from a coaching standpoint as well as a therapy standpoint. This will help not only clarify a bit about coaching but distinguish some differences between coaching and therapy (which are fewer than you might think).
Let's start with coaching. Coaches should be trained not to lead the conversation to a place that could get into family dynamics, childhood traumas, or family history of pathology. The reasons are pretty simple. First, they're not trained to deal in those areas and could get the client stuck in a place that the coach simply doesn't have the training or expertise to get out of. Second, coaching is really meant to focus on what is here right now and where you're going.
Things are slightly different in therapy. In therapy it can be helpful to get some family background to understand if there's a history of anxiety or if there's a certain dynamic that's getting played over and over again (ex: someone was rejected by a parent and finds a way to latch onto people who will reject them because it's comfortable). However, if this question is asked as a general probe, it can get a client stuck in a story telling loop. Story telling is a clever defense mechanism that tells our brains that we're 'doing deep work' when we're really just telling ourselves a cognitive story about something that may or may not have happened the way we recall. It allows us to fall into a victim role instead of being empowered to change things.
Here's another reason digging around in old memories might not lead to great work: your memories are cherry picked clips from past events that suit your needs through clever editing. Not only that, your memories of past events change every single time you recall them. So whether you're working with a coach or a therapist, I truly think the best ones out there are skipping questions about the past altogether. A good practitioner asks questions like, "what stories are you holding onto about the past that are impacting you now?" or "You've had some pain in your past. What is your body carrying around with you from those experiences?" or "How has that experience from your past informed patterns that are happening today?" Can you see the difference? Really good work comes from dealing with whatever is here right now. We can work with that and, especially in the case of trauma, it can be incredibly healing. But we can't go back and work with the past.
Whether you work with a coach or therapist or you're just trying to do your own personal work, there is often a reflex to want to go on an archeological dig to find the cause of everything that happened as if we can ever get there or do anything about it. A really good practitioner will always frame "the past" as a story. Because at this point that's all it is - a recollection of things that your brain has stored away to inform how you should handle yourself now. Letting go of the story puts you back in the driver seat.
What are your biggest obstacles?
Language is so incredibly powerful. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "The limits of language are the limits of my world"(which is why the sky is green in Japan). What he means is that we really can't conceive of things that we don't have words for. But the flip side is also true. If you can explain how or why something is possible, it becomes tangible. This is the whole reason coaching works. We're leveraging language to help the brain understand the possibilities in your world that never existed before.
The second we ask someone about obstacles, we are asking them to explain why whatever they want is not possible. And if you believe what Big Lud had to say on the topic, it's a pretty great way to stay stuck. Our words become our reality so you need to be talking, in earnest, about what is possible, what tools and strengths you have at your disposal, and different scenarios where success is possible.
Coaches who ask these kinds of questions mean well. They believe if you identify the problem you can solve it. But these questions always end up being a waste of time and energy. As you get closer to doing the big scary thing you need to do, your brain will come up with a lot of obstacles and excuses as a means of protecting you from change. I think any human being who has ever made a change knows this is true. A coach that asks you about obstacles is charging you for something your anxious brain will do for free.
A good coach has one primary directive - to help you believe in how amazing, strong, and talented you are. Because you are. You just rate yourself as less capable than you are as some sort of outdated survival mechanism. That kind of thinking kept your ancestors safely away from cliffs and sabertooth cats. But if you can see how much more is in you, and you can talk about it, as stated above, it will lead you to the actions you want. We get there by asking the right questions and those questions should sound something like "When in your life did you achieve something you never thought possible?", "What potential is living in you and dying to come alive?", or "How would you handle this if you knew you could not fail?"
These questions described here aren't the worst thing that can happen to you but if you're paying for a coach you speaks to you in a way that limits your thinking, boxes you in, or rescues you from having to solve your own problems, you might end up spending a lot of time feeling like you're spinning your wheels. On the flip side, if you find a coach who asks the right questions, your answers will not only surprise you, they'll introduce you to a version of yourself that you never knew existed. And that version of you is destined for something really great.
Would you add anything to this list? Is there anything else that you look for when coach or therapist shopping? Let us know in the comments.