John Bennett/ August 22, 2022/ Development, Executive Coaching, Teaching

Seek to recognize these behaviors and make necessary adjustments

As leaders, managers, and coaches develop the mind-set and skills of coaching, there are some common traps. Developing skills takes time, practice, reflection, and feedback. In my 25+ years of coaching, and 20+ years of teaching coaching, I’ve experienced and observed many common traps. These are the kinds of behaviors that may reduce your impact with your coaching clients. Use this list to reflect on your experiences in coaching, seek to recognize these behaviors, and to make necessary adjustments.

Advice In Disguise 

Coaches, particularly beginners, try to help their client by providing the answers, solutions, or advice. Sometimes this is a direct statement, like:

  • “I think you should …”
  • “Here’s what I would do …”

More often, the advice-giving comes in the form of a statement, disguised as a question. Such as:

  • “What would you think of doing ___?”
  • “Would you ___?”
  • “Have you thought about ___?”
  • “Would it be a good idea if ___?”

The Why Question

Why questions can prompt defensiveness from the person being coached, lead to philosophical responses, and move the coaching conversation into a problem-solving mode. Examples of these why questions (and potential replacements) include:

  • “Why did you do that?” to “What options did you consider?”
  • “Why is that important to you?” to “What made that important to you?”
  • “Why did you respond in that manner?” to “What lead to that response?”

Gathering Too Much/Unnecessary Data

Curiosity is an important mindset for coaches. This needs to be balanced by focusing on the client’s agenda/goals and gathering essential information to support the client. Some examples include:

  • Asking “Tell me about your company’s history.”
  • Capturing all the acronyms used by the client.
  • Asking the names and histories of the people reporting to your client.

Stay focused on what the client needs to move their agenda forward.

Engaging People Who Aren’t Present

Coaching clients may avoid responsibility, and do not explore that their role with such issues is to talk about other people, places, and situations. Coaches can support this by demonstrating curiosity. Effective coaching focuses on the person being coached—the person right there, right now. Examples include:

  • “How does __ feel?”
  • “What were they thinking?”

Long Questions

Feeling a sense of urgency to respond to what the person-being-coached has said, not taking time to think about your questions before saying them, lacking clear focus, as well as trying to sort through what the client has said and what you are thinking are some of the reasons coaching questions get long. My suggestion is to minimize the amount of context necessary for your questions to make sense.

If you are asking questions that build on the work of the client, and are guiding the client through coaching conversations to address their goal(s), then you shouldn’t need to say much before asking a question. Also, keep your coaching questions to less than 15 words.

Compounded Questions

Not focusing your questions before asking may lead to compound questions (more than one question built into a single statement). This can be confusing for your client because they don’t know which of the questions to answer, or which to answer first. In addition, when your questions are compounded, the client may not understand what you are intending for them to answer.

Staying on the Surface

Remember, coaches help clients go where they likely would not go by themselves. As a result, it is important for coaches to help clients explore unfamiliar and uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, mind-sets, beliefs, and behaviors. On the other hand, coaching is not psychotherapy. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings related to the person you are coaching, the topics being discussed, and your personal experiences. These may prompt you to stay on the surface with the client.

Not Following the Coaching Conversation

Coaching is a dynamic and emergent conversation that follows specific steps. In Coaching for Change, Mary Wayne Bush and I describe a six-step process. The steps are: 1) Context/Situation, 2) Desired Goals, 3) Information Gathering, 4) Possible Actions, 5) Action Planning, and 6) Summary & Agreement. Until the coaching process and skills become natural for you—you develop a level of unconscious competence—use the coaching process steps as a roadmap.

Thinking Ahead and Not Listening

This is one of my favorites. Beginner coaches will often make assumptions about what the person-being-coached is saying or needing. As a result, the coach may stop listening to the client and start thinking of their next statement or question. Another version of this is anticipating where the coaching conversation may evolve and making sense of the client’s statements for them, directing the conversation to where the coach thinks it needs to go, or missing what is most important for the client (i.e., losing track of the client’s agenda).

Losing Sight of the Client’s Agenda

Rarely is the presenting agenda the real agenda. This guiding principle applies in many contexts, including coaching. Beginner coaches often don’t take time to help the client to discover their agenda/goals for coaching, gain clarity and shared understanding of the goal(s), or keeping the client focused on what they have defined as their goals. It is also common for beginner coaches to not shift the coaching conversation when the client’s agenda shifts. Keep in mind that coaches are facilitators of the coaching conversation for the client to discover for themselves what action needs to be taken in service of their goals.

What are some of the common traps you’ve fallen into as a coach or manager/leader who is applying a coaching approach? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas so please leave your comments, feedback, and suggestions below.

Photo by SHVETS production


© 2022, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Bennett & Bush (2014) and Rogers (2004)

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