April 22, 2011

"Can't you just give me some advice?"

Someone asked me the following: "Regarding leading from behind, I've experienced from my solution-focused coaching sessions that not all clients are comfortable with this since they pay me to give them certain answers or direct advices to their issues. Some don't want to waste time talking and talking and they jump to ask (what is my advice or what I think?). Do you have any idea about dealing with this kind of clients?"

Here are my thoughts on this: Many clients come to a coach with the expectation of having to briefly explain what their problem or goals is after which the coach starts to explain what is wrong and what should be done. Few are expecting the solution-focused process in which the coach asks many questions and helps the client construct solutions which are based on vivid descriptions of the desired situation and of past successes.

Asking for permission to carry on asking questions
Normally, when clients ask for advice early on in the conversation, solution-focused coaches generally do not start to explain their different way of working in order to convince the client that giving advice would be inappropriate. Instead, they ask for permission to continue the process of asking questions. In order to get such a permission it is necessary to offer a rationale. Often, something like the following works well: "Sure, I will give you advice. My experience is that the type of advice that works best is the type which is specifically relevant to the specific situation at hand. Is it alright I ask you some further questions to understand your situation well so that I can give some focused advice?" Often clients will agree to this after which the solution-focused process can proceed. In many cases this will lead to a process in which the client identifies things which have worked before. Usually, clients will be very motivated to try these things out. Solution-focused coaches, at the end of the conversation, usually affirm these inclinations saying things like: "That sounds like a good plan. That might work. I suggest you try that and see how it works." In many cases, clients will not repeat their request for advice from the coach.

Temporarily stepping into a trainer's role
In some cases clients may ask you for advice because they know you have a specific expertise in some area, for example when clients have read an article by you on the topic of their interest. In such cases, clients deliberately want to tap your expertise. Generally spoken, there is nothing wrong with that. In such cases, solution-focused coaches may step into a trainer's role. Solution-focused coaches which temporarily step into a trainer's role do several things to support this temporary transition:
  1. They ask for permission by saying something like: "Is it okay if I explain something to about this based on what I've learned?", 
  2. They check what clients already know: "To avoid boring you by explaining stuff to you that you already know, may I ask what you already know about this?", 
  3. They explain briefly what they know
  4. Before stepping back into the coach role they ask a usefulness question: "Was what I explained useful for you?"
What you may do when clients persist in their request for advice
In some instances you may find out that clients persist in their request for a coach who explains to them how they should view their situation, what their goals should be and what they should do. A first thing you may try then is to explicitly clarify how you work and what is your rationale for working this way. For instance, you may say something like: "As a coach I have found out that it usually works best to help clients define for themselves what they want to achieve and to help them identify solutions for themselves by asking targeted questions. Would it be okay for you to try this out?" If clients agree you can proceed. Occasionally, you may come across clients who'll persist even then and specifically request you to work differently. If you don't object to this you can of course proceed in the way of their preference. If you do object, you may reach a point at which you feel you are not the right type of professional to help them. When this happens you can explain this to them by being upfront and direct about how you work and let them choose if them want to continue or not. 


  1. Reminds me of a quote a colleague once gave me. In these situations she would say: sure, so, for your information, can I give you a question?

  2. You’re right to stay focus on the project specification, in this case coaching. When clients ask for something else like advice or instructions they may not realize that they are changing the project specification. This is normal in all client / supplier relationships.
    Does the client have the right to make changes, albeit sometimes subtle? Yes. They are paying for the service.
    Does the supplier have a duty to tell the client that the work is going off-specification? Yes. They are responsible for delivering quality outcomes based on the contract.
    How do we make this sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic shift in specifications work for both parties?
    In the case of the coaching work I do, I talk before the work begins about the differences between:
    - telling
    - mentoring
    - coaching
    Interestingly, I find that;
    a) clients often want a blend mentoring and coaching
    b) it takes all of your SF skills to minimize the amount of mentoring because we can never know if the ‘advice’ we are giving makes sense
    c) when they are really stuck and ask you a question that might inadvertently draw you into ‘tell’ them, your value drops to near zero

    Here’s a piece I developed for a group of managers on mentoring. There’s a download at the bottom of the article. http://tiny.cc/uf1o6


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