Let the client do the work

A common saying in coach training programs is that coaches ask questions, and offer observations, yet it’s the client who does “the work.” Along with another common saying; that coaches believe their clients to be “whole, resourceful and capable, and have their own answers inside of them.” The coaching process supports the client to remember, or find new solutions which are their own answers.

How do these theoretical statements work in practice? That is the focus of this article.


In daily life, we move from task to task, from meeting to meeting, from doing more to doing more. There seems so much to-do in all aspects of our lives, whether it’s the daily doing of engaging with our home, family, friends and community activities. Or the ever present activities in business and professional settings. Our lives are busy, busy, busy.

Coaching sessions offer a unique opportunity to pause from the busyness of life for a short period of time on a regular basis, perhaps 1 hour every other week. By doing so, a client can shift from doing, to considering, exploring and discovering. Then client deciding what to do after the session with their discoveries.

A client who believes they don’t have time to pause and instead just keep doing more activity, miss an opportunity to become even more effective and efficient. And most likely more confident, even happier and more satisfied. That’s because engaging in coaching conversation allows the client to hear themselves say things that give them more clarity about situations they are facing that they’d like to change, improve or bring into existence.

The case for coaching

“No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” Albert Einstein

Here’s where the sayings come in, of the client does the work, and the client has their own answers. It’s challenging to ask ourselves questions we don’t know the answers to. Or we simply don’t prioritize time for ourselves, to reflect. Or to ask questions that expand our imagination or possibilities beyond what we may already habitually know to do, to think, or to feel. We are living inside our daily level of “consciousness.”

Unless we take in new or different input, we keep the same thinking, the same reactions, the same emotions. Which means we stay in the same patterns of doing. Or we may know what to do differently, yet don’t do it. Because something else is in the way, internally (beliefs, assumptions, values, needs, wants). Or externally (people, process, resources, support).

Some questions for self-discovery

Here are some sample questions a coach might ask that we may not regularly ask ourselves. These can be applied to business and personal contexts;

  • What’s most important to you?
  • Why is that important to you?
  • What emotions do you most often notice present for you?
  • How do your emotions influence your behavior (with your team, partner…)
  • What emotional shifts would you like to make?
  • What do you want to do differently?
  • What would you like to learn about (resilience, confidence, imposter syndrome…)
  • What’s preventing you from making changes you say you want to make?
  • What outcomes do you find yourself consistently unable to achieve?
  • What do you wish you could have a permanent change around?
  • What values are most important to express?
  • What’s stopping you from regularly living from those values?
  • How do you use your strengths for greater impact?

Questions for you, the reader 😊

  • How did you feel reading the questions above?
  • Which questions had some pull for you to engage with?
  • What do you notice is happening in your head, (mind, emotions, body) as you consider some of these questions?

These types of questions demonstrate crafting open-ended questions to provide an opportunity for self-discovery and to connect with our own answers to questions like these. Perhaps you even felt the power of some of the questions as you read them.


Keep the client on the Spotlight, instead of on the coach

In The Upgraded Target Approach to the ICF Core Competencies, I use a metaphor of keeping the client “in the spotlight.” There are so many questions that can be impactful, as long as the coach remembers to ask questions or offer observations that pertain to the client desired focus and outcomes. Rather than on our need to prove we know. “Proving” questions are often leading, and may begin with, “Have you thought of (then an idea or solution is provided)” Or, “Have you tried….”

Any time the coach is engaged from a problem solving, solution focused mindset and wants to influence or impart their knowledge onto the coaching client, the “spotlight” is no longer on the client. Instead, the spotlight is now on the coach perhaps because the coach believes they need to prove their “worth” to the client. We may also feel “we know best” what this client needs.

Our brains have innate problem-solving abilities, likely based in a survival mechanism. It’s okay for us to have thoughts about what might be useful to the client. Just because we have thoughts, doesn’t mean we have to speak them to the client.


An example of what the coach might believe the client needs

When what the client is describing is their lowered morale and lowered motivation because they feel overwhelmed by having so much to do in a certain period of time. A coach might interpret and as client needing more effective time management skills, or effective delegation skills. Yet this may be based in coach problem-solving mindset, and be inaccurate.


An example of coach trusting the client to find their own answers

As a coach, keeping our client in the spotlight means we trust the client way to finding their own answers. Our role as coach is to craft customized and responsive discovery oriented questions from a mindset of curiosity. And to offer comments and observations with no attachment to the coach knowing the “right” or “best” answer.

Using the above scenario, an example of an observation and an offering from the coach might be;

  • “As you shared about feeling overwhelmed, I noticed your body and especially shoulders slump forward. And your energy almost seemed like a deflated balloon. What’s your response to that?”

Using motivation as an example, this is a deeper level of inquiry by the coach, and reflection by the client, about the client internal process, including beliefs, assumptions, needs, emotions (commonly referred to as the “Who” of the client). While time management and delegation are more tactical (the “What” of the client).

Once the client has gained understanding about the root cause of their lack of motivation, the client can then determine their best method of moving forward, which might include the client coming up with ideas on how to better manage their time, or better delegate. Perhaps the client discovers that a recent family challenge is what’s really impacting their moral and motivation, and dealing with that root cause may support them more than any time management or delegation strategies might at this time.

The above is an example of letting the client do the work, the coach not making assumptions of what the “best/right” solution is for this client at this time. And holding the client as capable able to discover more for themselves (their answers). As opposed to the coach having the answers they think the client needs 😊.

Why we don’t do the work of the client

We may know an answer, or our answer. Yet we do not know the client answer.

Even if the client reaches conclusions we might have thought of (about time management, or delegation), the client engaging in the process of exploring and discovering is the client doing the work for themselves. The endorphins released for the client by having insights and awareness, means they are likely to have more ownership for their discoveries and therefore for implementing what happens next with what they discovered.

An underappreciated aspect about any client is the recognition that we have not lived the client life, lived in the client culture, or lived through the client history. We may be able to relate because of our history or culture. Yet we are not the client, and the client is not us.

All of our perspectives, past and present, are part of our identity, and the lens through which we may perceive themselves. I wrote an article recently on Identity.

ICF MCC Minimum Skills Requirements describe behaviors of a Master Coach that speak directly to these:

  • Coach invites the client to explore the lens through which the client is observing their current situation.
  • [Coach] demonstrates respect for the client’s identity, perceptions, style and language and adapts one’s coaching to the client.


The role of Trust

In the Ten Characteristics of MCC Skill Level, I’ve identified qualities of a master coach using information from the ICF Core Competencies. One of those characteristics is Trust, which includes;

  • Trusting the client has knowledge about themselves, which they may not know they have.
  • Trust in the coach ability to use coaching skills, to support client bring any self-knowledge to conscious awareness.
  • Trust the coaching process is enough, that the coach doesn’t have to prove their knowledge or value by acting as consultant, mentor or teacher.


In Closing…

The work of reflecting, considering, exploring, discovering is work! Which is why most people keep doing, doing, doing. Yet the work of exploring what we already know, and finding out what we don’t, brings clarity and confidence to most coaching clients and a release of energy.

I’ve had countless coaching clients say a version of this:

“I can’t believe how much clarity I now have and in a short period of time! The answers seems so simple. Now I feel energized and even excited to move forward, when only 40 minutes ago I didn’t even know where to begin.”

If you haven’t engaged a Professional Coach, or perhaps not for some time, consider doing so. Especially as coaches, we can live and breathe coaching more congruently when we have the personal experience of the power of ongoing coaching sessions. Where the Professional Coach trusts us to do the work ourselves, so we can find our right/best answer. Who demonstrates through their Presence and Coaching Skills that they truly believe you will find your own answers. And confidently move forward in an engaged manner.

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC


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