What to Do When a Client Just Won't Budge

March 24, 2016 by John Andrew Williams

Pushing Rock

Ask John

A few times a week, coaches in, or those who have already completed, the ALC Training Programs will email me with questions, and I try my best to respond to everyone (even if it takes me a little while to get back to them). The topics vary, from certification logistics, to how to handle a certain client session, to what to include in a parent presentation. They are all great questions, and I have come to realize that many other ALC coaches are probably wondering about similar things (or would at least find the answers useful in some way). This has lead me to start collecting some of these questions, and I will be publishing my answers here, on the ALC blog, for you all to see. So, here it is, the first Ask John post!


Hi John!

Soooo….I was coaching a 15 year old girl today and she wanted to talk about her French class that she hates. It’s online and has a very different format than her other classes. She “hates it” and “so does everyone else.”

I tried out discussing perspectives, assumptions….

How does it benefit you to dislike this class so much?

What if you/someone was really enjoying this class and doing well?

What would that look like?

What would they be doing?

She would not budge away from her anger and frustration about the class.

She refused to entertain it. I gave lots of space and even came back to it but she refused to stretch herself to go there. It made it pretty difficult for me to coach her. She really just wanted to complain about it.

I can imagine this is a typical teenage coaching scenario. Any advice?

I ended up having her list and describe her values and come up with one system/structure she could put in place this week regarding the French class that would benefit her in an area she highly values.


I have a lot of compassion for students and this situation that your client finds herself in. So often, schools rely on conditional motivation and use grades as a form of reward and punishment for students to perform in a class. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect of using conditional motivation over years of student life leads to students not appreciating something. Too many times students have terrible attitudes about learning and being in school.

However, I am guessing that your client needs to have this credit in order to graduate or at least to get the GPA she wants to get.

The bottom line is that your client needs to perform and having a terrible attitude about a teacher is not going to help.

I have three main strategies that I use when working with students to help in this situation, and I usually go through them in this order. Almost like troubleshooting, I am trying to explore and figure out what is really going on in this client’s world. Here are the three steps I usually follow:

One – Stay Curious

At the heart of life coaching is a fundamental belief that clients have all the answers and resources within themselves or at their fingertips. From this perspective, your job as a life coach is simply to remain curious. You have to let go of any preconceived ideas of what your client should or should not do. As a coach, if your client wants to have a terrible attitude about the class, you let your client have a terrible attitude about the class. You must explore what it is like to be in your client’s world.

Oftentimes, people do not want to move or make changes. It is difficult for people to accept the idea that a problem in their lives that has been there for so long could possibly be changes by simple shift in their attitude. Generally, people do not adopt new perspectives or attitudes until they feel fully witnessed or understood by someone else. The magic of simply witnessing and really listening to your client and the struggles that he or she is facing, without the usual pressure of feeling like you have to give advice or try to ask just the right questions, is extremely helpful.

Such an approach avoids doing that annoying thing of giving somebody advice to a problem. It is like when you are speaking to your friend and your friend simply listens, without trying to push the conversation or fix it right away. Unsolicited advise can be annoying and does not benefit your client’s learning.

Once I have fully explored this perspective, and if clients are still wanting to hold onto their negative perspective, I move on to strategy number two.

Two – Coach the Trait, Not the Situation

In the second step, I create space between the client and the problem. I do so by looking at the client’s trait, or his or her ability to hang onto a negative situation. The trick here is not to make this trait, or the ability to hang onto a negative situation, into a problem. Instead of looking at it as a problem, I approach it as a strength: The client is showing his or her ability to be steadfast and strong in a conviction. Sticking with a negative attitude does provide, as minimal as it may seem, some benefit to a person. That benefit might be only 2% positive and 98% negative, but that 2% can have a massive influence if it is completely ignored or downplayed.

By looking at your clients characteristics and traits, you help your client create an image of him or herself. Have your client ask him or herself questions about what he or she thinks is going to be the most useful traits in order to be the person he or she wants to be. This takes your coaching session to a deeper level and will hopefully prompt new insights.

Three – Search for Larger Motivation

My final strategy to try is to simply accept the client’s negative attitude completely, as well as his or her willingness to hang onto it. However, it does not end there. Once you accept the negative attitude, search for the larger motivation or reason behind why your client needs or wants the thing they dislike so much. With the student who dislikes French class, ask her why she needs the credit or what benefit it has for her larger goals.

The problem that a lot of students have with motivation is that many of the goals or the benefits of the work they are doing are so far out that they essentially become theoretical. Getting a good grade in a class and having a good GPA is not as immediate or tangible as hanging out with friends or eating chocolate. Part of what you have to do as a coach is help you client make the rewards more tangible and immediate.

For example, most students feel stressed because of a bad grade and they forget what it is like to be excited to do the work necessary to get good grades. If students have a short period time where they can feel what its like not to be stressed out, they often start to want more of that feeling. When working with students, I often propose an experiment to them where they try to accomplish everything that needs to get done early on so that they can see what it feels like to have everything completed.

The experience of being on top of work and feeling proactive is so powerful and opens up the possibility of immediate benefit. After their experience, many students find it much easier to get through things they do not necessarily enjoy and design for in the future.

As a coach, all you have to do is ask your client to come up with a new action plan, an experiment, and see what happens. This final step is a combination of using direct communication, looking for deeper reasoning and meaning, and using curiosity to ask clients to try out a simple action step and see what happens.

The combination of these three steps is extremely powerful, especially when clients feel witnessed and seen in the current situation. Explore character traits that they want to employ, and then as an experiment, try out a new set of actions just for one day. Most of the time, this helps clients shift. The shift might not be transformative at first. Human beings have a natural inner resilience. However, I have seen this in resilience so many times throughout my 10+ years of coaching, and clients have also learned to trust what will naturally come out when the conditions right. These three steps help set the stage for the conditions to be right and for your clients to tap into that inner resilience.

You may also enjoy this blog: The Power of Clarity

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