What separates a decent coach from the truly great ones?
For some people, it might come down to expertise. How many years they’ve been in the field, and the wealth of testimonials they’ve racked up from satisfied clients. For others, it might be about accomplishments and certifications, or how many times they’ve been featured as a guest speaker on podcasts and at events.
How about you? What skills and qualities will ultimately earn you a full client roster and business success - on your terms?
There are a lot of resources out there to help you develop solid techniques and build a business. What can sometimes get overlooked, though, are the essential “soft skills” that allow you to really connect with clients, earn repeat bookings, and win referrals.
We’ve taken a look at what some of our best coaches are doing that sets them apart. What we uncovered are a set of practices that don’t always get center stage, but that we think deserve the spotlight.
Clients come to you for your expertise in a particular area, right? Whether it’s for assistance in navigating a career change, divorce, or to establish a wellness routine they can stick with, clients want to know they’re working with someone who’s “been there, done that”. There’s likely an assumption that you’ve traversed the same rocky terrain they’re now in, and that you know how to cross successfully over to the other side.
It’s a reasonable expectation.
Within your niche or specialty area, we bet you know your stuff. And if you’re successful in whatever that is, it stands to reason that people will come to you for advice. You may often get asked by your clients: “What should I do?”
A good coach knows to pause before responding, even (and especially) when they think they’ve got the answer.
There’s two reasons for this. The first has to do with the importance of maintaining an open mind. When you’ve got a lot of expertise, it can be tempting to cut to the chase and provide “the answer”. But here’s the rub: we’re each unique, and while circumstances may seem similar, we each have our own answer. Your way may not actually be “right” for your client.
We need to approach each client and each situation with a clear head and open heart. In Zen Buddhism, this is known as Shoshin - "beginner’s mind”. It’s about approaching a situation without preconceptions, as if for the first time. Curiosity rather than certainty.
How does this benefit your clients?
Here's the second reason why leaving your preconceptions at the door is important. By not stepping in with advice, you create the opening for your client to arrive at their own solutions. Good coaching is, after all, about helping people build internal qualities of self-leadership, and to learn to ultimately trust themselves.
Ask questions. Offer tools. Assign homework. It’s all good! But don’t be tempted to take the shortcut. Create space to let your client find their own answers. Those are the only ones that will ultimately stick.
Rock Solid Communication Skills
You’d think this one is so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning. Don’t all coaches excel in this department already? Nope.
Would it surprise you to discover that coaches often talk more than they listen? And that even when we're “listening”, we may nevertheless be splitting our attention between what the client is saying and how we are planning to respond? Coaches are, after all, human. And human beings have very busy brains!
In this age of distractions, receiving someone’s full and complete attention is a rare gift. Sometimes, your attention is what a client needs from you more than anything else. To feel that you are deeply listening, that you hear them, and that you’re interested.
While in session, holding space through powerful listening can sometimes do more for your client than all the tools, tips, theory, and methods you’ve got in your coaching arsenal. So how can we do it better? Active listening involves:
- Establishing emotional safety
- Paying attention
- Understanding meaning
- Demonstrating that you’re fully present through verbal and nonverbal cues
- Suspending judgment
- Asking open ended questions
- Affirming what you’ve heard and asking for clarification as needed
- Responding mindfully
A simple way to stay in balance is to remember you’ve got two ears but just one mouth for good reason! Listen more than you talk. And in the coaching relationship, this ratio probably won’t even look like 2:1. It may be that your client is speaking 80% of the time.
The important thing is to be aware of how much airtime you’re taking up as coach. If it’s starting to feel unbalanced, hand the mic over to your client, sit back, and recommit to listening.
Coaching relationships are rooted in strong, positive connections. It’s not enough to “know where they’re coming from”. In an ideal coaching relationship, you’re really feeling your client.
So what does this look like in practice? It starts with unconditional positive regard for the people you’re working with. As a coach, you are always in your client’s corner. You’re someone they can count on to see the best in them, and to have their back.
To see the best in your clients requires genuinely caring about them. It means getting invested in who they are, and what they’re hoping to achieve. It looks like remembering the details, both large and small: the name of their best friend, where they grew up, their greatest fears, their wildest dream. It’s important to learn how to show your clients they’ve been seen and heard.
Beyond that, it’s essential that you show them that they matter. Demonstrate that the personal details they share with you from session to session are retained. This may involve taking notes after a session, and reviewing them before your next appointment to refresh your memory. What these little touches show your client over time is that you know them. This in turn leads to greater trust, and bigger breakthroughs.
Does it feel odd to follow up on the importance of empathy with the notion that detachment is also a vital skill for all coaches? We don’t think so, and here’s why: deep caring, without healthy boundaries, can lead you headlong into fatigue and burnout. We’re here to tell you that it is possible to love up your clients without allowing this work to drain you dry.
How can you practice healthy detachment in your coaching practice?
- Establish a professional relationship with every client from the start.
- Require a signed contract that goes over the parameters of coaching, and the responsibilities of both coach and client.
- Outline clear boundaries around what forms of communication are appropriate, and their frequency. Not up for texts between sessions? Include that in your contract.
- Have clear policies regarding late arrivals for a session and no-shows. You have the option to be lenient where it makes sense to do so, but don’t bend over backwards. Value your time, and your clients will too.
- Expect clients to have some skin in the game. Free sessions are a great way for new coaches to get practice when they are starting out, but there should be an end point. That end point should come well before you find yourself feeling resentful about how much time you are “giving away”.
As much as we can and should personally care about our clients, we need to remember that they are clients. Expectations and boundaries are different in this relationship than what we do with our friends and family. If you want coaching to be your profession rather than a hobby, you’ll need to establish effective practices and processes that help to protect your emotional energy for the long haul.
Want to really stand out from the crowd? Implement the practice of doing regular, thoughtful follow-up communications with your clients. This is yet another way to show them that you hear and understand their needs.
Remember that woman who emailed you with a question about your services two months ago? Send her a note to see if she needs any additional information. How about that guy you had a productive Discovery Call with a few weeks ago who hasn’t circled back to book a session? Reach out with a resource or link to an article related to what you talked about.
When a client completes a series of sessions, don’t let that be the end of the relationship! Check back with them in a few months to see how things are going.
Build an ongoing relationship with your clients. Send a text to wish them a happy birthday. Mail a card when they get married, have a baby, or get that big promotion at work. Give them a small client appreciation gift at the conclusion of your work together. These little gestures can add up over time to big impact.
Bonus Tip: Never Stop Learning
Coaching is a rapidly growing field that is continuously evolving. Even for seasoned coaches, there’s always more to discover. If you’ve not already earned your coaching certification, there’s no better time than now to get started!