No one wants to make a mistake when they’re coaching, but how you handle it can make all the difference both for you and for your client.
Recently, I had a call with a client where they let me know that they might have to pause our coaching because of a surprising financial setback. This wasn’t the first time this has happened to me, but it can be a tricky place to coach someone.
I always want to make sure I’m supporting the client, while also inspiring them and helping them consider ways they could keep their commitment to coaching.
But I have to do all of this without them feeling like I’m just trying to keep them as a client or pay me the money we agreed to.
So that’s what I tried to do with this client. First, I said I understood. Then I worked to empathize with their situation, and I tried to inspire them to see this as an opportunity.
I invited them to consider that this setback could be a chance to accelerate the growth of their practice. It could inspire them to put in more work to create clients and start to generate some income. I knew they were a talented coach and if they really wanted to keep the coaching going there was still a chance they could do that.
The client seemed to respond positively to this invitation, but later on I found out that that’s not how they took it.
Later on I found out that rather than feeling inspired, they felt hurt. They felt I was being selfish and manipulative, putting my own needs above theirs. They felt that I was making it all about the money.
I had no idea my words landed the wrong way for them until I got an email telling me they were discontinuing our coaching. I was surprised and confused but I also understood. I had made a mistake. I was trying to inspire, but it didn’t work.
As a coach, you’re going to make mistakes.
A lot of times, you won’t even know you made a mistake until it’s been too long and you’ve lost any opportunity to make up for it or fix it. You can say a thousand things right to build trust with a client, but that trust can be lost sometimes in just a single comment or difficult interaction.
It’s a difficult—but critical—truth of coaching. And learning how to handle these breakdowns are key if you want to have a long career in coaching.
The two different kinds of mistakes you make
There are two kinds of mistakes you can make when you coach:
- You really did something wrong.
Sometimes we just mess up. Maybe you told someone you were going to show up for a call and you didn’t write it down and didn’t show up. Maybe you said something offensive—you made an unintentionally rude or unkind comment about their appearance, their life, their Zoom background, etc.
When this happens, the only way forward is to take full responsibility for your actions and try to rectify the situation. This is apologizing 101: look at what caused the mistake, use a critical eye to examine your actions, take ownership over the mistake, and explain why you know it was wrong. Take responsibility for the negative emotions or reactions you’ve caused.
Ask if there is anything you can do to clean it up or help them feel better about your mistake.
Then in the future, learn from this mistake and work to approach the same situations differently—remember what was hurtful about your words or actions, and make a dedicated, conscious effort not to do it again.
- You say something that lands wrong.
The trickier situation is when you don’t necessarily do or say anything wrong. You might stand by what you said or perhaps spoke in a way that was direct and intended to challenge your client. It’s totally normal for people to read things we never intended into the words we said —maybe they interpreted your words in a way that hurt their feelings or made them feel upset. Maybe they just mis-heard you, and what they thought you said was hurtful or rude, and now they feel upset with you.
Sometimes even if you try to clarify that you didn’t actually say that exact phrase to them, the impact is still there.
The through-line is this: whatever you said or did, it was taken out of context, as a miscommunication or just landed in an unintended way.
And it’s this second kind of mistake that coaches often handle the wrong way. Typically, we either blame the client or we blame ourselves, neither of which is ideal.
The blame game
When we blame ourselves, we get in our heads about our own abilities and skills as a coach. We beat ourselves up for our mistakes and don’t allow a lot of room for our humanity. We worry that we’ve broken our client’s trust, and we focus on that loss rather than on the forward-moving actions of repair.
When we blame the client, we often don’t show it as clearly. We apologize on the outside, appearing as though we’re taking blame, but really we feel like it’s the client’s fault—they’re wrong, they don’t understand, they twisted our meaning, etc. And if we aren’t careful with our approach moving forward, we risk further damaging the relationship with the client.
For example, if you blame your client for the mistake, you may inadvertently make them feel like you’re upset with them, which makes the room feel less comfortable and safe. They may feel like your relationship has changed and your coaching is no longer helpful for them.
On the flip side, if you instead pull back to avoid pushing them too hard, or saying anything that could be construed as offensive or bothering them in any way—basically starting to walk on eggshells around them—then you aren’t giving them the coaching experience they’re paying for. You’re avoiding going too deep with them or being honest with them in case they misunderstand your intentions and feel offended.
How to handle this situation
There are a few approaches I recommend if you feel like you’re stuck in an uncomfortable citation after a mistake has been made, and you don’t know how to move forward.
- I work to get supported and/or complete what happened. I deal with any of my upset, my sense of unfairness. Whatever processing I need to do, I do, if not before the email, definitely before the call.
- Write them an email. Take responsibility for the impact of what happened. Tell them, it is on me as a coach. If you had an experience of me not being with you or not supporting you, that’s on me. I might explain or share the intention, but I primarily take responsibility for their experience.
- Offer a call to clear things up. “Hey, would you like to make a call when we talk about this? I can clean up with you, work on the impact, and you can share your experience.”
- Offer a call to complete your work together and wrap up what they have done. It’s possible through the process that they might decide to keep working with you, but I don’t bring that up or talk about it myself—that is for them to decide.
There’s a lesson to be learned.
We all make mistakes, which only become a big deal when we learn nothing from them. There’s a lesson to be learned in all these situations, and if you look for it, you come out the other side better prepared for future situations where you may be challenged again.
For example, in my situation, I learned that if someone comes to me with an issue about paying, the number one thing they need in that moment is empathy. It is a vulnerable conversation to bring up, so they need to leave that conversation feeling genuine empathy for their circumstances and not feeling as though they were judged in any way for things beyond their control.
Now, when a client brings me a challenge, I know that my number one job is to ensure that the final note they are left with after our session is a note of empathy.
Now, this doesn’t mean my approach couldn’t have worked on another person—I like to be challenged, and I believe that my approach would have worked for me if it was myself on the other side of that coach-client relationship. But the lesson I took from this situation was that it is better to err on the side of caution and empathy when this problem arises.
You know something in life is a lesson when you realize it’s not about you or the client being right or wrong. It’s about a new piece of information coming to light.