What makes a client coachable?

Most executive coaches have come across a client who seems unwilling or unable to participate effectively in coaching. In this post, we look at some recent thoughts on this issue.

Melinda Fouts recently wrote an article comparing characteristics of clients who are coachable and those who are not.

Coachable Not coachable
Aware of the need to develop and strengthen new competencies Lacking self-awareness of the need to make changes
Willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something different

‘Intentional’ in sessions and outside sessions

Not open to developing new skills to improve leadership and become more effective
Willing to build better relationships with team through trust

Willing to be vulnerable and transparent with their coach and team

Unwilling to open up and use self-expression to build trust
Humble enough to know that they need coaching Lacking humbleness to admit that they need to develop new skills


Ajit Nawalkha believes that clients must be willing to look at themselves if they are to get any benefit from coaching but, importantly, adds that coaches should not confuse a client’s discomfort with unwillingness.

Some of the signs which he believes indicate that a client might not be coachable include:

  • Blaming other people for their actions
  • Being guarded about their challenges
  • Refusing to accept the situation they are in and their own faults.

He also says that to be coached, people need to be prepared to be vulnerable.

Merci Miglino has written that “not everyone is prepared for the often challenging process involved in making a change,” and says that clients need to be:

  • Open and self-aware
  • Open to new perspectives
  • Committed to change
  • (Prepared to) engage in the coaching process.

In a similar analysis, Dr Tomaso Chamorro-Premuzic has looked at the characteristics of people who are more ‘coachable’. The key client characteristics which he believes make coaching interventions more successful are:

  • Responsiveness to feedback
  • The will to change
  • Going against one’s nature (eg by eliminating old habits and developing new ones)
  • Long-term persistence.

Photo: #wocintechchat

One other issue that we’ve heard a number of people, both coaches and clients, mention is whether the timing is right. It may be that while the organisation wants the client to change their behaviour, and the client might want to learn new skills and do things differently, the current opportunity for executive coaching has not come at the right time.

One of the top indicators we see of this is clients who seem willing and open during their coaching sessions but don’t undertake any of the follow-up activities between sessions. One of our colleagues suggests it is very important for the coach to find out why this is occurring. It may be that the client is simply overwhelmed by many competing priorities but it may also be that they are being pleasant and polite during the coaching session but have no intention of following through. Although the reasons are very different, the outcome is the same: the coach may need to talk with the client about whether now is the right time for them to be involved in coaching.

On the other hand, it’s important not to mistake a difference in communication styles for a lack of engagement. If you feel that your client is talking at cross-purposes with you, it can be very useful to break the circuit by intentionally seeking to clarify areas of misunderstanding and reset goals.

Executive coaching is about working with adults. If you feel your client is not committed to coaching, it may be that your best strategy is simply to explore this with them. Joanne Maynard suggests three questions which we think apply well to this situation:

  • “In terms of your own growth, are you actively creating an effective learning environment?
  • Are you open to expanding your thinking, clarifying your values, and taking bold action?
  • If you answered no, what are you going to do about it?”

We believe the coach’s role is to ask the client about their commitment to coaching and not to make that commitment on their behalf. This can help you to distinguish the clients who are coachable, and to find another helpful path for those who, right now, are not engaged in the process.