When we train as coaches, most programmes give a lot of attention to the start of the coaching relationship. How to set up the contract, how to establish rapport, the importance of setting goals or establishing a pre-agreed end point. However, certainly in my own training, much less attention was paid to how the coaching relationship may end. My working assumption was that the programme would end when the coaching goal was met or when the number of sessions of contracted for expired.
As a practitioner, however, I have come to realise that this kind of “natural close” is only one of three ways in which the coaching relationship may come to an end. In this and the previous blog, I want to share with you two other types of ending that often occur in a coaching relationship, along with some suggestions on how you might manage them with good grace!
In the previous blog , I explored how you might spot and manage the “premature” end. This second blog is about a different kind of ending – the “uncertain end”.
The uncertain ending, happens where the client simply goes “AWOL” and you find yourself in the dark about what is going on. Perhaps you agreed the next session, but they cancel it due to an “emergency” and then they don’t respond to e-mails or return your calls. Or perhaps they keep promising to find a date, but it never actually happens. Sometimes they simply don’t turn up and you are left wondering if you should wait because they are simply delayed, or you start double checking if something went awry in your diary management. Unlike regular business relationships where continuity is a shared responsibility, in coaching we are taught that the client needs to take responsibility for making their sessions happen. All very well if you are an internal coach, or where money doesn’t change hands, but much more complicated when not seeing a client either means a lack of income, or means you have been paid to deliver something, but you can’t actually get to deliver it! So here are some strategies I employ to handle this kind of circumstance:
- When people don’t show, the first thing I do is check my own diary and the e-mail trail to see if there could be any confusion. At 5 minutes past the start time, I will text them to let them know I have arrived, that I am waiting and to enquire by how much they are delayed.
- Of course often if people are genuinely delayed, they are unable to communicate with you. They may be in the tube or still driving. So I wait. I take the view that they have paid (or will be paying) for 60 or 90 minutes. This is their time, so I stay in the agreed location for the duration of the session in case they show up. By the way I always take something with me to work on, and so whilst I might be irritated that they aren’t ready when I was, I can usually do something useful with my time.
- Typically when the session time is over, I will then send an e-mail. I seek reassurance that they are ok and invite an explanation of what happened with the appointment. As much as I can I approach this in the spirit of enquiry, wanting to believe that it was a simple administrative error. When I don’t really believe this to be the case, I ask a colleague to check my draft e-mail before I press send – to check it comes across in a non-judgemental fashion. Sometimes people respond, and re-arrange, sometimes people don’t. Then you are left with the conundrum how much “chasing” is appropriate if we believe the client needs to take responsibility for making the sessions happen, and without feeling like you are becoming a bit of a stalker!
- With some clients a pattern starts to emerge, a cancellation, with notice and a commitment to rearrange, a new date is put into the diary. Then that gets cancelled too, the cycle repeats. Months go by with lots of opportunities to meet, but you never get to actually do any work with them. I work on the basis that one cancellation is “just life”, twice could be a coincidence, and three times indicates a theme. After the second cancellation, I provide an observation that this will be the second time we’ve needed to re-arrange and to ask if a different time of day would be easier to protect. After the 3rd cancellation, I play back how difficult it seems to be to find a time that they can commit to and ask the question about whether now is the right time for coaching. I offer that if it is a particularly busy time for them, that it may be helpful to put the programme on hold for a couple of months and reconvene when things are quieter. If I have a niggling doubt that I might be part of the problem, then I surface that. I am quite bold with this, as it really is nothing to be ashamed of. I suggest that on occasion, having had a couple of coaching sessions, it can highlight that working with a different kind of coach or a different kind of helping professional might actually serve them better. Further if that is true for them, then I ask for the opportunity to have a shorter session, perhaps over the phone, to agree how we close out the work we have done so far, and to offer any help in finding the support they now know they want.
- Depending on how curious I am , and indeed how busy I am, I may then do a little bit of detective work! If they are on Linked In, even if I am not connected with them, I keep an eye on their profile to see what they are up to. I have had a couple of instances where clients have gone AWOL and I have then been alerted that they have updated their profile. It turns out there was a restructure and they have moved companies, or they got made an offer they couldn’t refuse. In one case where the individual had actively left the company he wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to contact me, given the contract was with his organisation, and he didn’t want to put me in an awkward situation. He’d asked HR to close the loop with me, but it had fallen through an administrative crack. This can provide a huge sense of relief – it offers an explanation of why they lost touch, and depending on the contract you have with the various stakeholders, you are then in a position to re-connect with them at an appropriate juncture.
- Often times though, we are simply left hanging. This is particularly true of private practice clients, because your only means of communication is directly with the individual. In an organisational setting you may have more options. For example, on the third attempt to connect, when to date it hasn’t prompted a reply, I indicate that if I don’t hear from them by a particular date, that I will contact the sponsor or organisational stakeholder to see if they can help us to reconnect. Interestingly, this often prompts people to respond !
- Inevitably, sometimes you draw a big fat blank. Despite the most beautifully crafted e-mails, silence prevails. I find this particularly frustrating when from my point of view the coaching had seemed to go well, with good engagement and progress being made. To quell the frustration, I remind myself of how insignificant I am in their overall life. Trust me this is actually helpful!! When we are in a coaching session and have good rapport, it can be experienced as quite an intimate relationship – we are privileged that as a trusted partner, people allow us into their inner world. However, this is just for a moment. We are but a jot in the scheme of things. Seen in their context we are only 90 minutes out of a 60 hour week and over 1000 working hours in the month! And let’s not forget the maelstrom of domestic and personal commitments that most clients are juggling in their wider life. So in truth, whilst we might have some very connected moments with them – our presence is quite likely to be overshadowed by all the “significant others” in their wider world.
- Finally, whilst it can be difficult to admit, the client going AWOL may be in small or large part due to our relationship with them. And if we are unable to connect with them to understand “what happened?”, we are left with our own insecurities for company. Did we intervene too much? Or too little? Or in an unhelpful manner? Or in a too helpful manner and they no longer need us? Or did they simply not find a connection with us? When I simply can’t shake either my curiosity or my frustration, I know it’s time for supervision.
If you have an experience of a client going AWOL and the memory still haunts you, then do get in touch, it might help to talk it through.
Contact : michelle@Greenfieldsconsultancy.co.uk
Call Michelle on 07717 122950