Do this with resistant clients

I love the “free coaching meetup and exchange groups” – always such an amazing exchange among coaches! One of the questions that has been discussed more than once, now, is: “What do you do if your client is resistant?”

Now, where exactly is this resistance? In the client? Really? Some magical ingredient inside that makes them resistant? Is it really about them? Or might it not be something in the interaction between you and the client that gives rise to the phenomenon some coaches describe as “resistance”?

When a coach labels a client “resistant”, there is usually something going on in the coaching relationship that is seen as not working by the coach:

  • the client is not doing his or her fieldwork / experiments
  • the client is not developing or not developing fast enough
  • the client does not agree with something
  • the client does not engage with the coach’s questions

As you can see, it is mostly “the client” who is doing things that lead to the “resistant” label.

“Resistance” is an interpretation the coach makes and not usually a helpful one. The concept of “resistance” in helping conversations (be it therapy or coaching or social work) is a concept from systems theory. A system will revert back to a stage where it will use least energy to remain stable (homeostasis) and therefore be “resistant” to change. One example of this could be an ecological system: many squirrels are born, foxes have a lot to eat, more foxes survive, squirrel population is dwindling, so the ratio of foxes and squirrels will remain roughly the same. An outside expert observer ascertains a “resistance to change”

When labelling a client “resistant”, the coach is putting him- or herself outside the “client-system” (otherwise the coach would not be able to make that observation). He or she is judging the client, thereby privileging his or her own perception and interpretation over the client’s. That does not sound like a good coaching stance to me: little partnership, no stance of “not-knowing”.

In Solution Focused coaching, we are assuming that clients want to cooperate. If we have the impression that that is not what is happening, it is in our responsibility as coaches to create the conditions for collaboration with the client. Usually, we just need to listen some more and suspend our judgement.

Instead of pretending to be an outside expert, we place ourselves inside the conversation and view our coaching conversation as the relevant system. When the idea of “resistance” arises, we suspend the judgement and ask ourselves:

  • what is it that I (coach) and client are doing together that is helpful?
  • how can we collaborate?
  • what is working well in THIS coaching relationship?
  • what might need to change?

That way, we are constantly learning about how to be helpful to the client we are currently serving.

So if you are experiencing “resistant” clients — look for ALL the signs in the conversation that tell you the client and you are collaborating or possibilities to do something different:

  • the client is not doing his or her fieldwork / experiments – the client is collaborating by letting you know, so you can figure out something else
  • the client is not developing or not developing fast enough – the client may want something else or needs you to do something else
  • the client does not agree with something – how wonderful! What an opportunity to exchange views and learn more about how the client makes sense of his or her world
  • the client does not engage with the coach’s questions – the client must have good reasons: what are questions the client would like to engage with?

If you want to learn more about these thoughts, find Steve de Shazer’s 1984 article “The death of resistance” (a quick google will reveal it). The team at the Brief Family Therapy Center where Solution Focus originated actually buried “resistance” in Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer’s back yard.

For more information on the history of the Solution Focused approach or on the main principles, go to our YouTube channel (and don’t forget to subscribe):

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