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How Does a Coach Handle Resistance to Change from a Client?

how does a coach overcome a clients unwillingness to changeObjectives for this Lesson:

  • Know the skills required to recognize a client’s resistance to change
  • Learn how to recognize ambivalence to change (resistance)
  • Understand how resistance begins or manifests
  • Be aware of the principles that prevent resistance

Handling Resistance as a Coach or Trainer

Once an appropriate connection is established with a client, the use of motivational interviewing dictates that coaches use open-ended questions, reflections, and the “rulers” to highlight the client’s awareness of any discrepancies observed when assessing current behaviors and the goals or values of your client. To not jeopardize conversational flow and positive relations with the client, the coach should avoid pointing out these discrepancies if they are present. This could put all your hard work at risk -all the empathy and rapport building achieved thus far can be wiped out quickly if we’re not very careful. It can be tempting. Although coaches widely recognize the importance of creating such a respectful appreciation of their client, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a judgment-free approach when we believe we are seeing some obvious risky behaviors. It then becomes even more difficult when those behaviors continue despite the coach’s best efforts to support self-responsibility and behavior change for the client.

We know that some coaches can sometimes push hard to make change happen. But we also must understand that this can interfere with empathy and provoke resistance to change. Coaching efforts that are viewed as compulsory typically result in less-than-ideal outcomes as they are usually counterproductive. This is because they run the risk of encouraging resistance talk rather than change talk, and this can greatly interfere with parts of the client’s agenda and the hard work done by the coach in general. What can we do about this? We might try understanding that clients should be encouraged to notice the discrepancies you observe for themselves. When they can, they are likely to have an awakening, one that allows them to experience feelings that are new to them. For some clients, it is only then that they can truly become aware of the possibilities of needing to make a change. It is at this time that some change talk may originate from the client as they express new desires or desired outcomes. Exploring these new thoughts within the context of an environment based in empathy should allow clients to become open about change and have the motivation to do so.

In coaching scenarios, it can seem that the more the coach tries to pull the client to make a case for change, the more likely they are to increase client resistance. This makes the chance of change being less likely to occur. MI works in many ways and one of the principles includes the use of MI to help coaches allow some resistance.

This is due to the coach guiding the client to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that are the foundation for their behaviors. By increasing such awareness, MI enables clients to resolve resistance or ambivalence and to then contemplate or pursue alternate behaviors.

If a coach were to feel that they cannot guide a client to move forward, and if there has been no provoking of the observed resistance, you may be dealing with a client who has issues that go deeper than what health and wellness coaching can resolve, or your client my simply be pre-contemplative.

Therefore, one of the most challenging goals of coaching involves helping the client eliminate these self-imposed thoughts that make them resistant to change. Coaches can guide clients to stretch themselves to achieve only those goals that the client has selected. But since it doesn’t always go that way, it is important to be remember the tools we must overcome this resistance.

As coaches, we can do a lot to handle resistance, beginning with not provoking it. Clients may be willing to tell you what they want to achieve, how they want to achieve it and what they are willing to do to be successful. Yet they might discourage any attempt to move in the same direction with their emotions.

When we use the word emotions in the realm of coaching, some believe this is like playing the role of a therapist –and that is okay –because coaching and therapy do share many attributes. But resistance to exploring topics that have an emotional attachment to them is something that not every client is prepared to do.

If clients exhibit ambivalence or resistance to change, help them to explore the difficulties of doing the new behaviors and encourage them to identify ways to work these out. Do not add to the resistance by telling clients what to do. In motivational interviewing, resistance is defined as a lack of alliance in the coach/client relationship and is not viewed as an inherent obstacle to change.

Furthermore, client ambivalence is accepted as a natural part of the change process.

Client “resistance” is decreased using non-confrontational methods. MI –as well as much of the literature on change -advocates “rolling with resistance” and accepting client statements of resistance rather than confronting them directly.

With all that we know of behavior change, we must simply expect that we will typically see client “resistance” as a normal part of the change process for most of our clients. Coaches and trainers should assume that most clients are going to be ambivalent about change and well-meaning statements from the coach can be taken in a negative way, because we may seem to be arguing either for change or for the status quo. Clients arguing for the status quo have been historically identified asunmotivated or “resistant” to change. But we look to the positive statements made during change talk to reinforce client communications that indicates a desire, plan, or commitment to staying the same.

Clients may not want to make the changes suggested by a coach if they are not presented in the proper manner or it they were not ‘on the table’ for discussion (maybe the coach forgot to ask permission?) and this tends to result in the client arguing strongly against making these changes.

They may:

  • Argue
  • Deny a problem
  • Accuse
  • Interrupt
  • Disagree
  • Passively resist through minimal answers
  • Overtly comply due to mandate with little investment
  • Become angry

Sometimes clients are entrenched or “stuck” in “sustain-talk.”

In this case, the strategic techniques include shifting focus and reframing/refocusing. Now you may be able to see the trend of all the tools we’ve learned coming together to overcome objections, resistance, and ambivalence. And there are even more tools that your coaching practice will benefit from. Health and wellness coaching is often centered around moving a client using the appropriate tools of engagement toward a healthy reward or payoff. But the client’s motivations may be different than that of the coach. We might know of a client who takes our suggestions, but they have little initial enthusiasm. The hope is that in engaging the client in the process, interest and excitement will grow. However, sometimes clients don’t engage, or when they do, their resistance builds. Coaches don’t always know in advance how things are going to go; experimenting with new behaviors is part of the framework in a coaching relationship.

When clients look for loopholes in the details of planning, a way out, or an opportunity for adhering to the letter of the agreement but not its spirit, effective coaches don’t revert to cheer leading or badgering. Coaching involves a genuine inquiry into aspects of the plan that haven’t fully landed in the client’s resolve to move forward. In this respect, it’s not just about changing “I’ll try” to “I’ll do.” When you explore the hesitancy, you may find that somehow in the creation of the plan, a particular aspect was more your idea than your client’s. Clients must own the plan, and that may take some redesign. If you opt for always stretching your clients to do more than they are ready to take on, they may build resistance or they may not follow through.

Clients’ resistance to following through on an action plan is not necessarily about their motivation so much as it may reflect the way in which the plan has been construed. Coaches need to be attentive to the verbal and nonverbal signals of clients’ connections to a plan. When clients intend to make changes, they often must travel through uncharted areas. The unfamiliar creates excitement at times and discomfort at others.

Ambivalence of a Coaching Client

What is ambivalence? It suggests indecision and uncertainty and is a tension between opposing beliefs, feelings, or behaviors. However, ambivalence illustrates that our motivation to engage in a course of action is often driven by complicated and competing needs. As the balance between these needs shifts in line with the priorities of the moment, so does our client’s motivation.

Ambivalence in coaching can arise in relation to several factors.

Your client may feel ambivalent about the process of therapy, perhaps recognizing that they need to attend but also feeling resentful or ashamed that they are unable to deal with their problems themselves. Your client may have ambivalent feelings towards you as their coach, as part of the transference processor your client may be ambivalent about the goals of therapy and/or the ways in which the goals can be achieved. For example, consider a client who is experiencing a range of problems because of excessive drinking. They want the problems to end, but they do not want to stop drinking. There is no ambivalence about the final goal, just about how it will be resolved. As coaches, we must be able to conceptualize ambivalence as a specific response to threat, characterized by inaction.

If we can understand ambivalence in this way, then we have some possible clues as to what strategies are likely to be effective in helping clients resolve their ambivalence.

Ambivalence-reducing Strategies

The need for coaches to accept that ambivalence is part of everyday life is vital –we don’t want to feel ineffective simply because our client is ambivalent. And it should come as no surprise that it is commonly seen in clients. It is not our responsibility to resolve the ambivalence –we can only help clients identify and articulate it. Part of the clarification process tied to ambivalence is to find various motivational factors with which the client is struggling. The ambivalence from a client may be about which strategies are being used or suggested to achieve a particular goal. Motivational interviewing gives us the tools to help the client reflect on their dilemma.

We aim to increase cognitive dissonance, to exploit the tensions of ambivalence to instigate change. Since cognitive dissonance is a state of internal tension created when our behavior is not congruent with our beliefs, we must be careful, however. Resolution occurs when either the belief or the behavior changes, so they become congruent. We can also attempt to get our client to identify the pros and cons of making changes or staying the same –a motivational balance sheet or as we’ve called it in this program, Decisional Balance.

If we believe and accept that ambivalence can be a response to threats posed by an uncertain world, we can use our knowledge of the underlying cognitive and behavioral processes to help clients work with their ambivalence. Ambivalence may be driven by specific beliefs about the success or failure of a course of action, or predictions of more generalized positive (rewarding) or negative (punishing) outcomes. Additionally, within the MI model we use in coaching, we would be looking at increasing our client’s sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Remember that self-efficacy refers to the extent to which someone believes that they will be successful in undertaking a specific course of action or in the case of our client, most likely tied to a change effort. It is a measure of the person’s sense of having influence and agency in the world and derives from past experiences of success and failure. Often people come with a sense of failure because their successes have never been recognized or valued by either themselves -especially people with high and unrelenting standards -or by those close to them in early life (e.g., parents, siblings, or teachers). The choice of coaching as a way of moving forward in life is challenging and rewarding but it can also be terminal.

While we’re coaching, we establish deep connections with clients, and we support and encourage them to conquer change. You work hard to lead by example. Your client reaches some important goals. Then the relationship ends. When a client has achieved outcome goals successfully, they may eventually be well prepared to take control over the remainder of the journey without you. Maintaining these changes depends largely on the thoroughness of the process that client and coach have had while working together. Planning and managing client progress –including the end of coaching -within the co-active relationship are just as important as our client’s accountability or the goals we support. We influence and reinforce clients’ ways of thinking and acting in ways beyond our experiences with them at varying levels. But these actions are requirements of successful coaching relationships –by now you know that. It is then reasonable to expect that many clients will eventually learn the strategies for their health and wellness and incorporate them into their own efforts in the future.

This is a nice way of describing when we lose a client. It’s a paradox that if we coach our client properly, we coach them to not be so reliant on us. But we also must earn a living and be well ourselves. In a way, we want to help as many clients for as long as we can. To ensure that this happens ethically, coaches need to be explicit about what they are doing and never retain a client just for the income or work. That is not what we are saying. You may lose clients along the way. So, coaching becomes a profession that takes something away from us if we’ve been successful. But this also means that the client has learned so much, including the value of coaching in the future.

Appendix Item A: Active Listening: Reflections and Intuition

The interaction below demonstrates the coach’s use of reflections and intuition.

Client: I quit smoking several years ago, but I went back to it this past winter when my

wife was ill.

Coach: It was the stress of your wife’s illness that triggered you to start smoking again.


Client: Right. I know that trying to quit again would be the right thing to do but I just

can’t get motivated.

Coach: So you understand the benefits but still can’t get motivated.


Client: Yeah, I’m not sure what it is, maybe I just don’t care about myself enough.

Coach: You think so? What made you want to quit before?

Client: Well, my best friend quit. He called the quit line, used the patches and quit. I guess I thought –maybe I can do that!

Coach: Sounds like your friend’s success made you feel hopeful that you could succeed too. Is that right?

(Clarification of coach’s intuition.)

Client: Yes, I think so.

Coach: So do you imagine that reconnecting with that feeling could excite you enough to try again?

Client: Maybe.

Coach: You don’t sound convinced that that’s all it would take.


Client: You’re right. I think it’s going to take more than that.

Coach: Okay, you’ve had success in the past, stress caused you to start again, sounds like having a sense of hope would help, but something else needs to happen to get you motivated. Is that right?


Client: Yeah–that’s right.

Coach: Would it be okay if when we meet next time we see if we can find out what needs to happen for you to feel more motivated to try again?

These skills are needed for all coaches and trainers.

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