Management and Leadership Series Posted by Nicola Maxwell

Your attempts to coach fall on stony ground.  How do you deal with a negative response to your coaching?

Resources of all kinds are in short supply and you’re looking for the increased engagement that Zenger Folkman show comes from coaching (see our article ‘What’s stopping you from coaching?’). You’re convinced by the concept of coaching and are all ready to tell less and listen more to draw out solutions from your team members using the ‘5A coaching model’ (featured in our previous article ‘Ready to coach?  Here’s how).

Sadly, one or two of your team members are less enthusiastic.  Perhaps you have tried your open questions a few times and feel the person is not playing ball. What can you do?

This article gives you some tips on how to manage resistance to your coaching effectively.

It’s highly likely that you are facing some kind of undisclosed emotion. After all, although you might not want to see it so directly, you have a certain power over your team member. Have you ever been careful of showing your true feelings to your boss? Well, perhaps this is what is going on for your team member.

Let’s look at 3 of the most common kinds of emotion: suspicion, fear and anger, and review some simple steps to resolve the blockages they can cause.

First, take some time to think back to what the team member has been saying to you recently– were there any hints about their feelings?

If this does not help, ensure you pay full attention to observe the team member’s reactions. What might be behind their resistance: suspicion, fear or anger?

1. Suspicion

A frequent emotion managers face when trying a new technique is suspicion.

Often team members want you, as the leader, to remain completely predictable – they’ve learned to deal with your usual ‘tell’ style. They may even find it more comfortable. They may be suspicious that you’re trying to test for gaps in their knowledge with your questions, rather than trying to develop them.

In this case, simply explaining that you are trying to help them find solutions for themselves and develop them by using questions. This may allay their fears sufficiently for them to come on board. If they are curious, then why not ask for their help and feedback to get the process working well?

If this does not work, then try using a few more questions from the Attitude section of the 5A model (see ‘Ready to coach? Here’s how…).

Here are a couple of examples:

“It seems to me that you’re uncomfortable when I’m asking questions, I wonder what is going on in your mind? Can you help me out here?”


“You seem a little unwilling to volunteer suggestions when I look for your input, its not obvious why that is to me. Can you help me understand?”

Most people will respond to a genuine request to help you understand them.

2. Fear

The second most likely emotion you’ll encounter is fear. If you hear about lack of confidence or anxiety you are tapping into fear. Once this is expressed it is easier to handle. Your options are – gain more understanding of their specific concerns, demonstrate your confidence in the team members’ skills (using a real past example), or offer trials, training or other support.

3. Anger

Finally, if you uncover anger, whether expressed directly or disguised with sarcasm, then it’s time to listen openly. You might need to set aside the conversation you had planned and give this a bit more of your attention.

Given a proper hearing from the leader, anger can often dissipate as easily as the air in an undone balloon. You don’t need to agree with the points made, just hear them with curiosity and remain neutral.

In situations where your listening is not calming them after a while, try asking them simply, adult to adult, how you can help or suggest that you meet again after a break.

Sometimes just naming the emotion can have a surprisingly positive effect in moving the conversation in a more practical direction e.g. “to me you seem rather angry, how do you think we can move on from this in a way that enables you to feel more motivated?” Remember to stick with your experience of their behaviour; no one can dispute your experience and it addresses the issue directly without criticising their actions.

So, if at first you don’t succeed in your attempts at coaching, why not try again with some of the methods above for dealing with emotions?

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