Blog Post: 5 Expectations for Your Clients

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Here’s one of life’s most important lessons (in my opinion): frustration is the distance between expectation and reality.

I first encountered this truth as I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation, which focused on the positive psychology and human flourishing.  Every so often, researchers explore the happiest nations.  The Dutch and other Scandinavian countries typically rank as very happy.  Why?  It’s not because they collectively have a bubbly disposition.  Instead, it’s because their expectations are somewhat low.  They don’t expect things to be easy, so when things turn out okay, they are pleased (aka “happy”).

This lesson has helped me when it comes to parenting.  As my children moved through the teen years, I learned to adjust my expectations to better match the realities of how teenagers think, feel, and act.  I also shared my expectations in order to help my teens adjust their behavior.  When behavior goes up and expectations come down, there’s less gap and less frustration.

This lesson has also made an impact in my coaching.  Early in my coaching career, I expected clients to inhabit the coaching space eagerly and fluidly.  Sometimes a client’s behavior matched my expectations, but most of the time I found myself frustrated by clients who didn’t act like clients.  They wanted me to give them answers.  They often responded to coaching questions with an exasperated, “I don’t know.”  They weren’t as bought in as I thought they should be.  And the list could go on.

To reduce frustration, I had to reduce the distance between expectations and reality.  This reduction has to be approached from both sides.  The solution cannot be simply reducing expectations because that tends to reduce the value of the coaching relationship.  But it’s also foolish to think I can change another person’s behavior so much that they fully meet my expectations. I can’t change their behavior completely, but I can do my part in helping my clients act like clients. To this end, I’ve started sharing five expectations.

  1. Expect to be asked discovery questions. Clients are not surprised by questions, per se.  However, they are often uncertain how to respond to questions that invite discovery.  Most of my clients expect to be asked questions for which they already have an answer or for which there is a “right” answer.  They don’t expect discovery questions, so I help them know that a discovery question is one that prompts them to think and to create, not to sort through their mental file folder until they come up with the right answer.  When a client doesn’t expect discovery questions, he will continue to talk as if he is explaining things to me or getting me up to speed.  On the other hand, when he expects discovery questions, he will respond in ways that reveal new insights for himself.
  2. Expect to work. The truth is that discovery questions and other coaching techniques require the client to work.  The brain is an incredible calorie-burning machine.  Thinking takes energy – lots of energy.  When clients expect the coaching relationship to be a walk in the park, they tend to resist climbing mountains.  But when I help them adjust their expectations and embrace the fact the rewards come in proportion to effort, they are much more willing to work hard.
  3. Expect to be uncomfortable. I really don’t like this expectation, which means it’s as much for me as it is for my clients.  I prefer to be liked and to keep things friendly.  I like my clients.  But I often need to challenge my clients and make them uncomfortable in order to best serve them.  I want my clients to expect the coaching process to challenge them in ways that make them uncomfortable; this way, they don’t misinterpret the discomfort as something coming from a place of malintent.
  4. Expect to focus. Coaching differs from most human conversations in its degree of intentionality.  Most conversations organically emerge, wander, and traipse their way along.  Coaching is more like a meeting.  A coaching conversation focuses on something important to the client.  When a client doesn’t expect to focus, it makes the coach’s job way worse than herding cats.  When a client does expect to focus, she is able to partner with the coach in making the conversation productive.
  5. Expect to change. Here’s a bold claim: talking is not intrinsically good.  As coaches, we make a living exchanging words, but we have to remember words aren’t enough.  We use words to create change.  Change is where it’s at.  Clients who embrace the need for change gain far greater value from the coaching relationship as compared to clients who mistakenly think talking is the objective.  I want my clients to expect and embrace change – change that comes about from productive conversation.

Another important expectation is one I share with myself: it’s up to me to help my clients know how to be coached.  No person emerges from the womb or from an MBA program knowing how to be coached.  It’s foolish of me to expect my clients to automatically act like clients.  As their coach, I have to take responsibility for helping them act like clients.

By sharing these expectations with my clients, I partner with them to help them act like clients and this helps them gain more benefit from the coaching relationship.  When my clients act like clients, my frustration level goes way down and their results go way up.

What about you?  What expectations do you share with your clients?

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