Blog Post: How to Unfreeze a Frozen Client 



Most of my clients navigate difficult leadership waters. They face strong opposing opinions, often accompanied by strong emotions such as anger or shame. Within a culture and an economy of constant change, they cannot be confident of the right organizational direction. Stress builds, joy flees, self-worth lowers, and confidence wanes. They easily become bitter and defensive, looking for ways to recede from their leadership obligations by either ignoring the situation or leaving the organization altogether. 

When I see my clients experiencing these changes in their demeanor, I ask a simple question to get back to the basics of coaching: “What outcome do you want?” Coaching at its most basic is getting from where you are to where you want to go. If the client cannot see where they want to go, then my coaching will be ineffective. I might even begin to doubt that coaching works in such situations. 

Let me share an example that is a conglomeration of several client issues that will both illustrate the issue and also maintain client confidentiality.  

A Tractionless Client 

My client is a leader who is not getting traction. The organization is faltering and not meeting yearly goals of growth. The staff climate has become unfriendly, and the board is starting to wonder if they need to make a leadership change at the top. 

She is well-liked outside of the organization, but since she does not engage conflict, she is not liked as well within the organization. To get traction, the staff will need to be realigned, which requires changes that lead to friction, discomfort, and grief. My client is frozen. She hates the current friction, but she also hates the idea of causing more friction. She has begun to doubt her competency as a leader. 

In a coaching session, the client sets the agenda, but I must hold the client to the original agenda. I was hired to help the client get traction, which cannot be done unless they are willing to take the steps necessary to move toward the desired outcome. I need to revisit our agreement. Sometimes I call this revisit a Come to Jesus meeting, implying that tough decisions must be made. 

Note that the Come to Jesus coaching session is focused on revisiting original agreements. New awareness will occur, but the session will flow a little differently than normal. The client will hopefully get clarity around three issues during these intense meetings: 

  1. Their desired outcome, 
  2. Why they are unable to move toward the desired outcome, and 
  3. How we will approach coaching moving forward. 

Clarifying the Desired Outcome 

I started the conversation with my client around the question, “What outcome do you want?” This took about an hour of the scheduled 90 minutes. We worked through the organization’s end-of-year goals with an eye on their extended vision. Much was clarified about these goals, but the most revelatory question was “What makes it important for you to be the leader of this organization?”  

The client wanted to prove to herself that she could lead an organization well and not just chalk the failure up to personal incompetency or a broken organization. She wanted to leave the organization on good terms by once again having healthy traction. Now that we had a clear outcome, we were ready to identify the obstacles. 

Clarifying the Freeze Point 

The inability to move forward is often caused by the consequences of needed change, and pain is always a byproduct of change. Leaders are often willing to take pain upon themselves but often balk when the pain will be experienced by others. Ronald Heifetz, a leading scholar on the issue of change and leadership, says that the leader should process change at the rate the organization can tolerate. 

During our Come to Jesus meeting, I challenged my client’s belief about how much change the organization could tolerate. This was coaching; she has a much better understanding of what the organization could tolerate than I have, but I believed they could take more and that her belief was just a way to escape making the difficult and needed change. 

Clarifying the New Coaching Agreement 

The expected conclusion of a Come to Jesus meeting is that the client creates a plan that moves them toward their desired outcome. My client wondered what changes she should make to move down the path that leads to the desired outcome. Truly, she was overwhelmed by facing the raw emotion of what might be necessary to move down that path. That decision could not be made that day. 

What could be decided, however, is how my client would approach our coaching conversations moving forward. My client needed to agree that she would work through the painful decisions that blocked her current effort. We agreed that the issues from today would be the focus of our next sessions. She left the conversation grateful for the work we did to strengthen our coaching agreement. 


When the client cannot or will not move forward in their coaching sessions, it is time to revisit the coaching agreement. You are not hijacking the coaching session by asking that the next session examine your current agreements and how they might need to change for you to move forward. Your sessions will continue to falter until you do. 

I have found that this three-step approach helps the client in several ways. First, it helps them clarify what it is they really desire; second, it helps them navigate the pain that is stopping them; and third, it gives them some relief that the pain is now out in the open. If you find yourself in a coaching relationship that feels frozen, I encourage you to revisit your agreements at the first opportunity. 


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