Blog Post: Your Clients Are Not Rational

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Much of what we do as coaches involves helping clients make decisions and then take action. Typically, the decision is some form of “What should I do about ___?” The coaching relationship creates a powerful space in which a client can consider an issue, really focus on the core concern of the issue, and then discern how best to address core concern. Easy, right? No, it’s not easy. And one of the most difficult aspects of coaching is the annoying trait of humans (including your clients) to not make rational decisions.

Humans tend to think we are more rational than we are. As social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have shown, people tend to think they make decisions by first gathering facts and then conducting a logical consideration of those facts in order to reach a sound decision. But that’s not really the case. Instead, people make decisions emotionally (following their intuition or “gut feeling”) and then search for logical reasons to back up their decision. The worst part is that we ignore facts that don’t support our decision.

I saw this decision-making dynamic play out a few years ago with a coaching client who owns a small business. At the time, his costs were outpacing his revenue by a long shot and the business was hemorrhaging money. The business is personnel-heavy and the only way to stop the financial bleeding was to let go of a staff member whom he’d hired just nine months earlier. The writing on the wall could not have been clearer or more compelling: my client needed to cut personnel costs and the specific person he needed to let go was the one he’d recently hired.

After a lengthy coaching session during which we explored the issue, considered the situation from a dozen different angles, and determined that the very life of the business was at stake, my client decided to give it one more month to see if things turned around. Logically, he needed to let the team member go. Emotionally, he simply was unwilling to do it.

As if auditioning for a lead role in Jonathan Haidt’s next book, my client assembled a list of “facts” that “proved” keeping the team member was the right and best thing to do. Letting him go would hurt the company’s reputation and employee morale. The man had a family to support and it wasn’t fair to bring him on board and then terminate him so quickly. There were some opportunities that might pan out for which they’d need the team member. And so on.

My client rationalized his decision to keep the team member, but the decision was anything but rational. And it was a bad decision, one that could very likely kill the business. In an effort to help him make the best decision possible, I pushed him to investigate and uncover the emotional instincts informing the decision. After a lot of soul searching and uncomfortable, challenging work, he finally spit out the truth: it was terribly embarrassing to admit that hiring the team member was the wrong decision in the first place.

My client’s emotionally charged desire to protect his ego nearly cost him his business.

As coaches, we serve our clients best by helping them make great decisions, even when doing so is difficult and when the right decision goes against their intuition. We do this by following three guiding principles:

  • Treat emotions as important, not divine. Instincts, intuition, and gut feelings need to inform decisions, not replace the decision-making process.
  • Emotions serve to protect, but safety is not always the most important factor. Threats register in the emotional region of our brain in order to bypass logic so we can quickly deal with the threat. This is a life-saving feature when it comes to snakes and mountain lions. But many “threats” aren’t really time sensitive or truly dangerous, meaning this reflexive bypass of logic needs to be resisted. Naming the emotion can help the client identify the perceived threat and then determine how much danger there really is.
  • Criticizing emotions doesn’t help. Clients who experience strong emotions need a coach who will support and explore without judging. For example, telling a client he’s in an emotional grip is more likely to backfire than to lead to a breakthrough. Instead of trying to wrestle the client out of the emotion, I find it more helpful to explore the emotion fully. Notice it. Let it speak to the client without shame. Hear what the emotion has to offer. When the emotion has been allowed to express its warning signal, the client is most likely no longer gripped by the emotion.

Once my client realized he was protecting his own ego, he almost immediately gave up trying to do so, which reframed the issue and allowed new options to emerge. He decided to let the employee go in the fairest way possible and to explain the decision to the rest of the team. He also shared the news with key customers and stakeholders. In the end, his emotions didn’t make the decision for him, but they did help him carry out the decision with greater effectiveness.

Humans are emotional and rational. The combination is a necessary and beautiful aspect of our design. As you coach your clients to make great decisions, notice when they are tuning out or ignoring their rational capacity. Support them to make full use of both their emotional and rational capacity.

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