One of the things that life coaches bring to their profession is a deep desire to help people. It’s the creative energy of support, strategizing, holding space, asking core questions, and collaboratively creating solutions with clients that is both a skill-set and a calling.

With that said, sometimes coaches can fall into the difficult space of figuring out when to say “no” to working with a client. The desire to help someone, and to have compassion for where they’re at, can conflict with the fact that with some clients, it’s just not a match. Here are the six clients you don’t want to work with:

#1: If you feel the “red flag” feeling during an initial session (or email). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve subverted my own wisdom and intuition on this one, and it never–ever–goes well. If you get an email from someone, and something within you is resistant to responding to set up a session; if you are looking over pre-session questions with someone, and something within you feels a “red flag” feeling; if you get on that first session with someone, and you can’t put your finger on it but something just does not feel right, then…don’t sign on to work with them.

Yes, you’re going to second-guess yourself. Yes, you’re going to say to yourself, “But I can’t pinpoint why I feel this way, so it must be that something’s up with me.” Yes, you’re going to feel awkward saying “no” to working together when there’s no discernible and specific reason “why.”

At first, it might be a good learning experience for you to go ahead and proceed with this client–because you will always (!) eventually figure out why you had that initial “something isn’t quite right, here” feeling. After a few experiences where you have that feeling and don’t trust it, you’ll quickly learn that if it continues, you want to say no, from the beginning.

#2: The client who is so, so (so!) busy. If setting up a session is a nightmare with little availability; if she’s immediately telling you about how she’s got fifteen commitments but she really needs coaching; if the initial session is rescheduled last-minute or she flakes entirely and then sends you an apologetic email; if there’s an edge and a comment about your “lack of availability” or you’re told you weren’t clear enough about the time zone when you were sure to include it in every single email…don’t sign on to work with them.

If this is all about helping people to shift their lives, then a client who has a really over-scheduled life just isn’t in a place to do that–you’re practicing kindness when you let her know that it would be better to start coaching at a different time. They’re best served by coming to coaching when they can make dedicated time each week (at least an hour for the call) and 1-2 hours on their own for practices. Signing on with this over-committed client often means constant rescheduling and not finishing practices between sessions, and that’s not a satisfying experience for either party.

#3: The client who is quitting therapy, to work with you. I polled a few coaching colleagues on this, just to make sure that I wasn’t in the minority, and most shared my sentiments: a client who is quitting therapy to work with you is probably avoiding an issue that’s come up in therapy. While of course this is a blanket statement to make, and couldn’t possibly true in all scenarios, several of my colleagues reported nearly identical experiences: a client quits therapy to work with a coach, and then once the coaching goes deep enough, the client wants to quit coaching.

#4: The client who bashes their last coach. You know how you’ve met those people who gossip or complain about others, and then you start to get a nagging feeling that it’s only a matter of time before that person gossips or complains about you? This is the same scenario. You’ll want to ask: were they letting the coach know what wasn’t working for them, or were they afraid to say anything and then growing silently resentful? There’s a world of difference between an experience that doesn’t go as one hopes and the disappointment that accompanies that, and complaining/bashing/blaming. Listen carefully.

#5: The client who struggles with basic accountability, such as returning the coaching agreement, paying on time, following up with a promised email, coming to sessions on time. You teach your clients how to treat you. If the client shows up late, and then you give extra time at the end to make up for starting late, you’re teaching that client that this is okay. If you don’t say anything when a client pays late, you’re letting that client know that it’s okay to pay late.

We all have places where we forget things or aren’t as accountable as we’d like to be. There are some basic accountability pieces that need to be in place in order for you to work in a professional capacity. They may differ from coach to coach–for instance, perhaps some coaches don’t mind having late payment policies that include a few days’ grace–but whatever yours are, make sure you know them and make it clear that there are boundaries around them.

#6: The client who refuses to move. This is another tricky one. We can all think of those times when we’ve felt afraid of really looking at an issue, and as a defense, we resisted any and all suggestions or ideas for change. Hopefully, as life coaches, we also can look at those times and see that when we’ve done that chronically, it’s okay to admit: “Yeah, I wasn’t in a space to acknowledge that, and that’s my responsibility.”

If a client continually skips the practices you request between sessions, or sessions are sort of used to get her motivated about her life but then this doesn’t translate into actual action–it’s time to ask how productive the relationship is. When it’s not productive, it’s not collaborative or fulfilling for either coach or client.

How do you spot this within the first few sessions? Ask for the client to complete practices, and if they aren’t completed, don’t tell yourself the tale of “Well, we’re just getting started.” Instead, it might be a sign that she’s just not ready (which, of course, hardly means that she’s “bad.” It moreso means that it’s in everyone’s best interest to wait until everyone can come to the table ready to go).

spotting the signs

Yes, we want to be inclusive and meet people wherever they are at, including those spaces when accountability feels big and resistance is high. These are very human issues to work with and through, and we all have them. Part of our job as coaches is to design the coaching relationship so that it can be productive for the client. When you see signs that that isn’t going to happen, it’s the kindest route to let the client know what you see, and release them to work on that issue before returning to coaching.


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