What to do when the people we coach get stuck

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Head? Heart? Guts?
Head? Heart? Guts?

Let’s imagine that you’re coming towards the end of a fairly lengthy coaching conversation. Using the GROW sequence or similar you’ve set goals, explored reality, generated options and set out a way forward. As you begin to bring the conversation to a close, I recommend asking a coaching question designed to establish the likelihood that, outside of the coaching session, your coachee will follow through. Something along these lines perhaps:

What is your commitment to this course of action on a scale of 1-10?

In my experience an answer 7 or upwards suggests tour coachee has the necessary will to do what they’ve said they’re going to. A 6 or less indicates they don’t.
Of course, this does not mean that the coaching session has failed or even been unhelpful. It simply means that there’s still something holding them back; there’s a ‘blockage’ somewhere. Such a blockage could be found in one of three places:

The head – the coachee lacks the clarity and understanding to move forward
The heart – the coachee lacks the conviction and belief to move forward
The guts – the coachee lacks the courage and determination to move forward

This may sound harsh, but I don’t mean to be judgmental. These are perfectly normal reactions given human beings’ natural tendency to favour the status quo. But there’s no point in continuing to coach where the coachee senses they may lack the inner resources necessary to follow apparently rational action steps.

Let’s explore this a little further.

Lacking clarity (Blockage in the head)

It might be that the solution seems too simple to be true or challenges our coachee to reconsider some beliefs, e.g. ‘I think I know what to do. I guess if I just shut up when I’ve asked for the business and wait for the customer to speak, I’ll stand a better chance of getting the sale. But what if they don’t say anything? Surely it’s my job to take the lead.’

Alternatively, it might be that we’re coaching around an issue that is very complex and despite a lengthy session or two, things remain quite unclear, e.g. “Okay, there’s a chance that particular customer delivery won’t arrive on time, but is it best to warn the customer and risk angering them or shall I just take the risk that it will get there?”
Leaving such a dilemma unresolved runs the obvious risk that the coachee will continue to procrastinate until overtaken by events.

Lacking conviction (Blockage in the heart)

Alternatively our coachee may be utterly clear about what needs to be done but doesn’t believe it will work, e.g. ‘The solution is obvious, we need to put an appraisal system in place so that we can identify the high and low performers. But what’s the point? We’ve tried that before and it only lasted about three months. Besides the Union nearly always object to these things’

That’s an example of a lack of belief rooted in past experience, but the same can apply when coachees look ahead, e.g. ‘Clearly it make sense for me to get around the regional offices and run some staff forums, but I don’t believe the line managers take this seriously enough to make sure their teams attend.”

Lacking courage (Blockage in the guts)

Clear about what needs to be done and convinced it will work, our coachee may still lack commitment if they don’t feel brave enough to put their plan into action, e.g. ‘I realise that in order to tackle my time management problems, I need to tell my boss that he’s dumping too much on me. But he’s a big imposing man that frightens everybody! I can’t imagine raising this with him’

Other times the anxiety may be being caused by fear of consequences, e.g. “Right, we’ve grow to a point where we need a team leader for the sales guys. That would clearly help us prioritise the lead management system. But what if that upsets the team dynamic and some of the sales guys leave? We could end up in a worse position than we’re in now!”

There will be times where, unlike in the above examples, the coachee is unable to articulate quite what is getting in the way; they may lack the self-awareness to pinpoint their own blockage. In these cases it may be revealed through tone of voice and body language. Frowning or a dropping of the shoulders may indicate a blockage in the head. A blockage in the heart might be illustrated by a sigh and a slump of the shoulders. Chewing nails or blushing might be a result of the anxiety felt by exposing a blockage in the guts.

As you can well imagine, my suggested solution to dealing with any or all of these blockages is to carry on coaching. This may mean taking time out from the main topic of conversation for some mini-coaching around the blockage or scheduling another coaching session for another time.

Asking, “What would have to happen to make it a 10?” is a very effective way of finding out where the commitment is falling down and where the blockage is located. In essence you’re uncovering a coaching issue within a coaching issue. Possible answers might be: “To make it a 10 I need another couple of days to think through the details.” or “To make it a 10 I’d want to know that the team will support my decision.” or “To make it a 10 I need you to come with me when we meet with the boss”


In my experience a lot of coaching fails to be as effective as it can be because coaches are not prepared to really push for a commitment to action. In essence I’m recommending a two step approach involving rating commitment and challenging commitment.

Rating commitment

A great question to ask at this stage is, “How willing are you to take this agreed action?” or something along those lines
Get people to quantify their answer using a 1-10 scale or similar
Whilst some people are uncomfortable with this, and find it a bit pushy, it’s all about making sure that people can be successful and feel solely responsible for their success.
This is a sure-fire recipe for ongoing confidence and performance

Challenging commitment

What if people tell us they’re only 5, 6, or 7 out of 10 committed to taking the action they’ve indentified?
Recognise that they aren’t going to do it! Either coach for further commitment or cross it off the list and go back to generating options.
Try asking, “What stops it being 10?” or “What would have to change to make it 10?” to reveal where the blockage lies

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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