Managing Client Breakups

May 19, 2022 by Amanda Reill

Client and coach relationships ebb and flow — it’s a part of the nature of the work. There will be seasons where a coaching relationship serves both parties, and a time that season needs to come to an end. Even if you’re a person who has worked through the importance of setting boundaries, “breaking up” with someone — a partner, a friend, or a client — is rarely easy. But be reminded: a breakup is not an indication of anyone’s failure. It may not be easy, but it is freeing when you stop trying to cram a square peg into a round hole.

Ensuring a good fit & designing a strong alliance

Managing Client Breakups

Though client breakups will be inevitable due to the impermanence of the relationship, there are certainly ways to minimize the more difficult breakups. Part of this comes from ensuring that you and the client are a good fit as early as possible. Some of that process takes time, but thinking critically about what compatibility means to you can save everyone from spinning their wheels.

  • Make sure they understand what coaching is. If this is your client’s first experience with coaching (or even if it’s not), it’s best to ensure that you both have a clear understanding of what the coaching relationship looks like from the outset. Is your potential client expecting to receive a lot of advice? Do they want to unravel complicated family relationships from their past? In these instances, they may benefit more from therapy than coaching. 
  • Clarify expectations. Explore what you both visualize coaching sessions to look like, as well as between-session accountability. If the potential client is wishing for a daily check-in and that’s not something you offer, they may be disappointed. If the idea of talking for 80% of the session (what most coaching sessions look like) makes them uncomfortable, they may need to reflect on whether they’re ready to take this plunge.
  • Trust your intuition. You may not always be able to pinpoint exactly why you feel a coaching relationship is not a good fit, but if you’re experiencing hesitations for any reason, it may be wise to sit with that discomfort for a while and see what you can learn about it. Remind yourself that it’s much easier to unravel something the less tangled it becomes.

When client breakups are necessary

When your intuition tells you that something is just not clicking between you and your client, it may be time to reflect on what could be going awry. At the end of the day, it may not even be that there’s something “wrong,” but rather that the match is not ideal. Keeping both your client and your needs at the forefront, it’s better to face this internally sooner than later.

  • When coaching is not for them. Though many would argue that anyone can benefit from coaching, not everyone may be ready for the process. There may be mental health concerns, trauma healing, or childhood wounds that would be better addressed in a therapy relationship before coaching begins. Some clients may begin a coaching relationship as a bit of a skeptic before becoming a believer in its value, but others may not be ready to fully step into the coaching process. 
  • When personalities don’t mesh. There are thousands of coaches worldwide and just as many approaches to coaching practice. Not every coach/client match is made in heaven and that’s OK! If communication seems difficult between you and the client or if you sense a lack of respect in either direction, it may be worth exploring whether a different coach would create a better experience for that person.
  • When the relationship is negatively affecting you. If you’re finding yourself unusually stressed or dread meeting with a certain client, it could be a sign that the client is toxic to you. It may be a mismatch of expectations or a personality you don’t feel compatible with, but no matter the reason, the relationship needs to serve you as well.

How to transition

For some, the thought of a “breakup” conversation might bring dread. What do I say? How do I make sure I’m both clear and kind? Ideally, you will be able to “coach” a client into making the discovery themselves, but there will certainly be times you’ll have to be forthright and direct. If you’re feeling nervous, it may help to coach yourself or speak with another coach to gain confidence. Ask yourself:

  • What is the result I’m hoping for in this conversation?
  • Am I ready for the person to misunderstand me, potentially permanently?
  • Would a loose script of some kind be helpful to ensure I know what I intend to communicate?
  • What level of direct communication is beneficial for this other person, and for me? What kind of communication will best serve the other person?

Stay professional as you enter into the conversation, and have courage to end it at any point should it feel no longer productive. 

You have an amazing growth opportunity at this point. Inventory everything you’ve learned from the situation. Consider the following:

  • Is there anything I could have seen earlier in this relationship?
  • What did this person teach me?
  • Is there anything I’d do differently if I had another chance?
  • Is there anything about the end of the relationship I’d do differently if I had another chance?
  • Is there anything I’d like to adjust about my approach to my coaching process or business after this experience?

What happens when they break up with you

On other occasions, clients will decide they’re done with the coaching relationship sooner than you anticipate. You may be under the impression that things are going well, but the client does not feel the same way. Though you might feel some disappointment, try to turn that disappointment into a learning opportunity. Collect whatever feedback you can and translate that into insights to fuel future growth.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end 

Perhaps the best strategy for processing the end of a relationship is gratitude. Whether or not there was frustration in the ending of the relationship, there is always something to be grateful for and to learn from in the process. What do you have to be grateful for in this process?

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