Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session. Part 1: Feel the Pain

I recently completed my Masters’ dissertation which involved researching a process used in coaching called the Complimentary Coaching Session (often referred to as a Comp Session). 

Yes, like its name suggests, the Comp Session is a free (no-charge) coaching session.  Within the coaching industryit is common practice to offer this free first session to potential clients so they can get an “experience of coaching” before deciding whether they want to sign up for a program.

I’ve had a problem with the Comp Session ever since I first came in contact with it early in my coach training. I was in a class called “From Free to Fee”, which was all about how to get clients, or more specifically how to convert a person who was happy to be coached once for free into someone itching to sign up to a 12-week program. We were introduced to the Complimentary Coaching Session and all the reasons for using it to transition clients into our business. These included the “experience of coaching” already mentioned, as well as seeing if there was a coach-client match so you could work well together. It was framed as all about giving the client the information to make an informed choice. It was the early days of coaching and few people knew what coaching was and how it could help, so it made sense to educate and inform by doing.

Being very green to coaching and eager to get some of these elusive clients for myself, I was all ears. The instructor gave examples of how to ask questions that result in the client saying “Yes, sign me up!” It was all very positive – if a little directive – but if the client wanted to change and the coach had the vehicle for change, then everyone’s needs are met and we’re all happy. But then one of my classmates asked, “Yeah, but what if you get the client to visualise a positive future and they still don’t want to sign up?”  And here is where it all changed for me. The instructor responded by introducing us to the “Kiss. Tell. Hurt.” approach, the first of many ill-advised torture devices of coaching that I’ve come across over the years.

According to the instructor, if the client didn’t see the benefit of coaching through the “positive futures” approach, then you had to bring them in touch with their pain: “What’s your life going to be like in 20 years if you continue doing what you’re doing now?” Ouch. I had visions of clients seeing themselves drunken, dishevelled, friendless and slumped in a gutter. Hmm, tough choice: homeless or sign up for coaching?

In the class, using the “pain” technique was presented as an acceptable way to convert clients because you were ultimately looking out for their best interests. This seems to assume that the coach knows best, and it’s the coach’s role to get the client to comply. But everything I’d ever read, heard or learned about coaching said otherwise. It’s one of the fundamentals of coaching that the client is the expert in their own lives. Surely, no means no?

Well, not necessarily in the Comp Session.


Part 2 of the Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session series looks at how the Comp Session disguises a sales technique as a coaching session.


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