Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session. Part 3: The Research Study

In the first two parts of this Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session series, I introduced the possibility that the complimentary coaching session, as commonly offered by coaches, was not the client enrolment panacea that it was touted to be. I had a theory that the sales focus of the session was undermining its usefulness as a helping technique. So I went looking for evidence to support my theory…

What the study was about

I thought the use of a very directive sales process was incongruent with the helping processes that coaching is based on. Specifically, I thought it could be undermining the trust needed to build a solid working relationship (something that’s been linked with effectiveness in the counselling literature). I also wondered if it was undermining not only the effectiveness of coaching, but also its credibility. Surely, leaving a coaching session feeling that you have been pressured or hustled would not make you want to go out and rave about coaching.

So I designed a questionnaire that looked at this. The 164 participants in my study were asked to read eight vignettes (or scenarios) which described them going to a first, complimentary session with a coach. These scenarios varied, depending on whether the coach used sales strategies or helping strategies, and whether the coach used a low or high level of directiveness. The participants were asked questions about effectiveness, relationship building, and whether their expectations were met for each vignette. I also varied the gender of the coach to see if there were any differences in the perception of male and female coaches. Also, I wanted to find out if partipicants who were coaches had different perceptions from those who weren’t coaches, so my sample included participants with a range of experience with coaching.

What the study found

In a word, lots. But not necessarily what I expected.

For example, the most significant factor contributing to effectiveness, a strong working relationship and expectations being met was not, as I had guessed, whether the strategy was sales or helping. It was directiveness; low directiveness was rated higher in these three categories.

Also, gender role expectations of the coaches surfaced in surprising ways. Female coaches were rated as more effective when using a helping strategy with a low level of directiveness. But this strategy also scored highest on a composite variable that emerged that I called Negative Feelings. So female coaches were most effective when they were being supportive and non-directive, but it certainly made people feel uncomfortable. I also collected qualitative responses for each of the strategies (ie comments from participants). They suggested that, when a female coach was non-directive, it was interpreted as “she just didn’t care enough” to continue. This was very interesting considering that this wasn’t an issue for male coaches.

A summary of results is as follows:

Effectiveness of first-session coaching strategy

It wasn’t the selling process per se which reduced effectiveness ,but the coach using a high level of directiveness. The less directive the session, the more effective it’s rated. The low directive helping strategy worked better for female coaches, as did the low directive selling strategy for male coaches.

Individual preferences were still important to participants, though. Some said they would want time to think about whether they continued with the coach, and some wanted the pressure of being put on the spot. Others wanted a followup phone call to show that the coach cared. Also, some liked a loosely structured session, while others preferred the very structured approach of the sales process.

How well did the strategies meet expectations?

The low directive strategies matched expectations more. Male coaches matched expectations for non-coach participants, whereas coach participants rated opposite.

How well did the strategies build a strong working relationship?

The low directive selling strategy built the strongest relationship between the coach an client, and the low directive helping strategy received the lowest relationship rating. Coach clients rated female coaches higher for building working relationship when they used a directive helping strategy. Participants suggested that there needed to be more rapport and relationship building in the first session.

There are positives to the selling approach. When it’s used without high pressure techniques, the transparency, clear goals and tasks actually help build the coach-client relationship. What puts clients off is not asking for the sale but using aggressively manipulative tactics to overcome objections.

Studies on directiveness in the counselling/therapy literature suggest that it’s not directiveness itself that may negatively impact on the relationship, but mediating variables of context and client attributes (such as the severity of problem and trait resistance). So a low alliance can be balanced by perceived support.

What role did Negative Feelings play?

There was a very high rating of negative feelings for the female coach using the low directive helping strategy – especially from the coach participants – which was interpreted by some participants as the coach “not caring enough”. This contrasted with the high negative feelings produced by the hard sell strategy which participant responses indicate were to do with feeling pressured.

This suggests that tension can exist and yet not have a negative impact on effectiveness or relationship. If looked at in terms of the needs-satisfaction theories of sales literature, the tension resulting from client needs not being met may not be an issue in the low directive approaches, as clients feel they still have choices.

Whereas with the hard sell strategy, the timing of the confronting question was off – it was too soon with so little relationship building.

Person-centred literature suggests that the congruence and authenticity of the coach and a collaborative approach are more influential than negative feelings. This makes sense when considering that negative feelings may be an integral part of coaching about change and challenge.

Difference in perceptions between coaches and non-coach participants

Non-coach participants rated low directive strategies as more effective and, when it came to feedback, stuck to saying how they wanted to be treated.

In contrast, coaches who participated in the study still had their coach hats on, giving plenty of feedback on process and rapport. As the vignettes asked participants to put themselves in the role of client, these results raise the question of whether these perceptions are contributing to the complimentary session conundrum. Are coaches really starting where the client is at?

Emergence of gender role expectations for coaches

The gender of the coach in the scenarios was found to be highly influential. Even though coaches rated the non-directive helping strategy (the one participants thought wasn’t caring enough) low on relationship and high on negative feelings, they still thought it was the most effective approach for female coaches. They rated the low directive selling strategy as most effective for male coaches.

Coach gender differences were more pronounced for non-coach participants. Non-coach participants rated male coaches as meeting their expectation more, and as building stronger relationships.

Counselling literature suggests that there is a preference for male counsellors to be authoritative and female counsellors to be nurturing. So it seems that gender role stereotypes are also alive and well in the coaching industry.

Where to from here?

Coaching claims to meet client needs, build good relationship and be financially viable. Accepted coach training school wisdom says the complimentary session is the best way to achieve these aims. As my study has shown, though, coaches and their potential clients often interpret the same process in radically different – and sometimes surprising – ways. Coaches and coach training schools needs to rethink the purpose, structure, and desirability of the complimentary coaching session.

Yeah, but what does this mean for coaching?

In the fourth and final part of this series, I combine these results with psych theory and coaching practice to provide some recommendations for how to run effective first coaching sessions.

Part 4: Applications for Coaching Practice

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