How to Spin Your Wheels in any Coaching Session | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson MCC

Coachee defending herself

In this column "Heart to Heart with Julie", Julie Johnson MCC shares sample coaching conversations and situations to help us grow. These are real coaching experiences that illustrate common issues we face as coaches, and Julie also shares her learning, ideas and practical tips to help you become a better coach.

Please share your thoughts, takeaways and your own experiences in the comments below!

These articles were first posted on Julie's blog, The Coaching Cube, and have been updated for inclusion here.

It's considered cool. More and more leaders are striving to develop a 'coaching leadership style'. But what does that actually look like?

In this article we take a look at what happens when we offer advice—and why it leads to spinning our wheels in any coaching conversation with two detailed examples.

Let's Compare a Coaching 'v' Non-Coaching Approach

Here's a classic example of what a coach approach does NOT look like.

First: The Non-Coaching Approach

  • Colleague: It happened again. I feel horrible. I got quite angry at Ian this morning. I've really got to get these bursts of emotion under control. I just don't know how to do that!
  • Leader: Have you tried counting to 10?
  • Colleague: I wouldn't have a chance to do that—I don't even know that it's coming until it's already happened!
  • Leader: Well, could you try meditation?
  • Colleague: I already tried that, but it didn't work.
  • Leader: How about if you just apologize and promise that it won't happen again?
  • Colleague: Well, of course I apologize! But I am not comfortable with promising, because I don't know if I can keep that promise.
  • Leader: Have you thought about discussing this with some sort of specialist?
  • Colleague: No. [long pause] I never actually thought of that. [another long pause] How stupid of me, I should have thought of that myself.

You can just see the car spinning its wheels in the mud.

The Dangers of "Have you tried?"

So, what's actually happening in the above conversation?

Well. The leader is working hard to generate solutions disguised as closed (yes/no) questions.

And these expressions are loaded—with advice! The colleague is simply rejecting each and every suggestion.

How to Spot Advice Giving:

These types of closed questions start with:

  • "Have you tried _____ ?"
  • "Have you thought about _____ ?"
  • "Could you consider _____ ?"
  • "Could you try _____ ?"
  • "How about if you _____ ?"
  • "Why don't you just _____?"

Notice that the (often passive-resistive) response of the employee usually takes several forms:

  • "That wouldn't work because_____"
  • "I already tried that, and it didn't work."
  • "I don't want to try that."
  • "I'm feeling stupid because I didn't think of that myself."

Let's push the 'reset' button and take a coaching approach.

Second: The Coaching Approach

  • Colleague: It happened again. I feel horrible. I got quite angry at Ian this morning. I've really got to get these bursts of emotion under control. I just don't know how to do that!
  • Leader: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
  • Colleague: Yeah, I'm really trying to stop this regular pattern of venting, but I haven't managed yet.
  • Leader: What have you already tried?
  • Colleague: Well, meditation. I like it, but I don't see it reducing these anger spurts.
  • Colleague: And, I am careful to get sufficient sleep.
  • Leader: OK. What else have you tried?
  • Colleague: Well, I always apologize.
  • Leader: How does that go over?
  • Colleague: Well, it gets old, when I keep repeating this behavior.
  • Leader: What triggers your anger?
  • Colleague: Pfffst. Good one.
  • Colleague: Hmmm. Let me think. [long pause]
  • Colleague: Actually, each one of them involved someone missing a deadline. [silence] Hey, I didn't realize this. [silence] Meeting deadlines is a core value of mine.
  • Leader: Deadlines. Hmmm. How can knowing this help you?
  • Colleague: Actually, I could leverage this. When there are deadlines involved, I could watch out—kinda go on super alert. If I do that, maybe I could stop myself on time.
  • Leader: How would that work?

Here are my takeaways:

Leaders and coaches, when you hear things like "Have you tried _____?" coming out of your mouth (or about to), take a step back and formulate an open question out of pure curiosity, instead.

This way you'll get your colleague or coachee to be much more proactive in figuring out what's really going on-and coming up with solutions.

Now it's your turn:

  • What did you notice or learn from these sample conversations?
  • What takeaways do you have from this?

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

If you liked this "Heart to Heart" column from Julie Johnson, you may also like:

Julie Johnson

Contributing Author:

Julie Johnson MCC, MIM is an Executive Coach, Coach Supervisor and Author. Her purpose is to help motivated people be at their best. She's passionate about spreading quality coaching conversations farther and wider, impacting the lives of people she'll never meet. Julie helps leaders develop an authentic Coaching Leadership Style so they grow next-generation leaders - and scale their own leadership. She also loves creating synergies by connecting 'the right people' with each other. Meet Julie in this short video here and learn more about her on her website here. You can also sign up for her monthly blog The Coaching Cube.

Learn more about Julie & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach with client on sofa being defensive by wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock


  1. Ibrahim Siddiq

    Dear Julie,
    The points in your blog are very valuable. I especially like the example of the "coaching vs non-coaching approach."

    May I have your permission to adapt the tips into a coaching / mentoring workshop that I am currently developing? It will also help in building a case study or role play. I will be sure cite your blog in my reference list.

    I hope to also subscribe to the blog.

    Wishing you continuing success.

    Kind regards,
    Ibrahim Siddiq

  2. Cheri Rasmussen

    I tend to use a series of questions that honors the client's autonomy and agency. The questions I ask, are questions that allow me to co-construct a desired outcome for my clients. These questions are open ended. They cause deep introspection (for the client) and the give clients the opportunity to pull out their best attributes, and see what resources are already, deeply tucked away, inside of them. It has been 100% successful, 100% of the time.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Cheri - I would love to see some examples of the kinds of questions you are asking! Would you be willing to share? Greetings from Holland - Julie

  3. Kami Barnhart

    Thanks Julie, this was fantastic and can used not only for coaches but every relationship I have even with my kids. So many coaches / people jump to fix the problem (guilty) versus just asking a deeper question for better understanding.

    I look forward to your future newsletters, just signed up!

    • Michela Phillips

      We're glad you enjoyed Julie's article, Kami!
      - Kindly, Michela


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