The Coaching Advice Trap | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson MCC

Coach and Client

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.

In this article we look at a common challenge for coaches - being asked for our advice...

A Common Pitfall

It's so easy to fall into The Coaching Advice Trap. We know not to offer unsolicited advice, but what if we're directly asked?

Imagine you're coaching someone and you the conversation seems to be going well. Perhaps your coachee is even coming up with new solutions to meet the challenge at hand. Then suddenly you hear, "What would YOU do?" or "What do YOU think I should do?". Now you have full permission to advise, right?

Well, I'm not going to advise you on that! Instead, here are a couple of example situations to reflect on.

Giving Advice Example 1

Long ago, I heard a beautiful story from a colleague of mine.

My colleague's son, let's call the son Josh, was having a hard time with a friend at school: Josh's friend was behaving in a way that was really upsetting.

  • Josh talked it over with his father, and after his father had listened for some time, Josh asked for advice.
  • The father obliged and said, "Why don't you explain to your friend everything that's been upsetting you, and how that makes you feel?"
  • His son considered this for a moment, and then replied, "Well, if I did that, this guy would probably tell others in the class, and I would become an outcast."
  • My colleague thought about this answer, and realized his son was probably right.
  • After more discussion, Josh came up with his own solution, which was to give feedback to his friend on the spot, right when the behavior occurred.
  • My colleague later told me that Josh carried through with his plan, and the friend's behaviour improved (without having his social standing impacted).

Giving Advice Example 2

A couple of years ago, I was coaching a very senior manager, let's call him Paul, with whom I had a long-standing coaching relationship.

  • Paul shared an ethical dilemma with me. He had two options, and surprisingly (as he wasn't one to ask advice), he asked what I thought he should do.
  • I confess, I had been thinking of what I would do in his situation. I caught myself and replied, "I don't think that you even WANT to know what I might think you should do! You're the one who will have to live with your decision, and its consequences."
  • Paul paused, then replied "You're right, it's my decision."
  • He started listening to his own heart, and within a minute he'd decided what to do, and had clarified why that was the right choice for him.

Here's my take:

When our coachees say "What do YOU think I should do?", we need to throw it back and say:

  • "Well, I'd like to hear YOUR thoughts first. What do YOU think?"

After all, they have to live with it! You might be very positively surprised at the result.

Now it's your turn:

What have you taken away from this article? What really resonated with you? And what will you do differently next time a client asks you for advice?

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 and Client by fizkes via Shutterstock


  1. Tianne

    Thanks for this reminder Julie, I found myself offering advice "unsolicited" not long ago, and although there were no negative consequences that I know of, it was a little thought on her business that she didn't arrive at and I noticed this after the next call.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Tianne - You are welcome! Sometimes I try to write my idea down so that I can get it out of my head and get back to listening. We are well intended! - Julie

  2. Paul Stuart

    Hi Julie - thanks for a very useful reminder! I completely agree with your suggestions and their value. In situations where the coachee says that they really have no idea - what approach do you use? Assuming there is time, I have suggested that they research possible solutions or ask them to identify someone else they think handles such issues well and determine how they do it. But I do always make sure that the voice of any action that comes from these approaches lies entirely with the coachee. Any thoughts? Kind regards, Paul

    • Judy Boozer

      That's a great idea, Paul. As I was reading your comment, I found myself wondering the same thing about how I would handle situations where the client really has no idea what to do (because it happens). I'm going to use your suggestion because it teaches them how to handle the next time they don't know what to do rather than teaching them that I have the answers and they don't. Thank you for your question and answer.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Paul - You are welcome! Regarding your question - I remember hearing ideas like "Well, if you did know the answer, what would it be?", or "What would Person XYZ tell you to do?" (assuming there is some 'expert' in mind. Sometimes people do a mix of coaching and mentoring, and they are explicit about 'taking my coaching hat off' before offering suggestions. Hoping this helps! - Julie

  3. Elaine

    Thanks Julie. This was really useful to read through the examples. Both people at different points in their lives and yet the bouncing it back worked for both of them. I feel very strongly about not being trying to fix the coachee and that only they can fix themselves. The times where I've slipped into offering advice, it never feels as successful as when you know that you're empowering your coachee. A great reminder.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Elaine - You're welcome! You are so right - why should we disempower our coachees and render them incapable (and potentially start creating a dependency as a result)!? If we start from a place of trusting that they are able to move forward - that they are fully resourced to do so - they can move mountains! Thanks for reaching out - Julie


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