When a Client Doesn't Answer the Question... Be BRAVE! | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson MCC

Client having a tough conversation thinking about feelings

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

We encourage you to share your thoughts, learnings and 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.

What do you do when a client avoids answering your question? Well, as always, Julie shares a fascinating story below, plus how she handled this difficult conversation with an evasive client!

How being brave leads to a transformative coaching session

I'll never forget a coaching session I had years ago with a leader in the shipping industry—a rough and tumble environment.

We were working on his coaching leadership style and he asked me to be tough on him, to challenge and not hold back. I agreed, and wondered when opportunity would present itself.

Well, it did, in a very surprising way.

Here's what happened

During our coaching session, we were discussing a behavior he often repeated with one of his direct reports that was negatively impacting her performance.

  • So I asked him, "How do you think she might feel when you do that?"
    • His answer had nothing to do with feelings. Interesting.
    • I let him speak his mind for a bit, to see where it would go.
  • Finally interrupting, I said, "OK, but how do you think she might be feeling?"
  • He responded with a new direction, but it still had nothing to do with feelings.
    • Now THIS was interesting!
  • I asked a third time, "But when you do that, how do you think she feels?"
    • Amazingly (I could hardly contain myself), he went in a third direction that had nothing to do with feelings!
    • He was clearly not answering the question.
    • OK, no more Mr. Nice Guy!
  • I held my hand up like a stop sign and said, "For the FOURTH time, how do you think she might FEEL?!"
  • His eyes got as wide as saucers, the silence hung heavy, and I didn't know if he was going to hit me, walk out, answer, or what!
  • He turned his gaze toward the window and took a deep breath. Then more silence.
  • Finally he proceeded to generate seven or eight really good ideas about how she might feel when he behaved in that way.

It was very challenging for this client to shift gears to think about feelings, much less talk about them. And this conversation—and his answer—ended up creating the foundation for his motivation to change.

So here's my take

First, here are 3 common reasons that people don't answer a question:

  1. The obvious: they don't have an answer
    • Perfect! If an answer would help the coachee move forward, then stay with the question and seek an answer together.
    • This is part of what coaching is about: the creation of new thought and ideas.
  2. They don't want to think or talk about the topic
    • Great! It might be something they've been avoiding, such as putting themselves in the shoes of someone else.
    • This is one of the key benefits of coaching: to get our coachees to think about topics they've been avoiding.
  3. They don't understand the question
    • Interesting! So, (if your question was clearly worded), for example the question about feelings in our feature story above, then perhaps the concept of feelings may be fuzzy for the coachee.
    • This means that as coaches, we may need to clarify what we are asking for.

What I learned from this coaching conversation

I thought long and hard about what had happened in this coaching session, and realized there are very interesting moments when our coachees don't answer our questions—and we often let them get away with it!

Since that coaching session, I've observed and debriefed hundreds of 'everyday conversations' between leaders practicing their coaching leadership style and their direct reports.

This is very rewarding work because you can help leaders recognize something important happening in the moment that they may be missing—such as questions not being answered—so that they can turn an 'OK' conversation into a very valuable one.

Here are some more examples of questions I've seen go unanswered:

  • Coach asks: "What can you do to control your emotions more?"
    • Coachee responds with another story, but no solution.
  • Coach asks: "Your colleague isn't answering emails and voicemails. What could be keeping him from doing so?"
    • Coachee responds by expressing how frustrating it is for her, but does not put self in the shoes of her colleague.
  • Coachee says: "How can people behave this way!?" (with no intention of seeking an answer – instead wanting to 'vent').
    • You as coach reply: "What do you think? How CAN they behave this way?"
    • Coachee responds by noting the negative impact of others' behavior on self.

Now it's your turn

Remember that, letting your coachee get away with an unanswered question is almost always a missed opportunity for a more productive conversation. And sometimes the areas our coachees avoid are the very area they need to explore to get the transformation they're looking for...

So the next time you are asking a question and it doesn't get answered, consider staying with the question until an answer has presented itself!

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

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

Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce Kindness.com. She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coachee or Coach pondering powerful question by Metamorworks via Shutterstock


  1. Weinzierl

    Such a great article that makes me think about my practice as a coach, thank you


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