Is The Coachee Coachable? – Michael Grinder & Associates

Is the Coachee Coachable?

by Toy Odiakosa, Director
Graduate MGA’s London Group Mastery Certification

A 52 year old sales director was sent to “get coaching” for his failure to interact efficiently with his line manager.  He was having meetings with the CEO and other members of the Project Board, however his inputs and interactions at that level had not been well received.  What to do…

“Huw” strode into my office: crisp blue suit, crisp shirt, new tie and shoes: every hair in place.  He quickly established machismo: he had taken an NLP course in the early ’90s and was a “good coach” himself.

On the issue of why he was visiting me, Huw said “He hadn’t the faintest idea, but he didn’t think an Executive Coach was the way forward.”  In fact, he said, “Anyone on his team who said they needed a coach should have their head examined.  What did coaches know about the world of business?”

He continued:  “The only reason he was here was because he was happy to chat to a pretty girl, and the session was a break from his routine which was hectic at the moment.”  Huw thought I was “very nice”.  My first thought was “Oh dear, here was a macho client who didn’t believe in coaching and didn’t want a female.”

The worst possible course would be to negotiate with myself in front of him. What to do?


If this risk materialised I intended to:

(1)    establish rapport and credibility

(2)    establish whether or not the executive had a desire to make a change no matter how small;

(3)    start neutral discussions with a less volatile topic (though not too distant from the issue at hand).  Popular techniques for negotiating this step normally include:

(i)    diagnose motivations and frame of mind within the context using meta-programmes;
(ii)    reframing; and
(ii)    “what do you want” discussions.  Here, my favourite language, the language of meta-programmes,      provided insights to questions such as  “what do you really want for yourself in your work as Director of Sales?”; and

(4)    create an environment the executive coachee could participate in, should he pass my own test – that he was interested in change.

The world of NLP and Coaching provides some of the best processes for communicating simultaneously at both the verbal level and non-verbal levels.  Verbal and behavioural signals are always going out and others  respond to them.

Having a strategy in place is as important as knowing WHEN to send out effective words and WHEN signals are appropriate.  Furthermore, synchronising the three components of strategy, verbal and non-verbal inputs, and timing, require helicoptering skills.  Helicoptering means the coach gains overviews to make links between discrete pieces of data, while having the flexibility, at a moment’s notice, to zoom in on detail— zooming in and out.


According to Dr Mehrabian’s study of non-verbal communication, when a person’s caution is raised, they instinctively sort for incongruence.  This means an apprehensive person will direct up to 93% of their attention to non-verbals and just 7% to verbals.  This means we stop all unnecessary movement – so much so that we catch ourselves sipping the breath so as not to miss anything.

The non-verbal signals I intended to rely on with this coachee would inform whether I should “stop”, “proceed with caution” or “go ahead”.  Each signalling cue had to be:

(1) unambiguous and recognisable; and

(2) capable of being named and labelled.

Furthermore, I was seeking 2 or 3 repetitions of each category of non-verbal signalling, in order to rely on it .


The language and questions employed were crafted with in meta-programmes.  They helped diagnose and predict Huw’s motivation and internal processing .  Because the language and behaviour were guided in this way, Huw understood that his need to:

(1) gather information and

(2) make his own decisions were absolutely acknowledged and respected.

Nothing was assumed other than to speak as though the client had the benefit of already knowing what I was going to say.

The purpose of synchronising strategy, verbal and non-verbal inputs, and timing, is to assess and impact the Executive’s receptivity to coaching.  Measures observed at the first and second meetings with a client are key to either repelling them or gaining their permission to progress the organisation’s goals through them.

Two non-verbal techniques incorporated into my delivery were:

(1) using credible voice and gestures when sending information and approachable voice and gestures when seeking information; and

(2) when approaching a volatile topic (such as coachee’s defensiveness or unhelpful emotion), avoid looking directly at the client, and use the technique of looking at a third point of focus (i.e.; some object, an agenda, notes, the window), at such an angle as allowed peripheral observation of the client’s behaviours.

The primary non-verbal signals I sought were based on Huw’s breathing, physiology, fluidity in finding words (or not) etc.  Essentially, seeking answers to what topic(s) or gesture(s) caused him to breathe high, when did he breathe lower?

Establishing a workable coaching relationship with a resistant or ambivalent client requires the coach’s sensitive handling and combination of tools and skills.  Since professionals don’t like being told what to do, never mind having people assume they have “a problem”, the idea was to avoid repelling the client and instead engage his curiosity and fascination to participate in the situation.


Following our second session, I received an e-mail saying   “If you were to point to an area I need to develop for my PDR, what would that be?”.


Grinder, M (1997), The Art and Science of Group Dynamics, ISBN 1-883407-04-4, Michael Grinder Associates
Rose Charvet, S (1997) Words that Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence, ISBN: 0-7872-3479-6, Success Strategies
Grinder, M (1997)

Further information on overcoming resistance can be found in Michael’s books Charisma: The Art of Relationships and his latest book The Elusive Obvious

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