7 Coaching Mistakes: What Not to Do in a Coaching Engagement

coaching mistakes
November 24, 2022
Table of Contents

“A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes the mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether.” 

– Roy H. Williams 

There is nothing unique about making mistakes – each and every single one of us is prone to making one – big or small. And that includes coaches as well. We all make mistakes, learn from them, and try our best not to repeat the same mistakes again.  

But there is a better way.  

And that is by learning from others’ mistakes. 

There have been many coaches who have walked the path back when the path was not nearly as clearly defined as it is now. They got their hands dirty when there were not many to guide them. They stumbled, fell, and picked themselves back up again, only to come back stronger and become better at their craft.  

Lucky for those of us who are new on the path; we can learn what to do, and even better, what not to do, from those who came before us.  

There are some common coaching mistakes to be wary of at the beginning of one’s journey as a coach. And for that matter, even experienced coaches can make the same mistakes as a rookie coach from time to time. Even the best coaches, if not careful, are known to get set in their own ways as years go by, unaware of the mistakes they continue making that could have a spill-over effect on their business performs, their brand, or their coaching outcomes. 

Let’s get to some of the biggest coaching mistakes one by one. 

1. Not setting clear expectations & ground rules 

A sure shot way of increasing one’s chances at client success while coaching is to set ground rules and expectations that are clear as the mountain sky on a sunny day. But this is something several new coaches fail to do during onboarding. This usually happens as a result of wanting to appease the client and giving them everything they ask for, even if it is beyond the scope of the coach’s expertise and the price that the client is paying for their program. 

This leads to a couple of outcomes: First, the coach feeling burnt out as a result of accommodating any and every demand of the client, some of which they aren’t required to do. And second, the client potentially feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled at the end of the coaching engagement, feeling like they haven’t received what they’d asked for – even if, in reality, they have received much more than what they had originally signed up for. 

To avoid this, the coach needs to have a conversation with the client even before the coaching engagement officially begins, and come to a consensus about what the client can expect from the coach. This could include the number of sessions in the coaching journey, the frequency of meeting/calls, importance of adhering to the fixed time and schedule, coach-client boundaries (access to the coach outside of coaching sessions, for instance), what the coaching engagement includes and more importantly, what it doesn’t include (being a counsellor or a friend, for instance), expectations from the client, and so on. 

The details of this would differ from coach to coach, but the essence is to set expectations right from the very beginning to make way for a smooth coaching session and engagement. 

2. Not setting clear objectives & accountability  

One of the first things that they teach you at the time of coach training is to help the client set their objectives and expected outcomes right at the beginning of the session. For each client the objective will differ and thus, it is vital for a coach to understand what the client is looking for as a result of the time spent with them.  

A simple question like “What outcome are you hoping to achieve by the end of this session?” helps a client focus on what exactly they want at the end of the hour. Having this cleared helps both the client and coach by providing them a distant goal to work towards. It also comes in handy when the coach finds the client straying from the intent of the coaching session by asking “We’re in the middle of our coaching session. How do you think we are progressing towards the goal we set out at the beginning of the session?”. Asking this helps bring the client back to the objective at hand and not get deviated. 

Another common coaching mistake is to not hold the client accountable. This can be something as simple as expecting them to arrive for the session on time, or ensuring they complete their tasks in an appropriate fashion. It is not about directing but making it clear to the client that their success depends on their actions and they need to complete their actions if they are serious about making progress. 

3. Talking more than listening 

A classic case of ‘when is coaching not appropriate’. This is a common mistake especially likely to be made by new coaches. The concept of coaching and letting the client answer and come up with solutions that seem right to them is usually new to a newly-certified coach. Many of us, due to force of habit, end up providing answers for our clients and getting into ‘advising’ mode. This is a big no-no and a mistake that a coach needs to correct right away before refining other parts of their coaching practice. 

In a coaching session, as a ground rule, the coach must listen more than speak and remain in the ‘coach’ zone instead of straying into the ‘advisor’, ‘counsellor’, ‘consultant’ or ‘mentor’ zone. The coaching session is about the client and not the coach, so a coach must avoid making it all about themselves and let the client take the lead in terms of what they want, the goals they want to set, how they are going to work towards those goals, what feels right to them, what feels wrong to them…and so on. The coach is only the facilitator for the client and it takes a greater restraint to take the backseat and allow the client to figure the best way forward. 

4. Asking leading, complicated or close-ended questions 

The questions a coach asks a client need to be simple – there are no prizes for the number of questions a coach asks a client. But new coaches often make the mistake of making the coaching session all about their questions.  

A rookie coaching mistake is to ask questions that are leading in nature which stray a client in a specific direction – that defeats the purpose of letting the client come up with their own answers and take the direction that they feel is best for them.  

Asking close-ended questions that have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response also doesn’t add much to the coaching conversation. Instead of asking questions that start with ‘do you…?’, ‘have you…?’ ‘will you…?’, coaches will get to better places asking ‘how’ or ‘what’ questions. 

5. Not challenging a client 

Coaching conversations can sometimes get complicated and difficult, especially when the coach finds that the client is stuck and needs a bit of a push to get things moving. But a fear that sets in for a new coach is that if they challenge their client, it might lead to them losing the client. Which then results in the coach taking the easier route in order to keep things ‘pleasant’. 

As a coach, however, sometimes it is vital to rock the boat a little and get the client out of their comfort zone to help lead them in the direction of their goals & desires and overcome their obstacles. Sometimes you would be required to be confrontational in your conversation and ruthless in your observation. 

To prepare for such times, you can have a discussion with your client in advance in order to understand how they’d like to be addressed when such a time arrives. You can ask something like: “How will we handle moments when you feel resistant? What is the best way for me to appropriately coach you through the discomfort?” 

You’d be surprised how open your clients will be to you pushing them once you’ve prepared them in advance – they will know you are doing it for their own good. 

Just like there are potential mistakes you can make in a coaching session, there are pitfalls to avoid when starting your own coaching business. 

Check them out here! 

6. Making assumptions about a client 

Another common coaching mistake is when the coach assumes they know a client based on either the role or industry of the client, their background, or due to experiences the coach has had with similar clients. While there may always be overlaps and similarities among different clients you come across, making judgments or assumptions that they will be the same doesn’t help anyone. Nor is it fair to the client who is their own unique individual self with a unique set of attributes, goals, desires, and obstacles. 

While it is absolutely fine to draw on experiences, a coach must approach each client with a blank slate, being as curious as possible in order to learn the most about them in the most neutral manner possible. 

7. Being too rigid with a methodology 

There are several coaching models and methodologies out there. And with experience and time, coaches often adopt a particular style and process depending on the commonalities of the client profile and what gets maximum guaranteed success. 

But for a coaching engagement to find success, it needs to primarily follow the client – the process is secondary. A mistake many coaches (even experienced coaches) can make is in wanting to stick to the process and forcing the client to take a particular route, instead of following the client and their unique path.  

Great coaching conversations rarely follow a pattern. They leap forward, circle back, go deep, change direction — they go wherever the ground is most fertile. Surely, the goals of the client can be the North Star to aim at, but the road to that can never be exactly defined – and that is something coaches need to accept and understand and thus, be flexible about. 

Sources: Coach Federation, Blue Point Leadership, Forbes, HR Daily Advisor, LinkedIn, UTeach 


1. What can go wrong in a coaching session? 

If a coach is prepared and has taken the time and effort to find the right client, then the chances of something going wrong in a session are slim. Things go wrong in a coaching session most likely when a coach is unprepared and is winging it or is distracted – such as they will miss important inputs, the client will feel neglected.  

Other coaching mistakes that can happen include the coach bringing in their judgments and prejudices to the call or failing to set clear objectives, expectations and accountability for the client.  

Also, if a coach doesn’t find the right type of client for themselves, it can lead to a massive mismatch – which is counterproductive to both the client and the coach. The client could be uncoachable, i.e., refusing to take responsibility for their actions, being stuck in the past, not taking appropriate actions towards growth, expecting the coach to give them answers and refusing to do the work, and so on. 

2. What are some of the greatest coaching pitfalls? 

Some of the biggest coaching mistakes include: not setting clear expectations and ground rules for the client and the sessions; getting into advising or consulting mode as opposed to coaching; asking complicated, close-ended, and leading questions; bringing in judgments and prejudices about the client; not holding the client accountable; not challenging the client; not taking the time to self-reflect; making the session all about themselves; having a goal in mind for the client; thinking they know better than the client…and so on! 

About Simply.Coach

Simply.Coach is an enterprise-grade coaching software designed to be used by individual coaches and coaching businesses. Trusted by ICF-accredited and EMCC-credentialed coaches worldwide, Simply.Coach is on a mission to elevate the experience and process of coaching with technology-led tools and solutions.  

About the author
Content Marketing Manager @Simply.Coach

Ipsita Nayak is a full-time writer-editor-content strategist and a part-time NLP coach & yoga teacher. She believes conventions are overrated, has a disproportionate need for solo time over social time, and loves a good mix of sci-fi and trashy TV in her free time!

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