Client-Centered Directiveness: An Oxymoron That Works – Part One

Just How Directive Do We Need To Be?
Just How Directive Do We Need To Be?

At its very foundation, coaching is client-centered. The work of Carl Rogers profoundly influenced the founders of the life coaching profession. Yet, among the thousands of health and wellness coaches we have trained at Real Balance (, the question of how directive or non-directive to be remains an area of unsureness and anxiety.

Carl Rogers 1902-1987
Carl Rogers 1902-1987

As time marches on it is easy to put the contributions of Carl Rogers into the seldom-read chapters of psychology history books thereby missing an important appreciation for the etymology of how the way we work with people today in both psychotherapy and in coaching came to be. When Rogers began his work as a psychologist and psychotherapist the theories of psychoanalysis dominated. The “therapeutic relationship” was seen as either a non-factor, or a blank slate upon which the patient (not client) would project their issues. As he worked with children, families and adults Rogers found great value in the newer “relationship theories” and related work developing in the 1930’s. In 1942 he crystalized his new take on how to work with people in psychotherapy with the publication of his groundbreaking book Counseling and Psychotherapy. It was actually Rogers who popularized the term “client”, urging, even then, a mindset shift away from treating people in therapy like “patients”.

Initially in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Rogers’ non-directive methods assiduously avoided asking questions, making suggestions, giving advice or any other directive methods. It relied on skillful listening and reflecting feelings back to the client without judgment, allowing them to explore and work with those feelings more deeply. He soon realized that even more important than the techniques used, was the attitude of the counselor/therapist. Feelings needed to be reflected with genuine acceptance and conveyed with empathic understanding for therapy to be effective. Thus Rogers began development of the “core conditions” that what would become known as the “Facilitative Conditions of Therapy”: Genuiness or Congruence, Empathic Understanding, Unconditional Positive Regard, and Warmth.

“What clients need, said Rogers, is not the judgment, interpretation, advice or direction of experts, but supportive counselors and therapists to help them rediscover and trust their own inner experience, achieve their own insights, and set their own direction.” (

Rogers continued his work through the 1960’a, 1970’s and 1980’s and his “Person-centered” approach continued to contribute to the flourishing human potential movement and was completely congruent with the self-actualization work of Abraham Maslow and others. Rogers’ influence on our field of coaching is extensive. Many of his students and colleagues took this foundational work and evolved other client-centered approaches often used in coaching today, such as Appreciative Inquiry, Non-violent Communication and Motivational Interviewing.

The Coach Approach Grew Out Of Being Client-Centered

The pioneering work of the authors of Co-Active Coaching, (Whitworth, Kimsey-House, K., Kimsey-House, H., and Sandahl.)( was steeped in the client-centered tradition. Their foundational “Cornerstone of Coaching” that the client is held to be “naturally creative, resourceful and whole” orients the coach to a mindset that is non-judgmental, accepting, and relies on the inherent drive towards self-actualization that Rogers and others spoke of. It puts the client in charge of the agenda. It introduces the concept of “co-creation” to the coaching process. And, here it shows us the beginning of a shift from purely non-directive to a shared experience of growth and change where the coach contributes more than just great listening.

Beginning coaches take the client-centered foundation of coaching very seriously. In fact they are often hesitant to offer their own perspective, to challenge their clients, or to make any suggestions. They sometimes over-compensate by being overly client-centered. Effective, and more experienced coaches, have found a way to remain true to these client-centered roots as they integrate more directive methods with their coaching.

Coaching Practice, In Reality, Is More Directive Than You Might Think

coaching-sessionCoaches do ask questions, plenty of them.
As coaches we share our observations with the client of what we are noticing. Sometimes referred to as “saying what is so”, we point out patterns in our client’s speech and affect that we observe. Have you noticed that each time you speak about taking time for yourself to exercise, that you immediately go into a story about your partner?
• Coaches challenge their clients. When our client offers a commitment of practicing a mindfulness or meditational method only once a week, the effective coach will ask if that will produce the results the client desires, rather than simply accepting what the client has offered.
Coaches use tools. The moment we suggest using a coaching tool we are being directive, even if we’ve asked our client for permission to make the suggestion.
Wellness coaches often make the suggestion of resources for healthy living information, for practicing various stress-management methods, for seeking out social support for their goals, etc. The challenge for the coach is to know just how directive to be, and with whom!

Here’s what effective directive coaching sounds like:

• “Have you considered keeping track of your behavior?” (a question, yet really a suggestion)
• “When my clients write it down on a calendar or enter it into an app they are often more successful.”
• “What I see you doing here is…”
• “Let me give you my best thinking here…”
• “I have a coaching tool here I’d like you to…”
• “Have you ever worked with”
• “So what is your well-life vision?”
• “If you only practice relaxation twice a week, will that really give you the results your want?”
• “Tell me what another perspective on that would be?”
• “If you could work your best possible day, what would it look like?”

continuumdThe Directive-Non-Directive Continuum

When we examine the work of both beginner and master coaches we see them all operating somewhere on a continuum from non-directive to very directive.

Operating as a coach on the extreme non-directive end of this continuum is probably more theoretical than actual. In some way coaches will demonstrate at least a degree of directedness. On the other extreme of complete directedness, coaching transitions from being coaching to, in fact, consulting. We are no longer coaching, we are being the expert/consultant who is advising and directing. In between the extremes there is lots of room for variation that still can qualify as effective coaching.

Where the coach operates on this continuum is, in part, determined by the personality and style of the coach themselves. “Be yourself” in coaching is very important to authenticity. Watch films of some of the great psychotherapists of our time and you’ll see that to a great degree their approach in therapy reflected simply who they were. Rogers really was a kind and gentle soul. Fritz Perls, while actually much more caring and empathic than many may think, was a truly irascible fellow, Albert Ellis really was a brash New Yorker. Likewise great coaches let their true selves work for themselves and for the benefit of their clients. So give yourself permission to let your own gifts show through. However, never think that “being yourself” is an excuse for not serving the client well. The timid coach may need to stretch themselves and be more actively involved. The domineering coach may need to realize when they are being overly controlling just to feel “in charge”.

Overly Non-Directive Coaching

When coaches take being non-directive too far they end up not providing as much as they can for their clients. Without any structure or guidance, many of our clients flounder for direction. In an extensive workshop with James Prochaska I once asked him about just how client-centered a coach needed to be. He said:

“Be client-centered. But, don’t be so client-centered that you are not helping someone as much as you possibly can.” James Prochaska

The overly non-directive coach:
• Doesn’t share observations about their client and the coaching process
• Doesn’t “say what is so”.
• Doesn’t make any suggestions (even with permission)
• Doesn’t challenge their client.
• Provides little if any structure
• Doesn’t share what has worked for others

The overly non-directive coach essentially is not providing as much value to the client as they could be. We might even go so far as to say they are avoiding responsibility for contributing anything to the coaching process that might influence it.

Overly Directive Coaching

The overly directive coach is usually operating out of a consulting mindset whether they realize it or not. They may still be relying on an educational/informative model. Perhaps their background is more of a health educator, or a holistic health practitioner who is still being quite prescriptive. Perhaps they have a business-consulting background and believe that their clients want to be told what to do.

The overly directive coach:
• Acts more as a consultant/expert.
• Provides solutions (instead of coaching for the client to find their own solutions)
• Has a “ready to go” wellness plan for their client.
• Makes LOTS of suggestions.
• Is often rigid about structure instead of co-creating it.
• Presents lots of opinions instead of observations.
• Often doesn’t listen well and include the client point of view.
• Sometimes thinks falsely that being directive saves time.

Most all of the techniques and methods that coaches use fall somewhere on the “Coaching Spectrum”.

The Coaching Spectrum
The Coaching Spectrum

How To Keep Directive Coaching Client-Centered

• Maintain the “coaching mindset” – NCRW! (The client is held to be naturally creative, resourceful and whole.)
• Facilitate the client’s process – evoke inner wisdom.
• Don’t rescue! Work with the client to help them explore more instead of providing suggestions prematurely.
• Introduce suggestions so the client truly knows they can decline them.
• When clients decline, respect their decision. Explore it, but go with it.
• Clients are always accountable to themselves, not to you!
• All planning and accountability is co-created! Every “inch” of it.
• Record, review and count your suggestions in each session.
• Have a rational for making a suggestion.
• A “ready to go” wellness program is wellness, but not wellness coaching!

Adjusting To The Client

The other major factor contributing to how directive/non-directive an effective coach needs to be is adjusting our coaching to fit the needs and make-up of our individual client. One size truly does not fit all. We’ll look at how we make these adjustments in Part II in our next blog post.


Unconditional Positive Regard: The Being and Doing of Coaching – Part Two

Is this all it takes to launch your judgment?

When our coaching clients experience complete acceptance of who they are without judgment, and feel prized and understood, great things happen.

The suspension of judgment is a real challenge for many people. To keep ourselves safe we have learned to make distinctions in the world. Our ancestors needed to quickly appraise the behavior of an animal and know whether to ignore it, hunt it, or climb a tree very quickly! Today we can certainly protect ourselves by being wary of the suspicious salesperson (or website) pushing the deal that sounds (and is) too good to be true. We can hold on to our right to choose whom we associate with. Drawing distinctions is not the same thing as making judgments, but sometimes we get the two confused.

Our first distinction as a coach may be between the person who is our client and their behavior. We may get a picture of a client who may behave in ways that are contrary to our own personal values, perhaps as they recount a tale of moral ambiguity. But can we suspend judgment, listen deeply, connect with the person telling the tale, and help them feel heard? If we show in any way our disapproval of them, or communicate that they are a bad person for having behaved as they have said, their defensive walls will go up. If we stay with them and allow their story to unfold we may be surprised at how our perception of both them and their behavior changes.

Sometimes passing judgment occurs when we are in the diagnostic mindset of trying to figure the other person out or fix them. When we don’t understand another person’s actions or motivations we fill in the blank with a theory of our own usually based in judgment. “Well, they must be a lazy person because they aren’t willing to work at getting better.” Perhaps we have a belief system where we believe that people have to “earn” our respect by living their lives as we think they should. It is so tempting to “make sense” out of our client’s behavior by trying to imagine what we would do, and when it is different, to pass judgment. Despite our own efforts to convince ourselves that we are merely figuring out the person’s characteristics, we are usually just being judgmental.

Don't let what you fear cause you to judge.

Judgment also occurs when we are trying to keep our world small. When I exclude others because I judge them to have faults or behave in ways I don’t understand or agree with, I whittle down whom I am willing to associate with. Perhaps I judge them because they are experiencing something I never want to experience and that frightens me (like being divorced, obese or having heart disease). If I judge them, then they are different than me and there is more distance put it place between me and what I fear.

The most devious aspect of judgment is that we usually aren’t aware we are even doing it. Sometimes the most judgmental people may aspire to be very non-judgmental! If we have learned that our natural tendency is towards judgment, we need to do our best at self-monitoring and then choose how we want to interact with others. Once again, providing unconditional positive regard, being non-judgmental is a coaching skill of being rather than doing. It is not a technique. Techniques come from the head, less from the heart.

“When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being loveable.” Thich Nhat Hahn

Carl Rogers 1902-1987

What we call coaching today is rooted firmly in the work of Carl Rogers. Most second cousins such a Motivational Interviewing, Appreciative Inquiry, and Non-violent Communication all share this original foundation. Roger’s Facilitative Conditions of Therapy apply directly to coaching as Facilitative Conditions of Coaching, and, I believe truly define Coaching Presence. For Rogers unconditional positive regard (UPR) was just that…acceptance without conditions, and he held this acceptance to be a basic human need. UPR is about respect without strings. The other person need do nothing at all to “deserve” it.

UPR is about accepting all aspects of the person’s experience, even those aspects that they don’t want to change. For the health and wellness coach or any wellness professional, this is a critical point. Can we accept the fact that our client does not want to quit smoking? It is not “okay” that they smoke. It is not good that they smoke. We know it is bad for their health (as they probably do too). We don’t “collude with their illness” and give permission. However, can we suspend judgment on that behavior and work with the whole person, accepting them fully as a person, and becoming a true coaching ally? Experienced coaches will often tell of many times when they did this, that their clients eventually choose to quit smoking on their own later in the coaching or afterwards.

The Samurai of ancient Japan had a saying: “Expect nothing, be prepared for anything.” The saying entreats us not to hold the expectation that nothing would happen, but rather to have no expectations whatsoever. Expectations are the flipside of the same coin where judgment resides. Our expectations limit our awareness and ultimately our experience of the other person. In coaching we create “agreements” rather than holding expectations. My client and I create an agreement whereby she/he will track their activity each day for the next week. If I simply “expect” these things to happen I may be disappointed and have no real way to confront the client if they fail to follow through on my expectations. If I “expect” the client to behave in certain ways, I am putting my own “should’s” on to them.

In the new book by Al Ritter, The 100/0 Principle ( we see how essential a lack of expectations and judgment is to all of our relationships. Our relationships are in fact the biggest factor in our success and satisfaction in life. Ritter proposes that by taking 100% responsibility for our relationships and expecting 0% back in return we can transform our lives by creating solid relationships all around us. He outlines three simple steps: 1) demonstrate complete respect and kindness whether you believe the other person deserves it or not; 2) expect nothing in return, absolutely nothing; 3) be persistent, we often give up too soon. Sound like he’s been reading Carl Rogers.

Please comment on your own experience with unconditional positive regard, whether in coaching or everyday life. Be well!