Group 49 Created with Sketch.
Get Started Today

Ready to enroll? Take the first step:

Back to all blogs

5 Ways to Build Trust with Challenging Coaching Clients

Finding ways to build trust with challenging coaching clients is an integral part of becoming a good coach. If you’re always looking how to help others, you’ll need to become adept in understanding different types of clients and figuring out the role and approach that will suit each client best.

Assessing client types

Many combinations of personal characteristics and abilities affect the reasons why clients seek a coach, the outcomes they expect, and the effort they are willing to invest in the process. However, for the purpose of this discussion, I argue that three aspects are likely to guide your best approach as a coach and determine the most likely result.

Personality style

The client’s dominant personality style is a strong indication of their confidence, effort-reward expectations, accountability, autonomy, social dynamics, and initiative. The two assessment instruments that are most often used to determine clients’ personality styles are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) personality assessment and the DiSC model.

The MBTI type is compiled by identifying the dominant choice of four dichotomous personality pairs.

  1. Are you outwardly or inwardly focused? Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I).
  2. How do you prefer to take in information? Sensing reality, facts, and details (S) vs. Intuition (N).
  3. How do you prefer to make decisions? Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F).
  4. How do you prefer to organize your life? Based on judgments, rules, deadlines, and instructions (J) vs. Perceptions, options, improvisations (P).

The four dominant letters are combined to form a personality type of 16 possible combinations. For instance, a person with the personality type ISFJ (The Protector) is generally seen as pragmatic, dependable, detail-oriented, and willing to work steadily toward goals while ENFP (The Champion) denotes a person who are compassionate, charismatic, spontaneous, creative, and independent.

The different approach needed by a coach to achieve success in each of these examples is already apparent. Where a charismatic, feeling-based approach may not be very effective for an ISFJ type, it may resonate very well with the ENFP type client.

The second personality test, DiSC, measures four main behavior domains, namely Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.

  1. Dominance – emphasis on results, the bottom line, and confidence is a key asset.
  2. Influence – focus on influencing or persuading others, collaboration, with relationships as a valuable strength.
  3. Steadiness – values sincerity and cooperation, with dependability more valued than haste.
  4. Conscientiousness – emphasis on quality and accuracy, with expertise and competency valued most.

A DiSC type is indicated by a primary domain, secondary domain, and two lesser, insignificant domains. The D and I domains are associated with being active, while the S and C domains have more passive qualities. People primarily in the D and C areas are task-focused, while the I and S areas are linked to a people-focus.

Again, the primary and secondary DiSC domains of a client provide a coach with important clues of aspects like their pace, energy, need for support and collaboration, how confident they are, and the qualities they value most in themselves and others.

Therefore, both the MTBI and DiSC assessments can inform the coach of an approach that will likely be most effective with a particular client.

Motivation and compliance

Although most personality types imply the orientation of a person’s motivation (i.e., internal, external) and the driving force and inclination to be compliant, it is helpful to consider these separately as the most significant determinants of coaching success.

A good coach always has a plan to gauge, monitor, and improve motivation and compliance throughout the coaching plan. Without these qualities, a client is likely to stall, fail, or exit the process. A coach who follows the Jay Shetty ABC coaching framework methodically and with attention to areas that need more or less work has the best chance to stimulate motivation and compliance as the client takes responsibility and vividly see a valued outcome if they comply.

Emotion and behavior regulation

The next aspect that is often instrumental in coaching success is the client’s ability to regulate or moderate their emotions and behavior so that it supports and not interferes with their goal achievement.

According to cognitive and behavioral science, when a person feels emotional distress such as anxiety, depression, sadness, and anger, they tend to seek an outlet as a coping mechanism to relieve the pressure.

Many who don’t possess the ability to utilize a healthy alternative (e.g., meditation, exercise, social interaction) engage in unhealthy, often impulsive, choices instead. Examples are deeper negative emotion, aggression, substance abuse, risqué behavior, mood imbalances, and withdrawal. For a while, the pressure dissipates, but it always returns more intense than before.

Avoidance and instability are qualities that must be addressed early on in the coaching process to prevent failure.

Identifying client needs and outcomes

The ABC coaching framework addresses the identification of client needs, priorities, and outcomes from the earliest stages. For instance, already in step two – Accountability – after the initial awareness building, the client and coach explore all life areas with the Wheel of Life technique to start formulating needs. This process is further refined and delves deeper until the smallest action steps are determined that are implemented in the penultimate steps – eight and nine – Consistent action and Challenging the client’s comfort zone.

The needs and goals are constantly refined and adjusted to fit any changes in the client’s life and needs. The process is collaborative and systematic yet flexible with the client taking responsibility while receiving emotional and technical support from their coach.

However, even with an approach tailor-made to the client’s personality type, attention to establishing conditions conducive to motivation and compliance, equipping clients to regulate their emotions and behavior, and understanding and committing to their true needs and desires, you will likely still come across several challenging client qualities.

#1 – Trust, trust, trust

Building trust and a strong client-coach rapport are the most significant determinants of coaching success. For many people, trust is a fickle quality. It may take a long time to develop but one situation to fracture.

If your client has difficulties trusting people, committing to relationships, if they tend to feel paranoid and believe that others are likely to let them down, harm, or exploit them, you have to be extra careful.

  • Know you client deeply; what they want and need.
  • Manage their expectations so that you know you can deliver what they look for.
  • Show empathy and care.
  • Give them 100% of your attention and energy when they are in front of you.
  • Listen carefully to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and their body language.
  • Create a safe space where they can open up and share.
  • Above all, always be consistent and dependable.

If you do most of these things well, your client is likely to trust that you have only their best interests at heart.

#2 – Play to your strengths

Know your strengths and look for ways to apply it for the benefit of your client. Similarly, appreciate your challenges and make sure that it doesn’t affect your coaching delivery. Where necessary compensate for a weakness by focusing on one or more good qualities instead.

Complete a personal SWOT analysis and VIA Character Strength assessment once a year. Use these evaluations to identify development areas and compile an action plan to improve gaps.

#3 – Manage expectations

A mismatch between a client’s expectations from you as a coach and the coaching process and outcome with what you are able and willing to deliver can be the source of great disappointment and failure.

The risk is higher for clients who have an unrealistic idea of what coaching can deliver and the pace of progress and those who are inclined to be dependent on anyone they think can support or assist them.

  • Explain the coaching approach, framework, and process to clients from the outset.
  • Ask them about the expectations they have of the program and you.
  • Discuss their preferred coaching style (e.g., firm, flexible, collaborative, independent).
  • Discuss and explain any adjustments you make to their coaching plan.
  • Be consistent and predictable – announce any changes or deviances ahead of time.
  • Regularly monitor and assess their progress and give feedback.

Transparency and predictability are two qualities that cultivate realistic expectations.

#4 – Compromise…, or not?

As a coach, you have values and standards, make assumptions, and have a natural style that may differ from those of the client. Create an awareness of any differences that may interfere with your coaching through regular self-reflection. You have certain expectations of the client, including that they respect the boundaries and rules that you set.

Discuss these with your client. Identify potential areas of difference or conflict. Decide on which issues you are willing to compromise – maybe meet them on middle ground.

If there is anything that you cannot or are unwilling to change, tell the client. Be open and honest about it. If you can work together with these parameters, great! If not, respectfully refer the client to another coach. We cannot be everyone to every client.

#5 – Be consistent

I have mentioned the importance of being consistent more than once before. It is the foundation of a trusting, stable, and successful coaching relationship. What all clients have in common is that they seek change in their lives.

However, change is often best accomplished against a steady and dependable backdrop of support and guidance that make clients feel secure and confident. In a sense, they are able to change most effectively in an environment that is controlled as much as possible.

So, avoid surprises, or keep it to a minimum just for the purpose of testing the client’s potential by challenging their boundaries once in a while.


Trust is the cornerstone quality of any successful client-coach partnerships. Some clients may have qualities and circumstances that make developing a trusting and stable professional relationship challenging.

However, with a just a few principles a good coach can make challenging coaching clients feel more secure, build reasonable expectations, and increase confidence and commitment through the first few wins. As such, how to help others effectively becomes easier and more likely to achieve a positive outcome, even with the most difficult coaching clients.

Further Reading

Managing Challenging Clients: Building Effective Relationships with Difficult Customers

By Aryanne Oade

(2012, New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

Chapter 3 – Controlling clients: The interconnected issues of control, involvement, and trust (pp. 41-82)

Succeeding with Difficult Clients: Applications of Cognitive Appraisal Therapy

By Richard L. Wessler, Sheenah Hankin, and Jonathan Stern

(2001, San Diego: Academic Press)

Part 1 – Cognitive appraisal theory (pp. 3-92)