By: Larry Hance
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Coaching and Divorce Clients
Coaching is a process which strives to take a situation which is not working as well as it could and make it better. It looks to the client to take responsibility for the outcome of the process and offers guides to help along the path. This is not the normal view of the attorney client relationship, but it can be very helpful to clients to add it to the traditional roles of “gladiator and protector”. Coaching can help the client come out of the divorce stronger and better able to move forward with his or her life.
When you try to define coaching and coaching skills, you’ll find that there are many different types of coach training, focusing on different types of skills. But they all have a number of things in common because of the goals of coaching. Here are a few common descriptions of the purpose or goal of coaching:
- Coaches help you be the very best you can be and inspire and champion you.
- A coach gets you to do things beyond what you thought you could do.
- A coach helps you come from a place of confidence.
- Coaching helps you break through what holds you back from manifesting your dreams—and challenges you to focus time on doing what you really want to do.
- Coaches “hold the client’s agenda” and help you be accountable for what you say you’ll do.
- Coaching is solution focused.
- Coaching is a partnership where you design a plan based on your agenda.
- Coaching takes what’s inside and translates it into outer goals that you accomplish step-by-step.
Coaching vs. Other Helping Fields
First, it may be helpful to distinguish coaching from other helping modalities.
- Consulting. Consultants have an agenda and answers, based on expertise, to provide to clients. Consultants generally provide the information or expertise and leave it to the client to implement it.
- Mentoring. A mentor is primarily a role model and advisor. She might also function in a teaching type role.
- Therapy. Therapists typically work to help clients fix problems, overcome issues and sometimes manage mental illness. Many times therapists are focused on the past as a way to help fix the problems.
- Coaching. As opposed to consulting, coaches don’t have an agenda, but instead rely on the client to develop the agenda by asking questions and letting the client gain clarity from within. Unlike a mentor, a coach does not use her personal experience as a model of success for the client. The coach considers the client to be the expert on her life. Where a therapist helps a client figure out “why,” a coach helps him figure out “how.” Coaches take a client from where they are to where they want to be.
So, how do coaches do this? There are a number of skills or strategies which are commonly used by coaches which help clients reach the results above. Here are a few of them:
Planting the Seed
This is a way to help a client come up with an idea based on your showing confidence in their ability to do so. To accomplish this, the COACH must first believe that the client is (or clients are) capable of accomplishing the task or execute the plan. If the COACH doesn’t, the client won’t, and planting seeds won’t have any impact. Planting the seed is often used when the client has run out of ideas to solve a problem, and it looks like this: “Why don’t we move on for now, but let’s check back in tomorrow and see what you think. I’m confident you’ll come up with some good options.”
A hallmark of most coach training is using open ended questions to minimize the impact of the coach’s opinion on the client’s decisions, ideas, etc. This shows trust in the client that they know best what will work for them, and allows them to brainstorm from within. These are often called “empowering questions” because that’s exactly what they do. These are questions like: “What’s another way to look at that,” instead of “Have you thought about paying those expenses until your youngest graduates from college?” Another example would be: “How would that affect your children?” instead of “Wouldn’t it upset your children to have to move from their home before school is out?” The opposite of the empowering question is what we call in the legal world, a “leading question.” Sometimes thinking of it this way helps the attorney/coach remember to focus on empowering questions.
This is a technique which is often discussed in regard to effective communication, but is sometimes seen as a manipulation of the other person. Another way to look at this is that you’re helping the client see things from a more positive perspective, so that they’re more receptive. For example, a client might say: “She never greets me when I come over to pick the kids up.” And the COACH might say “I hear you experience that she never greets you when you pick the kids up, and you believe she has the wrong attitude about that. What’s another way to look at that?” And the client might reach some other conclusions like “I guess I’ve usually been late, so she might be angry,” or “She’s probably still upset over the affair,” etc.
Sometimes it’s important to reframe specific words which reflect and support an unhelpful attitude or state of mind. For example, if the client says “I can’t,” the COACH could suggest a reframe of “Is it possible that you’re really saying that you choose not to?” If the clients says “I’ll try to be friendlier when I pick the kids up,” the COACH can reframe by asking, “Would you consider changing that to ‘I will be friendlier when I pick the kids up?’”
Clarifying feels similar to reframing, but it’s simply making sure the COACH understands clearly what the client is communicating about a goal, interest, etc. It’s easy for the COACH to assume certain meanings from a client’s words, and those assumptions could be very wrong. This can create unnecessary complexity and you can find yourself going down rabbit trails, when a little clarifying could have saved time and energy. Also, a misunderstanding of a client’s intent can create distress in the other party unnecessarily when the assumption was incorrect. So asking questions to clarify is never a bad thing. Examples are: “What do you mean by financial security?” “Tell us more about what you mean by a similar lifestyle?”
This is an oft mentioned, but not frequently used, technique to help a client reach their goals, make decisions, etc., by helping change their energy (especially when combined with the next skill, validating). This is simply helping the client know that you’ve heard what they’re saying – not just the words, but the actual message they intend to convey. As we all know, the divorce process can be intimidating and overwhelming to many clients. When the attorney/coach shows the client that they’ve been heard (even if their point or request may be unrealistic, etc.), the client is much more likely to gain confidence in the lawyer and take advice when given. Everyone knows what acknowledging is, but it’s easy to not think to do it. Just to be clear, here’s an example: the client says “Every time I go to pick the children up, she avoids looking me in the eyes and the kids see that.” The COACH says “What I’m hearing you say is that when you pick the children up, your wife seems to be avoiding you and you’re concerned the kids are affected by that. Did I get that right?” Again, as simple and possibly scripted as it may seem, this can be extremely valuable to keep clients engaged in an otherwise overwhelming process.
Validating is a skill which also helps keep a client engaged in the process, but in this case by recognizing feelings. Regardless of the reasonableness, timing, level, etc. of a client’s expressed feelings, they should be accepted and supported as the client’s authentic feelings. We let the client know that they have the right to have those feelings. If we don’t do this, the client may feel that there is something wrong with them, and stay enmeshed in those feelings for a longer time. It doesn’t mean the COACH agrees with the thing said, the level of the feelings, etc. It just means that the COACH can understand why a person in that circumstance might feel that way, and that it doesn’t make them any less deserving of a place at the table. However, to avoid being pulled in to the person’s (possibly unreasonable) emotional state, the COACH should avoid saying things like “I know how you feel,” and instead say, “It’s understandable that you feel that way when she does that, given your past experience.” This allows the COACH to later make it clear, if necessary, that they weren’t supporting certain behaviors, but just understanding that the client is feeling a certain way, and that the COACH can see that. Combining validating with acknowledging can be a very powerful way to help the client feel safe and recognized, allowing them to engage and entertain reasonable options.
Celebrating is a way to take advantage of steps forward and the positive energy created by those little successes. Often in the midst of very difficult issues, we tend to focus on those and forget to celebrate the wins. These celebrations are important because they give the client confidence that he or she can resolve the bigger issues. This is different from acknowledging in that there is positive judgment in celebrating: i.e., you’re saying they did something great. Acknowledging is letting them know they’ve been heard, and is really about what they’ve said; celebrating is about what they’ve done.
Lack of accountability is sometimes a problem in the divorce process. Clients agree to get information, pay expenses a certain way, communicate in a certain manner, etc., and then they don’t. Accountability requires a clear agreement about what will be done (preferably reflected in writing to the client so there is no confusion), when it will be done, and who will do it.
As lawyers, it’s easy to default to an analysis of the law, and to assume the client’s goals are the same as most other clients, but this really sells the client short and can often result in the client not meeting their true goals. These are just a few of the techniques used by coaches to help clients reach their goals, which can help lawyers raise the level of their practice.
About the Author
Larry Hance is managing partner and founder of the Dallas law firm Hance Law Group. With more than 35 years of experience in family law, Mr. Hance uses his experience with the legal system, judges and other lawyers to help clients achieve the best possible results.