Building Early Relationships With Clients

The relationship quality between coach and client is a more important determinant of positive outcomes than any other variable under the coach’s control. Creating and sustaining a safe but engaging relationship with clients is the cornerstone of a successful coaching process. Clients who feel you are truly seeing them will be much more engaged and open.

My particular style of relating to clients is grounded in my personal model; I am also guided by

Trust, based on client safety and clear confidentiality guidelines; 

Honesty, based on my observations and fostering client openness; 

Caring, based on my empathy and connection with the client; 

Credibility, based on my professionalism and command of the process.

I take responsibility for maintaining trust, honesty, caring, and credibility throughout the engagement, especially in early sessions when anxiety may be high and progress is just beginning. Contracting establishes the foundation for these characteristics. During early sessions, I am intentional as I communicate and interrelate to reassure clients about confidentiality and other process elements. I am balancing being open and genuine and being focused and proactive. I am aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities in achieving that balance even when the client’s and my anxieties pull me in other directions.

I prepare for sessions to help manage my anxiety and present the credible image I want. After the session, I organize my notes and fill out my session journal. Before the next session, I review notes and plan an agenda; I reflect on themes that can be carried forward or that I want to explore with my client. Next, I make notes of my thoughts and build a flexible agenda for the next session. Finally, I identify session goals, both for my client and me. My goals may highlight ways I want to manage the interaction. In contrast, my client’s goals would focus on progress toward developing insights and actions. For example, I may target staying more focused on key issues and not getting sidetracked. At the same time, for my client, the session should produce at least one possible development theme.

I record my reactions to clients’ characteristics and behaviors, both those that attract me and those that I find off-putting. When I encounter something off-putting, I counterbalance a sense of distance with stronger empathy to show I understand what the client may be experiencing. These characteristics may be temporary nervous responses to unknowns of a coaching relationship. If these tension points continue beyond early sessions or are echoed in others’ descriptions of my client, observing them contributes to my ability to form hypotheses and provide feedback later.

My hypotheses do not need to be used in early sessions, but capturing them enables me to use them later.

Thorough preparation allows me to relax and tune into the client’s words and feelings. In addition, I consciously prepare session agendas, goals, and reactions to client characteristics; this helps me be present and responsive to the client instead of struggling to remember what I want to cover.

What happens during coaching sessions? 

The intersection of many factors: my preferred coaching style, the process I have designed, client’s personality, and the organization’s agenda all come together (creating a unique flow). In early sessions, clients may be unsure of how to use coaching and bring their daily challenges to me as they might to a consultant. I clarify my coaching role and the process by redirecting what a client brings to early sessions toward discovery and development versus advice and recommendations. I am responsible for educating the client about how to get the most from coaching; it can be challenging when the client has a pressing problem and wants help. Translating that urgency into a topic that fits under a coaching framework draws on my resourcefulness.

I design session agendas to allow for responsiveness to the client but also instill a feeling of progress. At the start, I ask clients how they feel, inquire about their actions and thoughts since the last coaching session, and ask them what they would like to cover. This sets a dependable pattern and confirms the agenda as a shared responsibility. I may ask: 

What have you been thinking about or tried since we last met? 

What hasn’t worked out as well as you would have liked? 

What topic would you like to go back to? What would be a good place to start today? 

Or I may choose a question that reflects a focus within my personal model. 

E.g., “What has gone well this week?” or “What insights have emerged?”

As the client responds to my interest, my comments and nonverbal cues convey what I feel is productive to discuss. My facilitation of what the client presents, assuming it is within the boundaries of executive coaching, enhances the relationship and builds a motivating and reassuring bond.

We uncover insights, make linkages between points, and express ideas pivotal to success, assuring clients they are being truly heard. This moves the agenda forward toward articulation of important development themes.

Taking on multiple lenses in viewing the client, thinking about the client from several different perspectives; career issues, leadership issues, emotional variables in a client’s life, cognitive, behavioral, emotional, or else, my preferred perspective is reflected in my personal model. I intentionally expand my focus and use multiple lenses to generate alternative or complementary hypotheses. These all serve to build a productive relationship.

I am transparent about my contacts with sponsors and other stakeholders in the organization. In addition, I inform my client about casual or unexpected interactions to assure my adherence to confidentiality commitments.

I make coaching appointments my highest priority on my calendar and model what I expect from clients. I align my behavior with what I have told the client about the process.


Reframing resistance to change as reluctance to change: the client acting out of fear of change or losing what is familiar can come across as negative, demanding, critical, defeatist, or defensive behavior. I am curious about their hesitation and convey acceptance instead of judging my client’s feelings. I provide the client with support for any fears they may have.

Coaching provides a safe environment for exploring how change might feel to the client, reflecting on their behavior’s impact on their work environment, and exploring other approaches to their work.

I consider where the client may be in their change journey using intentional change models and stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, determination, action, maintenance, termination, or relapse. 

I use motivational interviewing: I embody a patient, client-centered process of movement toward change.

I use broad, open questions to explore the client’s current conditions and what change might bring. For example, 

What does change mean to you? 

What are the pros and cons of change in your situation? What would you need to give up to make a change? 

What are the upsides and downsides of the status quo? 

What past attempts at change have worked and why?


A productive coaching relationship is based on contracting that sets the ground rules and eases client concerns about the process and confidentiality.

How you prepare for sessions and behave during them are important elements of establishing the trust, reliability, and authenticity necessary for an effective coaching relationship.

A safe place where conversation can flow is created when you demonstrate your full interest. Use focused listening skills and show support for the client with open questions and reflective responses.

It is important throughout coaching, but especially in the early stages of relationship building, to focus on facilitation and discovery instead of providing answers or advice. How you manage yourself models the type of relationship you want to have with clients.

Some tension with your client is typical, but staying on track in your coaching role benefits the client in the longer term.

Redefining client opposition or lack of cooperation as reluctance (as opposed to outright resistance) stimulates your curiosity about what is important to your clients and what they need to protect; trying to understand works better than applying pressure.

Some clients may not have contemplated the need for changes in their behavior; use motivational interviewing techniques to help them move toward change.