The trouble with skills coaching

I write, ghostwrite, edit, and advise writers. I also coach them. Coaching is the hardest, and the thing I have the most trouble with.

The challenge is the mindset.

I have a project and problem-solving mindset.

This is why I like writing and editing projects. The to-dos look like this:

  • How can I help my collaborators and clients turn this concept into a workable, differentiated idea?
  • What are the parts of this book?
  • How can I write this chapter? (Subsidiary challenges: What is the main idea of this chapter? How can I get the right research to support it? How does this interview fit into this chapter?)
  • What’s wrong with the writing in this piece, and how can I make it better?
  • What remains to be done to complete this editing/writing project?

I typically price projects by the project. That is, you pay for me reaching or for helping you to reach certain milestones, and eventually, for completing the project. Clients like this. It gives them certainty about cost. And I like it, because it motivates me to be as efficient as I can be. It compensates me for my experience and talent.

I do hourly consulting, too, but that’s typically a follow-on to something and of limited scope. It’s not a big part of my work.

Coaching is different

I have two clients right now who have hired me as writing coaches. They proposed this arrangement to me; I didn’t push it on them.

Consider how the coach is compensated — by the session, like a therapist. It is in the best financial interest of the coach to keep the client dependent on the coach. This is true of executive coaches and writing coaches and life coaches and, I’m sure, lots of other coaches. Sure, they want you to grow, but probably not enough to outgrow your need for them.

My mindset is completely different. I want to help you to be good enough to write without my help. I want you to outgrow me.

Here’s how a typical coaching session goes, I guess (no one ever explained this to me):

  • Hi, how are you doing, really cold here, hard week, blah blah blah.
  • I looked at what you turned in and it was really good. (You can’t start by saying it was bad, that discourages people.)
  • No, it didn’t suck. Honest. I liked it.
  • I know it was hard for you to create. It was worth it, really.
  • Here’s what I saw that wasn’t quite right, and that you can work on.
  • Sure, we can talk about how you perceive the problem, too. Let’s see if we can get a shared understanding of what it takes to go to the next level.
  • OK, work on it for next time. When should we get together next?
  • Keep up the good work. You’ll get there!

It involves a lot of careful listening and reassurance.

I can certainly listen, and if necessary, reassure. But that’s not what I really want to do. Something in me wants to be project-focused. So while I do the warm friendly thing, my coaching sessions typically look like this:

  • How’s it going, good work, let’s get to it.
  • Here’s what you created. Here’s the job it needed to do. Here’s what it did well, and here’s what it still needs to do that it isn’t doing yet.
  • Here’s the work you need to do to get to that next level. Here’s how to do that work.
  • Talk to you next time.

This is right for some people. For example, one of my clients is a new author. They are growing by leaps and bounds with this method — each session reflects enormous growth. I’m absolutely certain that in a small number of sessions, they won’t need me as a coach any more. That feels glorious to me.

From a financial perspective, for me, that’s a failure. But based on they way I like to think, it’s a success. The client is like a project, just like the editing or writing projects. The job is to get them from where they are to where they need to be. It is collaborative. It’s human, too, but it has an endpoint.

If you’re a coach — or someone who has hired one — help me here. Am I doing this wrong? Or am I doing it right, and lots of other coaches are the ones with the wrong mindset?

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  1. There are a myriad of coaching models and practices. The International Coaching Federation ( is a recognized leader in this discipline (and there are many more similar organizations.)

    If your clients are benefitting (per their expectations, often in written form at the outset of the relationship and mutually agreed to) that’s key. Your approach seems outcome-oriented (AKA, “project-focused”.) If that’s what the client needs (and wants), I would say you’re serving your client well. This is usually fulfilling for both parties (as you noted.)

    Many coaches work on facilitating persistent change for their clients (individuals, teams or organizations) so that they become self-motivated, self-learning, self-improving etc. This requires much more listening and sensing (than I presume you need to do with the two clients described, here.) This is a typical coaching engagement and set of outcomes (at least in my experience.)

    “…like a therapist” – Most coaches avoid any hint of therapy in their practice (or they explicitly function as trained and accredited therapists.) Many of us (coaches) have long-term engagements (where we’re paid hourly or on retainer) to address needs as they emerge (in addition to the initial agreed upon list.)

    Both you and your clients are benefitting (and I don’t mean $ benefit>0 In that respect you’re coaching effectively (at least from my perspective.)

  2. No right or wrong. Sounds like you’re doing it in a way that aligns with your skills and the type of client you want to work with. You teach people how to write on their own. They “graduate” and you make room for the next students. Maybe a few even return as clients to your book editing client after they have the confidence to write.

  3. I agree with you completely on this. The same applies to any mentor. And every employee is a mentor, training their successor(s). Their successes should be cause for celebration.

  4. Josh

    This is an interesting point. Like you, we try and equip people with skills so they can become self-sufficient. In our case it’s with public speaking and presentation skills. If I may, I will share with you our approach when coaching senior executives with these communication skills.

    The process is roughly (from the client’s point of view:

    1) Self realisation – I am not as good as I thought I was
    2) Understanding – So that’s why what I did is not great
    3) Learning – That sounds like a better way of doing it
    4) Application – Gosh, you are right, it works
    5) Reforcement – I can do it by myself now.

    I hope that helps.

    Kind regards


  5. Hi, Josh. I am a certified coach, although my coaching is mostly limited to friends and family who want/tolerate it right now. I say “tolerate” because coaching is mostly asking questions, not giving advice. That’s how I was trained. I noticed your lists only had one basic question, “How’s it going?” followed by advice of sorts. People who are paying us will tolerate hard, probing questions better than friends and family who did not sign up and pay to be questioned. But, depending on the situation, I do it anyway. If somebody hangs up the phone or walks away with an important inquiry in mind, I figure I’ve done my job as a coach. That’s it from me today. PS I love your blog. It’s so candid and clear.