New Jersey Career Coaches Association
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By Susan Britton Whitcomb

We’ve all heard the play on words associated with the term “assume”—the action can make a “donkey” out of “u” and “me”! In an effort to help recognize and avoid assumptions, this Top 10 list of assumptions was compiled. I know I’ve been guilty of a few of these assumptions myself! When working with clients, which of these assumptions might you have a tendency toward?

  1. Assuming that your client is telling you the truth—get at the truth … the whole truth!

    Pride often gets in the way of telling the truth. When you have earned your client's trust, he/she will often disclose insecurities, concerns, and career-related problems. Also, what the client perceives to be unimportant may be forgotten or glossed over in conversation with you. If you don’t ask questions (and then be comfortable with the silence and listen), you won't know anything beyond what your client tells you. Related to this is the assumption that the first goal out of the client’s mouth is, indeed, the best goal. It may be that the true target will emerge later in the course of the coaching relationship. Get at the truth … the whole truth!
  2. Assuming your client needs excessive encouragement—do NOT cheerlead to the point of condescension.
    A word of encouragement, praise for a task well done, confirmation of the client’s strengths, or acknowledgment of another person's positive comments about the client is certainly appropriate in the coaching relationship. Be watchful, however, that your tone of voice and approach is on an adult-to-adult “equals” relationship as opposed to an adult-to-child or parent-to-child relationship. Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable on the receiving end of your cheerleading. Do NOT cheerlead to the point of condescension.
  3. Assuming that the client wants to hear about you—do NOT over-talk!
    There will be times when it is appropriate for you to share a personal comment or brief account that relates to the client’s situation. However, coaching sessions should not follow the flow of a typical conversation. This is not the time to share lots of personal stories with clients. They are paying you to listen to their stories. The focus should stay on the client, not you. It’s about THEM, not you!
  4. Assuming that clients with certain skills are the same—client solutions are rarely cloneable.
    Commonalities will be present with certain clients and personality types. However, avoid assuming that because some factors are the same, they are all the same. Keep probing and listening intently—you’ll unearth threads that when woven together produce the right fit for your client.

  5. Assuming that your client's situation has only one solution—watch for tunnel vision.

    If a client is unhappy in a particular career situation, the most readily apparent solution often centers on getting a similar position with a different employer. In some cases, this is appropriate. However, people frequently settle for second best because they believe there is no other option. Ask, "What are some other options/perspectives that might be overlooked at the moment?" As a career coach, you have the opportunity to invite them to see the bigger picture … to step into the future as a whole, creative and successful person … to scratch at more than just the surface … to help them find the traction to get out of a rut … to challenge them to combine their strengths, interests, values, and purpose into an ideal career that will be uniquely satisfying to them.
  6. Assuming that your client understands his/her industry and the market—probe!
    People often wear blinders when it comes to their job and their company. Probe to learn their perception of current market conditions, compensation, or industry trends. This reconnaissance work will provide valuable information to help you in supporting changes they want to make.
  7. Assuming you can multi-task while listening to your client—stay 100% focused.
    Nothing replaces deep listening and a “full presence” with your clients. They are paying for your ear, as well as your expertise. Listen a good deal more than you talk. Give your full attention so you don't miss important information or attitudes. This is not a good time to be multitasking (reading email, doing paperwork, answering an instant message, etc.). If your client feels you are not totally interested in them or that they are not an important part of your business, they will be less inclined to tell you how you can best coach them, and you will miss getting to the heart of the situation.

  8. Assuming that every client will act on your information—clarify intentions and commitment to action.
    Sometimes clients will seem agreeable to your recommendations but have no intention of acting on them. Get at the truth by questioning your client's intentions and find out how serious they are about making a change that works. Ask, “When do you plan to do that?” Or, “Would it be helpful if you were to report back to me when it’s done?” Or, “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 highest, how committed are you to completing that task?” If clients come back the following week NOT having completed their action items, ask "What got in the way?" or "What would you like me to say when you haven’t followed through?"
  9. Assuming that your client has the same ethical standards as yours—don’t judge.

    People are full of surprises. Not all values and ethics are congruent with others. Be ready to be surprised without being judgmental. A respectful curiosity, "Tell me more about that" or "How do those values align with your current work situation?" or "What would need to change in your work situation so that it's in sync with your priorities?"
  10. Assuming the client knows less than you do—avoid thinking “I have all the answers so let me find an opening in the conversation to tell you how to do things!”

    Can you readily name the last time your spouse/child/friend followed your advice to a “T”? Telling people what to do rarely works (even when they’re paying you for your services)! If you fall into the trap of solving problems or suggesting answers (before tapping your client's creativity in these areas), you rob the client of his or her opportunity to find their brilliance. If so, your relationship with your clients will be very, very short. Yes, you may know more about the topic of career development than your clients, but that doesn’t mean they’re not as bright (or brighter) than you are. Before jumping into a litany of how-to’s on a subject, say something like, “What ideas have been coming up for you on this?” Checking out their level of knowledge is time well spent. If the client has run out of ideas, consider prefacing your comments with a statement such as, “May I offer a suggestion? … This particular strategy has worked well for others who have been in a similar situation.” Or, “Would it be helpful to brainstorm around that together? … You start, then I'll offer an idea, then back to you…”

As I mentioned, “mea culpa” on my personal tendency toward assumption #7—thinking I can multi-task while listening to my client. My challenge to all of us is this: Identify one assumption from this list that you want to avoid repeating, then determine a reminder you can put in place to help prevent recurring offenses.

As coaches, let’s all be careful to avoid assumptions, replacing them with direct inquiries, laser-like listening, and clear and honest communication. In doing so, we’ll serve our clients well, avoid any images of donkeys, and perhaps even help our clients mount a handsome steed and ride off into the sunset to live (and work) happily ever after!

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