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Are your clients' reasons 'why' holding them back?

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

It's human nature that when something doesn't go well (and sometimes when it does) clients will spend time considering the reasons 'why?'. Think about those conversations you’ve had when a client has reflected on their last job interview, their struggle with their weight, or even their ability to follow through on the actions that they had agreed in their last session. What were the reasons they gave for their success or failure? Did they suggest that it was because the interview was unreasonably hard, that they just have a lack of willpower, or that they didn’t have time? The explanations that they give are more powerful than you might think. They can affect the way they feel, have a negative impact on their confidence and motivation, and ultimately predict future behaviour and the likelihood of them being successful next time around.

Let's look at an example...

If a client didn't get the promotion that they went for, they might come to the conclusion that their boss doesn’t see their potential, or that they were just 'unlucky' on this occasion. This pattern of reasoning has a purpose. It protects self-esteem by placing blame elsewhere - i.e. 'it wasn't my fault and there's nothing more I could have done'. However, if this is really true then this lack of personal agency also means that they will have no control over similar events in the future. If they believe that they have no personal control, then why would they spend time and effort trying to improve or change things? Psychologists therefore suggest that it might be more beneficial to attribute these outcomes to factors that they do have personal control over. For example, was there something that they could have done differently to show their boss that they were ready to step up, or to make sure that they stood out against the other candidates? If, as a coach, you understand and recognise the impact of the attributions that your clients make, then you can reflect these back or challenge them. This can leave them feeling more positive, motivated and confident next time.

Let's look at one more example...

A client of mine had an important presentation coming up that he was really nervous about, so we spent a session working on this. The presentation went incredibly well, and next time we met we discussed why. Although he was able to identify that this was partly due to his preparation, he also said that he had never been any good at presentations, and that therefore this was probably a 'one off'. By thinking about his success in this way, he was effectively giving away control of the situation. If this explanation had gone unchallenged, then there would be no reason for this client to go in to the next presentation feeling more confident and less nervous.

Following success, it is unhelpful for clients to give reasons such as luck or the task being easier than expected. This can result in them taking little pride in their achievements, and therefore not feeling particularly good about themselves. After all, they might not be so lucky next time! It's much more beneficial for them to think about how well they prepared or how hard they worked. This will foster pride, confidence and motivation in the future.

Similarly, seeing failure as not being their fault is not helpful in the long term. This might make them feel better in the short term, but if they really believe that it wasn't their fault and there's nothing they can do about it, then why would they try? It's much more useful to consider what they could have done differently as this can help them to move forward and improve.

The good news is that there is evidence that challenging these patterns of thinking can help to change them. By listening to the reasons that clients give for successes and failures, and then challenging these when we notice them, we can help clients to take control and feel more confident and motivated in the future.

To find out more about how psychology can help to guide coaching conversations, visit or email

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