The Dangers of Giving Advice for Business Coaches and Consultants

The Dangers of Giving Advice for Business Coaches and Consultants

I was asked to meet with a woman that was starting a health coaching business. I probably looked like her “ideal customer avatar” in every single way: overweight, upper-middle-class, college-educated, no kids at home. We sat down and in just moments, she entered into her well thought-out and prepared pitch. How if I would simply eat real food and exercise just half an hour three times a week I could change everything. Oh, and throwing a few shakes in there with a magical shake formula that I could buy from her would really do the trick. Never once did she ask about my past weight struggles, nor what I was currently doing. She had a formula that worked and darn it if it wouldn’t work for me too if I just took her advice.

I knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. Looking at me was painful for her; she remembered what it was like to be too big to lean down to tie her own shoes, to be laughed at and to feel shame. If she could just save me, she wouldn’t have to feel that anymore.  But her saving me really had nothing to do with ME and what I needed.

I’ve been a business consultant for a long time, which means that for quite a while, I was really bad at what I was doing. I thought I had to “fix” people and their businesses. I thought I needed to have all the answers and resources…and then I’d be great. Looking back now, my work was not about what was best for my clients, instead, it was about how *I* felt.

You see, being a business consultant is sometimes very painful. It’s sitting across from a man that has spent his entire adult life trying to get his paint business to scale and has no resources left to do that last marketing push that “will make all the difference”. It’s listening to a woman who creates amazing handmade fashion items from vintage fabric but really, she tells you, she wants a baby, not a business. Her infertility has eaten at her self-worth and because if her body can’t create life, she doesn’t think she is worthy of creating a business either. Or it’s sitting with the plant nursery owner who’s greenhouses and barns (and home) blew away in a tornado talk about how she is not sure if she should rebuild what was already a struggling business. But she knows that her husband loves to do nothing else but care for seedlings and dig in the dirt.

As a business consultant, I thought that if they just listened to my advice, they wouldn’t hurt anymore. SO I WOULDN’T HURT FOR THEM ANYMORE.

As Parker Palmer says in his article The Gift of Presence, the Perils of AdviceHere’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.”

Instead of “fixing” business owners, a business coach or consultant must look inward to find out how to save themselves first. Because if we cannot get comfortable with our own pain and suffering, we will never be good coaches or consultants.

So after all this time, what I have learned is this:

  • Business is hard, but very few are honest about how hard it really is. This isn’t to be scary but to be real. Being honest and authentic will make you a better coach or consultant.
  • If you think you want to become a coach of any kind, think twice about it. And then think one more time. There is a great responsibility in taking on this role.
  • If you plan on hiring a coach or consultant, the best advice I can give you is to not look for the person that has a magical checklist or formula that you think if you replicate you will win. Instead, see who listens to you and asks you deep questions. See who helps you feel more, not less. Ask them questions about their own experience in building a business…if they only tell you the good parts, move on.
  • Growth and prosperity do not happen in the good parts. Instead, they happen in the difficult ones. Anyone that tells you differently or has a one-size-fits-all solution is selling you (and themselves) a cure-all potion. Instead, a great coach or consultant listens to you and helps you find your own answers in your own voice. 

That pain and suffering you are going through as a business owner…those night terrors where your house is being foreclosed on and you hang your head in shame because it didn’t work…let’s talk about those. Let’s talk about how you’re afraid your spouse is going to blame you when the electric gets shut off, or that your kids can’t take dance anymore because you want to pursue your dream of starting a business and there isn’t room in the budget for it anymore. These are the real stories. It’s also where the magic happens. It’s where trust is built and honored. Where communication is much more about using your ears than your mouth. Where pain and suffering flows between two people and lessons happen with each bearing witness.

So many of my clients have had previous coaches or consultants. And so many of them have been damaged. I’m not saying this to be inflammatory or to pick on one coach or another. But our industry is deeply broken. I’ve even had my own experience with coaches that were going to save me.

I wonder how many times I’ve done the same thing with business coaching. How many times did I had all the answers so I wouldn’t have to look in someone’s eyes and feel their pain? How many times I shoved a business strategy down someone’s throat when really, I just needed to listen and ask questions.

We owe ourselves, our industry, and our clients better. We own them our attention, our empathy, and our bearing witness to struggle and pain. If you are not willing to do so, then get out of the business. Or, at least stop calling yourself a coach.  There is no shame in having an answer or a well thought out path. There is no reason to stop selling your one-size-fits-all formula. Just call it what it is…but that doesn’t mean you are a coach.

Being a coach or consultant is a big responsibility. It is not for the faint of heart or for anyone that thinks you can save anyone. Instead, it’s for those of us that can “sit in it” with people until they are ready to pull themselves out. It is a powerful union of souls and hearts. It is hard and painful but it is also powerful and transformative.

(inspired by Parker Palmer’s The Gift of Presence, the Perils of Advice article published here:

(featured image from PAUL BRADBURY VIA GETTY IMAGES)