In a recent post, I talked about using homework assignments to gain traction when coaching a colleague. A while back, a client asked me this question:

What do you do when the person you’re coaching hasn’t done their homework?

This client of mine is an immensely successful and capable consultant himself. Like many professionals who coach other smart professionals, he was trying to figure out that difficult dynamic of how hard to push. After all, in his professional service firm setting, partners don’t see another partner (no matter how senior) as their boss. So he intuitively knew that coming down on his colleague would probably take their relationship the wrong direction. His partner would say (or maybe only think), “Who do you think you are?” All of that relational capital built up through the rest of the process could go POOF!

But just ignoring the incomplete homework assignment isn’t very constructive either. Coaching with action is just a nice chat. And while it may be therapeutic, it doesn’t help to achieve the goals of either party OR the firm.

So what to do? Here’s one approach.

Start by looking for trends instead of single incidents. The first time a client doesn’t complete their chosen homework, I listen sympathetically to her reasons. Sure, I may sense there’s a fair degree of fertilizer being thrown around, but everyone has a bad day. And change is difficult for any of us in the best of circumstances. Perhaps she needs to wrestle with the change some more and a little more time will help. Initially, support seems to be the best strategy. Simply talk about the progress she has made and afterwards, help her choose a new set of homework.

Now let’s say that the person has blown it a second time. She had chosen three homework assignments and only got around to one. This time, we have the beginning of a trend. Again, I listen sympathetically, but when it comes time to choose homework, I challenge a bit more.

“I’m most interested in you choosing meaningful homework that you will actually complete,” I say at the close of this session. “How motivating and feasible are these actions to you?” Usually that prompts her to re-think and re-set her sights on a useful, possible next step.

In the unlikely and unfortunate event that the homework is again incomplete at the next session, I’m ready for a more significant conversation. While it’s not an angry one (anger usually has to do with power somehow, and this is not a power relationship anyway), it is energetic.

“Julie,” I might say, “I’m concerned about something. I see a trend here. You choose homework and then don’t complete it. It makes me wonder if we need to change something about how we’re working together. I hate to see you make promises to yourself and not keep them – it’s hurting you and your growth. And it’s not a great use of our time. What do we need to change here?”

This kicks us right back into contracting, a re-negotiation of the relationship. Yes, it’s possible that she will choose to opt out of coaching with you. And that may be a bad move for her (and a slight blow to your ego), but there are a lot of people in your firm who could use your help. It may just not be the right time or the right match at this point.

Of course, it’s equally likely that this direct conversation will help put the whole coaching relationship back on track. And if that’s the case, your colleague will likely thank you for it in the long term.

What other approaches have you seen work to this delicate situation?