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How to Handle Clients Who Won’t Do the Work

by: Jennifer Wannen
Last Updated: June 23, 2022


As coaches, watching our clients succeed evokes immense pride, excitement and gratification. We go home thinking, “This is why I do what I do.” We smile contentedly, feeling like we’ve made the right choices in life to get us to this pinnacle of career satisfaction.

But every once in a while, we find ourselves on the opposite side of the spectrum. We have a client who doesn’t just struggle to make progress; this client doesn’t seem to care enough to even apply him/herself. At first we chalk it up to a sluggish start. The person must be slow to warm up, we think. Then we tinker with our approach. Surely, once we find the right groove things will change.

Except we don’t, and they don’t. The client continues to show no willingness to change. At this point we’re nervous. In certain moments, we worry we’re missing something, we’re not doing our jobs. In others, we’re looking for a way out of what now feels like a trap. We may begin to worry about our professional reputations or our ability to show up with a good attitude to our next session with this individual. We don’t enjoy this jaded feeling. It’s not who we are or what our work is about.

The fact is, we can ponder, theorize, investigate, and obsess over why anyone paying good money for health coaching won’t do the follow-through. Why not be lazy for free, we wonder? Why not make excuses without committing time and resources to it each week? Why continue to come back? While these questions are certainly understandable, they ignore a key underlying truth. Eventually, we must stop asking why—because the why was never our job to begin with.

The what is our job. The how is our job. Even helping the client brainstorm the when and where involved in their daily actions can be our job. But the why? That was always the client’s purview.

We may have asked about our client’s why in our first sessions with him/her. We assuredly listened intently as the client explained the reasons he/she was seeking out health coaching, the motivations behind wanting to pursue better health and well-being. We may have reminded the client to revisit this why when he/she was struggling. These are all legitimate, supportive, and productive coaching strategies.

But we have to remember that the why is the most personal of question in a health journey. The why is first-hand. The why is non-transferrable. The why rests solely with the client. And so, then, does the why not….

This knowledge aside, let’s humor our curiosity for a moment. Let’s unwrap the issue. Maybe we’ll feel better having done what we perceive as due diligence. Maybe we’ll have more peace discerning what is out of our hands. In the myriad of reasons clients won’t do the work, we may find a single, common point at the center: they aren’t ready.

They aren’t ready to change their daily behavior. They aren’t ready to stop being run by old, sabotaging scripts. They aren’t ready to prioritize themselves. They aren’t ready to push themselves off the couch. They aren’t ready to give up food that keeps them unhealthy. They aren’t ready to commit to a sane sleep schedule. They aren’t ready to keep track of their efforts. They aren’t ready to care about their health. They aren’t ready to know their biomarkers.

Awareness might feel too painful or frightening. Exertion doesn’t feel worth the time and need to shower afterward. Life without ready access to comfort food may feel unnerving. Living differently than those immediately around them feels threatening. Success might intimidate or potentially call too much into question.

Acknowledging that it’s a question of readiness distills the the situation, clears the picture. As coaches, we can do nothing to manufacture readiness (and oodles once a client has found it for him/herself). Understanding the issue in the context of readiness takes criticism and judgment out of the equation, which keeps any actions we take clean and right-spirited.

All this said, we’re now back to our question, the only one we really have any control over to begin with. How do we handle clients who won’t do the work? (And, maybe, is there anything we can do to minimize being in this unpleasant situation to begin with?) How will we respond to these clients? What action will we take? What choices are available to us?

Push the principle of accountability from the beginning.

This is more prevention than action, but it’s a critical point. Front-loading talk about accountability and ownership can potentially turn people away who are looking to throw money at their health but not effort. Even if we still find ourselves working with a client who doesn’t want to follow through with his/her part, it will be an easier conversation to explain why lack of full participation doesn’t make for a viable coaching partnership.

Putting your expectations in writing is essential. Make it a clear part of the coaching agreement you have client sign, and put it in terms of commitment. If they’re unwilling to commit to the accountability structure you use with all you clients, you aren’t the coach for them.

Be sure to read through the agreement together line by line. Sometimes in the interest of keeping it light or not boring clients with the details, we may hesitate to dedicate session time to covering all the points. If you want to make this half hour non-billable time, do so, but don’t skip it.

Keep the numbers front and center.

The devil is in the details, and those details are hard to argue with. Clients who won’t do the work tend to deal in vagueness. They have stories—many stories in fact. What they don’t have is numbers or specific examples.

Record keeping may not be the sexiest part of behavior change, but it sure does make a difference. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to use the same method, but it does mean it’s worth doing. Know the apps out there. Have some old school templates handy. Encourage clients to take photos of their meals for keeping track of their dietary changes. The techniques don’t matter. The documentation itself, however, does.

From a pure coaching perspective, even our most earnest clients should be keeping track of how they’re meeting their goals each day. No one benefits from generalities. With clients who won’t do the work, the call for numbers and specifics will call them to account. If they’re not doing the details, they’re not participating in the process.

Put the ball in the client’s court.

If it’s been several weeks and you’re not seeing work from a client, honestly share that observation. Tell the client calmly, with concern and without judgment why you perceive things the way you do. Give particular examples for how it’s clear to you he/she isn’t doing the work of the coaching program. Refer to the initial commitment the client made (in writing and in conversation with you).

Then ask the client what he/she intends to do about this situation.

Sit back. Wait if you must, but don’t say anything more. Let the client take ownership of the issue.

Many clients in that moment will launch into the why they’re struggling to keep their commitments. Some will act confused as if this is the first time they’ve know anything was awry. Listen, but direct the conversation back to the details. This time, ask the client what he/she wants to do at this point.

Occasionally, a client may understand and share in that moment that it’s not a good time for him/her to make the needed changes. In this case, it’s probably a productive realization. You have the chance to end or table the arrangement on good terms. While it’s not likely your first choice, it’s a positive outcome that leaves the door open for future collaboration.

Most of the time, however, clients in this scenario will recommit to the process. Take them at their word. Encourage them to discuss modifications and supports that will make their programs more workable for the time being.

The conversation might feel strained. It might be awkward. But there’s value in getting the conflict on the table—the conflict being the client’s noncompliance with the expectations of the coaching partnership, which is designed to lead the client toward measurable, appreciable health change.

Lower the threshold, but expect progress.

Sometimes clients genuinely need to lower the bar to make their goals. An objective that’s doesn’t allow for success with reasonable effort won’t serve the client’s progress. Because we work with where clients are at, we don’t judge the ambition level of a goal. We judge whether the client puts forth the effort to meet it—and then to meet the next one, and so on.

If the client isn’t doing the work, it might be because they’re too intimidated by the goal. It might feel too demanding, and the client’s response is to avoid or procrastinate. If the client is committed to the process but just uncomfortable with the requirement of the goal, you’ll soon see after you scale back the objective to something very reachable.

If a client isn’t consistently doing the work no matter how low the threshold is set, explain that modifications should serve success, not stagnancy. If the client isn’t interested in meeting daily and weekly behavior objectives and progressing in effort, the coaching partnership won’t serve the client’s good.

You don’t necessarily need to generally assign a number—of adjustments you’ll make or weeks you’ll wait, but do set a target in your mind around a particular client. Use your professional judgment in how much additional time or “go-arounds” you’re willing to invest before making a decision.

Know how to graciously release a client relationship.

It’s not an enviable scenario; however, many coaches will at some point find themselves considering if not employing this option.

Here, again, we benefit from having very specific language in our initial client agreements we can refer to. Listing the reasons you may release a client in the original agreement underscores the clarity and objectivity that precipitate this decision. If we’ve made regular reference to the need for compliance with the expectations of the coaching partnership, this discussion shouldn’t evoke surprise even though it sometimes does.

Because it has the potential to be an emotional discussion, we do well to have a specific script in mind for relaying the decision. We can use phrasing that reflects our choice to release the relationship as part of our own professional commitment. We’re committed to health progress for our clients, and partnerships in which that isn’t a ready, common commitment aren’t viable choices for us professionally. This language makes the decision personal to you as a coach, not personal about him/her, the client.

Unless there have been difficult, interpersonal issues with the client, most coaches choose to have this conversation in person. It’s important to share respect for the client’s journey and gratitude for having been a part of it as they explored the health coaching option even if it couldn’t move forward at this time.

We can release the relationship honoring what the client did bring to the table—an interest and willingness to pursue coaching support. That action itself represents a desire for and step toward a better life. When we part ways acknowledging that investment, we leave the client with encouragement and perhaps confidence in his/her ability to pursue that next level of commitment toward full participation and partnership in the future.

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