Don’t take the bait!

23 August 2021by Elaina Smith0
5 Coaching ‘Traps’ and How to Avoid Them

In this blog we reveal 5 common coaching ‘traps’ which are so easy to succumb to but can seriously derail the prospect of a successful coaching outcome.

Of course, it’s worth saying from the outset, that people don’t deliberately or consciously set out to create ‘traps’ for their coach.  But much like a choppy sea, there are underlying tides which determine the direction of the waves and it’s the same for coaching.

Coaching ‘traps’ lay beneath the surface and are initiated at the ‘non-conscious’ level with the coach themselves unwittingly participating.  As coaches, most of us will admit to being ‘lured’ into one (or in my case, all!) of the following ‘traps’ at one point or another…

The skill of the coach is to recognise the initial ‘invitation’ and then actively navigate the conversation into helpful and productive territory.

So here they are, 5 coaching ‘Traps’ see how many you can recognise…

Trap 1: The ‘You’re My Hero!’ Game

This first trap is a game of ‘ego stroking and ‘seduction’.  It’s designed to obtain a psychological ‘rescue’, which more often than not, is rejected later down the line.

Let’s give you an example:

Executive Coach, John, receives an urgent call from the HR manager of an insurance company saying “John, I’m so glad I’ve got through to you.

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We’ve got a problem with our senior management team, and we need help.  You come highly recommended, and I’m told that if anyone can sort this issue out, it’s you! How soon can you get here?”

OK ‘fess up now.  In that situation, how many of us coaches would be glowing with pride and scrabbling around our calendars looking for the first available slot? When in actual fact, we should detect a little ‘amber warning’ ringing in our ears…

Rather than letting our ego determine our actions, a smart coach will ask a few qualifying questions first e.g. “What exactly is the issue?”  “What have you done about it so far?”, “What’s making this issue difficult for the organisation to take care of?” And “What is it that you’ve heard that makes you think that I can help you?”

That should help move the conversation away from the ‘superhero coach’ category and into a more realistic, Adult conversation with a healthy dose of reality.

OK, let’s check out the next one…
Trap 2: The ‘Have You Ever Tried X?’ Game

This second ‘trap’, occurs when the coachee presents a ‘hopeless’ problem and, rather than asking open, exploratory questions, the coach steps in with implicit solutions.  Of course, these solutions rarely get taken up by the coachee and it all ends up being a frustrating waste of time.

Here’s an example:

Coachee: I’m having so much difficulty with one of my stakeholders and I just don’t know what to do…

Coach:  Have you tried talking to them?

Coachee: No, what’s the point. they never listen anyway…

Coach: Well, could you speak to their line manager and explain the situation?  Maybe that could be a route through?

Coachee: No, I’ve tried that before and it didn’t work, just created more problems

Coach: Well could you go to HR and get some advice on how to address the issue formally?

Coachee: Have you tried getting hold of anyone in HR these days?

And folks, this scenario can play on and on for hours.  In the end, the coachee leaves the conversation having justified to themselves that this truly was a hopeless and unsolvable situation (coincidentally, requiring no action on their part – funny that!) and the coach is mentally and emotionally exhausted by their efforts and in need of a stiff brandy (other beverages are, of course, available).

A simple solution here is for the coach to move away from closed ‘have you’, ‘could you’ type questions and into more open questions such ‘What have you…?’ and ‘How could you…?’ And of course, it’s always worth restraining ourselves from offering advice, ideas and solutions.

So now, let’s take a peek at no. 3…
Trap 3: The ‘Let’s Talk About Them’ Game

This is such an entertaining game of ‘distraction’ and ‘collusion’.  Where, interestingly, both parties often leave the conversation feeling really good about it, when in actual fact they have achieved absolutely nothing… zilch… nada…

Let’s give you an example of how this conversation plays out…

Coachee: One of my direct reports is constantly late.  It’s really driving me crazy and I’m at the end of my tether

Coach: What’s making them late?

Coachee: I don’t know.  I think there might be problems at home but I’m not sure

Coach: What do you think is happening at home that’s making them late?

Coachee: Well, they’ve got several children to get to school and they’re also looking after a sick relative.  I’m not sure the marriage is holding up very well… there’s a lot going on there

Coach: Could they not get someone in to help for a bit, until things settle down?

Coachee: I’m not sure their finances would stretch to that to be honest?

Coach: Are there other family members who could help them?

Coachee: Yeah, that’s a good idea and probably what I would do if I was in that situation…

Coach: Yeah, me too…

So, can you see what’s happening here?  The coach has been thrown off the scent and is focusing on the ‘other’ person instead of the individual in front of them.  It’s a perfect way of having an interesting conversation without actually achieving anything. The pay-off for the coachee is they can get all this off their chest without addressing the part that they’re playing in this situation.

Whenever we engage in a conversation that is focusing on anyone other than the person sat in front of us, then we have fallen into this ‘trap’.

A good tip is for the coach to notice when they’ve started using the words ‘Them/They’ (referring to the 3rd party) instead of ‘You’ (the person in front of us).

OK, now for trap number 4…
Trap 4: The ‘Will You Do the Actions?’ Game

Aha!  Here we have a lovely example of a little power game.  Imagine the scene… you’re coaching a senior leader and as the conversation progresses, you’ve made a few little notes for yourself.

As the conversation draws to a close and you’re at the ‘confirming next actions’ stage, the coachee says “I saw you taking notes there, would you mind writing them up and sending them over to me on an email?”

It’s really interesting what has just happened to the relationship dynamic here! Having conducted a coaching session on the basis of equality, you could say that the leader is non-consciously wanting to reassert their status.  By agreeing to take notes and send them afterwards, the coach has moved away from a position of equality, into a position of subservience.

The clue to this power game, is usually present right at the start when you notice that your coachee has nothing to write with.  Spot this early and you can raise it as a question e.g. “I notice you haven’t bought anything to write with today and I’m wondering how you’ll keep track of the actions or agreements from this session?”

Time for our final ‘Trap’… are you ready? 
Trap 5: The ‘Don’t Tell a Soul’ Game

Whilst the other games can be unproductive and waste time, the game of ‘Don’t tell a soul’ can have more sinister outcomes and should always raise an ‘amber alert’ to the coach.

This game plays with confidentiality boundaries and usually starts with a person saying to the coach “Is this a confidential conversation?” Or “Can I trust you to keep this to yourself and not breathe a word to anyone else?” In that moment, it’s so seductive for us coaches to respond with “Yes, of course!” only to regret these words later on.

Humanistics Coaching Blog - Don't take the bait!

These kind of ‘Can you keep a secret?’ questions present a dilemma for the coach. On one hand, we’re taught to treat conversations ethically and in confidence.  But, on the other hand, agree to 100% confidentiality and we can find ourselves holding onto worrying information without anyone to talk to and at the very worst, actually find that we’re breaking the law.

Here’s are some examples:

In each of the following cases, the coach naively agreed to full confidentiality…

Coachee 1: Informed the coach that they had found a way to bring down the company IT system as an act of personal revenge against their manager – this act would have cost the organisations millions of pounds in lost business

Coachee 2: Informed the coach that they were about to attempt suicide after receiving a poor rating and being informed that the bonus they’d been relying on, would not be forthcoming

Coachee 3: Informed the coach that the stress of the job had led them to serious self-harming and proceeded to show fresh self-inflicted wounds on both their arms

In each case, the coach was left holding difficult and upsetting information which they felt powerless to act on.

Confidentiality agreements, whether verbal or in writing, should always have a clause to protect the coach i.e. to clarify that a conversation is treated confidentially except in situations where the individual provides information about illegal activity or which could indicate harm to anyone, including property and the organisation itself


Most ‘traps’ that occur in coaching happen outside of our awareness, so as coaches, part of our role is to cultivate our ‘third eye’ perception so that we can start to detect the subtle ‘amber alert’ signals that indicate that we’re about to venture into unproductive territory.

Cultivating this ‘third eye’ perception is essential to good coaching and is one of the reasons for having regular supervision on our coaching practice.  Supervision helps us to develop just that – Super Vision!

So, without giving too much away (confidentiality is important here!), what ‘Traps’ have you found yourself in as a coach?  Share your thoughts in the comments field below.

If you’d like to find out more about coaching and/or coaching supervision, check out our website at

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