Can a coach give advice to their clients?

This topic is a hot one for many people in the coaching field, but it’s also relevant for people who work in mediation and other conflict resolution processes.

What do we mean by advice?

Before we get into some possible answers to this question, it’s important to clarify exactly what we are talking about when we use the word “advice”. The concept of advice can include advice about content or process, and advice that is provided in a more or less directive way. There’s also a big difference between advice that someone feels compelled to take, and advice that leaves a person open to choosing another course of action.

The Cambridge dictionary defines advice as

“an opinion that someone offers you about what you should do or how you should act in a particular situation”

Advice could also include:

  • endorsement of a person’s initially chosen alternative,
  • the provision of information or reasoning regarding the decision,
  • suggestion of a new alternative not initially considered,
  • providing assistance for the person to gain greater self-insight,
  • provision of assistance toward the decision-process (how to problem solve).
  • sharing ideas,
  • providing feedback,
  • suggesting strategies.
  • recommending against one or more alternatives.

Some people distinguish advice from simply providing information that is merely descriptive, suggesting that advice involves a prescriptive or evaluative component, but this distinction is not always clear cut. Sometimes providing descriptive information is taken as advice, even if it was not offered with that intention. The context and the relationship between the information provider and receiver makes a big difference.

There’s a difference between supporting a client to create their own solutions and supporting a client to choose their own solutions. The former is almost always better. Samantha Hardy

The infographic below shows some different things that could amount to advice, depending on when, how and in what context they happen.

Why do people want advice?

Do people really want advice? Do they want advice but actually NEED something else? For example, my daughter often wants me to tell her the answer to her maths homework, but is advising her of the correct answer really in her best interests?

If a coaching client directly asks us for advice, who are we to judge whether it’s in their best interests for us to provide it? Should we take people’s request for advice on face value?

Why do people want to give advice?

“Which do you really want: To give advice or to help? Don’t assume they’re one and the same.” Tammy Lenski

The person providing advice is almost always well-intentioned. When asked why they provide advice, most people respond that the client asked them for it. Their client asked something like, “So what do you think I should do?” It feels good to provide advice and be helpful. 

Sometimes people give advice because they feel that they have unique expertise, information or insight that the other person lacks and could benefit from. For many people, this is an important part of their profession (for example, lawyers provide legal advice, doctors provide medical advice). However, many of us tend to provide advice in situations that are outside of our professional roles, and this is where we can get into trouble.

Downsides of giving advice – for the receiver

When a client receives advice, this detracts from client’s autonomy. This is because the client is not making their own decisions, or using their own resources and reasoning…rather they are relying on another person. This can even lead to the development of dependent behaviour patterns. If I regularly provide my daughter advice on how to complete her maths homework, she is less likely to try to do it herself, and may get into the habit of simply asking me each time she is finding it difficult. She will not develop the skills to figure it out herself in the future.

“The value of coaching lies not just in helping clients get to the end of a session with options, but in building motivation, raising awareness, generating ownership and commitment to change. All my experience suggests that giving advice hinders all the above and reduces the possibility of life-long learning.” Myles Downey, The Coaching Academy.

Clients who rely on another’s advice also tend to own less of the solution offered, and this can mean that they are less committed to implementing the advice, and/or that there are less sustainable outcomes. Advice can distance the client from their own intrinsic motivators.

In contrast, when people make their own decisions, they have the benefit of access to their own internal justifications for arriving at a particular decision as well as to the strength of the supporting evidence for that decision. They have had to take into account their own personal values, their history, the emotions, the personalities, and all sorts of factors that the adviser may not consider or even know about, that could greatly impact on the client’s choices and the potential impact of any decision made.

When a person receives unsolicited advice, this can sometimes be considered a form of criticism. It can negatively impact on the receiver’s self-esteem as it conveys that they are unable to cope with the problem themselves.

“Receiving advice can implicitly place us in a passive, self-doubting, and demotivated state of mind…” Ross E O’Hara PhD.

It’s also important to keep in mind that often, because the client hasn’t done sufficient thinking about the problem they are facing, when the client asks for advice, they do not ask the right question, so don’t get the advice they actually need.

Downsides of giving advice – for the advice-giver

  1. If advice giving is your role, and you are qualified and insured to give advice, then you probably have little to worry about, other than the quality of your advice.

    However, many of us are asked for advice about things that we are not sufficiently well informed, that are outside our area of expertise, that involve and impact on people who may have different values and priorities to ourselves. One downside of giving advice is that we may get it wrong, or we may provide low quality advice. A good reputation is easily lost when the quality of advice decreases.

    We also expose ourselves to potential liability, and depending on our role, our insurance may not cover us. While we may believe that we have issued the necessary disclaimers and clearly stated to our client that they should make their own enquiries and their own decisions and not just rely on our ideas, this may not be sufficient to absolve us from liability if the client takes our advice and things go wrong. We also need to tread very carefully about how we respond in the event that this happens, as we can make things significantly worse if we become defensive or attempt to divert blame back onto the client.

    Risks in giving advice:

    • Providing inaccurate or poor quality advice.
    • Overstepping the boundaries of our role.
    • Misdiagnosing the problem.
    • Offering self-centered guidance.
    • Mishandling the aftermath.
    • Changing the relationship with our client.
    “Giving advice forms an other than equal and collaborative relationship. It places the advice giver into an authoritative role and eventually, the advice consumer into an obedient, if not disengaging, role.” Stefania Ioannidou

So should a coach ever provide advice?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone wanting advice and getting it from someone who is qualified to give it. However, before asking for / giving advice, here are some important questions to consider:

(1)  Is the coach qualified (either technically or based on their having sufficient understanding of what the client wants advice about) to give the advice? 

(2)  Are there better people / roles designed to give this advice (e.g. a mentor, a consultant, a lawyer, an expert of some kind)? 

(3)  What does the client gain from getting the advice vs what do they lose from getting the advice (rather than being asked questions and potentially being able to work it out themselves)?

(4)  How does giving advice serve / not serve the coach? What might be some risks for the coach?

(5)  Is advice giving consistent with the contracting / relationship between the people involved (e.g. if I want a mediator, and the mediator starts giving advice, especially if I don’t like it, I’m going to be pretty upset)? This could potentially happen in a coaching relationship depending on how it was framed / negotiated. While nothing in the ICF code of ethics specifically says you may not give advice to clients, it does caution about some ethical issues that can arise from the coach adopting dual roles. It can be inappropriate, confusing and perhaps unethical to switch roles during a coaching conversation from coach to adviser.

In conclusion, sometimes I can certainly give people what they want (advice) but often I (and they) are better off if I give them what they need (which is capacity building, empowerment, etc.) even though that is usually a bit less easy and less comfortable for the client.

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