6 Frameworks for Understanding Client Resistance in Coaching

Basic Coaching Skill

6 Frameworks for Understanding Client Resistance in Coaching

Client resistance is a common challenge faced by coaches, whether in life coaching, executive coaching, or other coaching professions.

However, it’s important to understand that what we often label as “resistance” might not be resistance at all. Instead, it could be a reflection of a lack of rapport, clarity, or true desire for change.
By reframing our understanding of resistance and considering alternative theories, we can better address and manage these challenges. In this article, we will explore the six frameworks to help coaches understand and manage client resistance effectively.

Introduction to Resistance

Before diving into the frameworks, let’s clarify what we mean by “resistance.” In many ways, no client is ever truly resistant; rather, they might be experiencing a lack of connection with the coach, unclear objectives, or an absence of genuine motivation.

The term “resistance” often presupposes that the coach’s direction is the right one, which can stem from an authority-based approach seen in traditional psychoanalysis, where resistance was viewed as an unconscious desire to cling to suppressed memories. By understanding resistance in this broader context, we can approach it more effectively and compassionately.

Concept of Resistance

Resistance is traditionally understood in the context of psychotherapy as a client’s unconscious defense mechanism against uncovering repressed memories or emotions.
However, in the coaching context, what we term as ‘resistance’ might be more complex and multifaceted. Here are a few interpretations:

Lack of Rapport: The coach and client may not have established a strong, trusting relationship, leading to reluctance or hesitation in the client’s engagement.

Unclear Goals: The client might not have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve, causing them to push back against suggestions or plans.

Incongruent Values: The proposed changes or suggestions may not align with the client’s personal values or beliefs, resulting in resistance.

Fear of Change: Change can be daunting, and clients might resist due to fear of the unknown or potential failure.

Perceived Threat to Autonomy: Clients may resist if they feel their autonomy is being undermined or if they perceive the coach’s suggestions as controlling.
By recognising these aspects, coaches can tailor their approaches to address the underlying issues rather than treating resistance as mere opposition.

Alternative Theories to Resistance

To move beyond the traditional concept of resistance, here are some alternative theories that offer a deeper understanding:

Lack of True Desire: Clients may appear resistant not because they oppose the coaching process, but because they haven’t fully committed to the desired change. This lack of genuine desire can stem from internal conflicts, external pressures, or a mismatch between their current state and their perceived goals.

Ambivalence: Ambivalence is a common phenomenon where clients hold conflicting feelings about change. This isn’t resistance in the traditional sense but a natural part of the decision-making process. Recognising and working through ambivalence can lead to greater clarity and commitment.

Communication Barriers: Miscommunications or misunderstandings between the coach and client can create the illusion of resistance. Ensuring clear, empathetic communication can help bridge this gap and foster a more collaborative relationship.

Situational Constraints: External factors such as time, resources, or environmental stressors can influence a client’s ability to engage fully in the coaching process. Acknowledging and addressing these constraints can help reduce perceived resistance.

Now that we’ve discussed various concepts and alternative theories to resistance, let’s explore six frameworks that can help coaches understand and manage clients’ resistance more effectively.

These frameworks provide practical strategies and insights in addressing the underlying issues that may manifest as resistance in the coaching process.

1. Psychological Reactance Theory

Psychological Reactance Theory, developed by Jack Brehm in the 1960s, suggests that people have a natural aversion to threats to their freedom of choice. When clients perceive coaching suggestions as controlling or limiting their autonomy, they may resist.

Key Points:

  • Autonomy Preservation: Clients resist to maintain their sense of control. They want to feel they are making decisions on their own terms.
  • Perceived Threats: Resistance can arise when suggestions are seen as directives or mandates, rather than options.
  • Mitigation Strategy: Coaches can reduce resistance by emphasising choice and collaborative decision-making, ensuring clients feel empowered and involved in the process.


Encourage clients to explore their options and make decisions that align with their values and goals. Frame suggestions as possibilities rather than prescriptions.
For example, instead of saying, “You need to exercise daily,” try, “What types of physical activity do you enjoy, and how can you incorporate them into your routine?”

2. Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model

The Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, outlines the phases clients go through when modifying behaviour. These stages include Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance.

Key Points:

  • Stage Recognition: Resistance may vary depending on the client’s stage of change. Understanding their current stage is crucial.
  • Tailored Interventions: Coaches need to tailor their approaches based on the client’s readiness to change. Different stages require different strategies.
    Progressive Support: Support should be adaptive and responsive to the client’s current stage, encouraging them to move forward.


Identify the client’s current stage and customise interventions to support their progress through the stages. For example:

  • Precontemplation: Focus on raising awareness about the issue.
  • Contemplation: Discuss the pros and cons of change to help resolve ambivalence.
  • Preparation: Assist in creating a concrete plan for change.
  • Action: Provide support and strategies to implement the plan.
  • Maintenance: Help develop strategies to sustain the change and prevent relapse.

3. Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), proposed by Deci and Ryan, emphasises the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in fostering intrinsic motivation.

Key Points:

  • Intrinsic Motivation: Resistance can occur when clients feel their intrinsic motivations are undermined by external pressures.
  • Basic Needs Fulfillment: Ensuring clients’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met reduces resistance.
  • Supportive Environment: Creating a supportive environment where clients feel valued and understood enhances engagement.


Facilitate a coaching environment that nurtures autonomy by offering choices, competence by building skills and confidence, and relatedness through empathetic and supportive relationships.

For example, provide opportunities for clients to make decisions, celebrate their progress to build competence, and foster a supportive and understanding relationship.

4. Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, introduced by Leon Festinger, posits that individuals experience psychological discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs or when their behaviours do not align with their beliefs.

Key Points:

  • Discomfort Management: Resistance may be a way for clients to manage the discomfort of dissonance, often by justifying their current behavior.
  • Belief Alignment: Helping clients align their beliefs and actions can reduce resistance and discomfort.
  • Resolution Techniques: Techniques to resolve dissonance can include changing beliefs, acquiring new information, or altering behaviours.


Work with clients to identify areas of dissonance and explore ways to align their actions with their core beliefs and values. Encourage reflective practices and provide new perspectives that can harmonise conflicting beliefs.

For instance, if a client values health but struggles with unhealthy eating, explore ways their eating habits can better reflect their health values.

5. Motivational Interviewing

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a client-centred counselling approach that aims to enhance motivation by resolving ambivalence.

Key Points:

  • Client-Centred Approach: Emphasises understanding the client’s perspective and eliciting their own motivations for change.
  • Ambivalence Resolution: Focuses on exploring and resolving ambivalence towards change by helping clients articulate their reasons for and against change.
  • Collaborative Dialogue: Uses open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summaries (OARS) to foster a collaborative environment.


Employ MI techniques to foster a collaborative coaching environment. Use open-ended questions to explore client ambivalence, reflect on their feelings and thoughts, and summarise to reinforce understanding and commitment.
For example, ask, “What are some reasons you feel unsure about this change?” and “What are some reasons you want to pursue this change?”

6. Systems Theory

Systems Theory views individuals as part of a larger system, including family, work, and social environments. Resistance may stem from systemic influences and interactions.

Key Points:

  • Contextual Understanding: Recognise that resistance can be influenced by broader systemic factors such as family dynamics, work environment, and cultural norms.
  • Interconnected Dynamics: Addressing systemic issues can help reduce resistance and facilitate change.
  • Holistic Approach: Consider the client’s environment and relationships in the coaching process to provide comprehensive support.


Examine the client’s broader context and identify systemic factors contributing to resistance. Work with clients to navigate and address these influences, fostering change within their environment.
For instance, if a client’s work environment is highly stressful and unsupportive, discuss strategies to manage work stress or explore options for creating a more supportive work environment.


Understanding and managing client resistance is a crucial aspect of effective coaching.

By leveraging these six frameworks—Psychological Reactance Theory, the Stages of Change Model, Self-Determination Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Motivational Interviewing, and Systems Theory—coaches can develop more effective strategies to support their clients in overcoming resistance and achieving their goals.

Each framework provides unique insights and tools that, when combined, create a comprehensive approach to understanding and addressing resistance in the coaching process.

To explore these concepts further, you might want to watch this insightful lecture by Nick Thorpe PCC, one of our trainers for our Accredited Diploma in Transformative Coaching, titled Navigating Resistance in Coaching. The lecture offers a deeper exploration of the complexities of client resistance and provides practical strategies for coaches.

Author Details
Justin is a professional writer and researcher and explores topics of coaching, coach training and personal development.
Justin Pickford

Justin is a professional writer and researcher and explores topics of coaching, coach training and personal development.

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