You finish a session with your business or leadership coach and you think to yourself, “What just happened?”

Perhaps you replay the session in your head, trying to make sense of the conversation.  It happens again at your next coaching session.  It becomes undeniable – these sessions actually stress you out more than they help you!

The other day I had a conversation with someone experiencing an emotional roller coast with their coach.  It was decided that this type of coach they are struggling with is aggressive and toxic.

Perhaps you have noticed, as I have, that recently there appears to be numerous articles about gaslighters.   A gaslighter is someone who uses a form of emotional abuse that slowly eats away at your ability to make judgments.  The behaviour of the coach that my peer was talking about fits similarly to that of a gaslighter. 

Definition of an Executive/Leadership/Business Coach – An executive coach can be defined as a qualified professional who works with individuals (typically executives, high potential employees, or entrepreneurs) to help the client gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve their development objectives, and unlock their potential; they act as a sounding board.  Another definition offered is, “Leadership coaching is often provided with the goal of maximizing team or individual performance, understanding how differing management and work styles interact provides an invaluable springboard for forward movement,” as described in a Forbes article.

Aggressive Versus Assertive – Another recent Forbes article states that, “Some of the reasoning behind the notion that success requires an element of abrasiveness arose from early confusion of the terms ‘aggressive’ versus ‘assertive.’”  The article goes on describing how, “There are a lot of ‘coaches’ out there who don’t understand how to really coach. These individuals consistently do far more damage to people than they do good.” 

What is a negative coaching relationship?

  1. Number one on this list is the coach that slowly tears down self-esteem rather than build it up.  Ever heard your coach make a snide comment? It seemingly starts innocently and then begins to become more frequent.  An example is when your coach has limiting beliefs about you.  Heard directly from a coach about one of their clients, it was appalling hearing the limiting belief they had about their client: “My [client] wants to be a dancer and actor and perform on Broadway which will require lots of hard work which is all fine and good.  But I told [client] that ‘if you think you’ll get on stage, the reality is it probably won’t happen; that’s just reality.’”  This is a limiting belief the coach has about their client; the coach is making a conclusion about something in life and the client’s ability to succeed. Often clients hold their own limiting beliefs and the coach should be helping them overcome them, not inject their own limiting belief about their client’s ability.
  2. They use humiliation and demeaning, disrespectful behaviors, even fear, as “teaching” tools.  Back to my friend who shared a recent incident with their coach, experiencing a traumatizing session wherein the coach told them that their answers to the corporate survey were lies because, “It is absolutely impossible for someone to feel that way!”  Once the berating dialogue finished, my friend asked the coach why they were attacking them.  The coach paused, did a complete 180 and calmly said with a smile, “I was testing you to see how you would handle this.”  Think about the possible sub-agenda in this scenario.  If this were you in this situation, would you trust a future encounter with this coach?  This creates an emotionally unsafe learning environment for the client for any future session or perhaps encounter with this coach.  What the coach is doing is wrong and not professional no matter how they want to spin it.
  3. They directly and indirectly pressure clients to do things in the coach’s style and not authentically in their own style.  An example of this is when the client presents their ideas for a project or a presentation and the coach replies negatively and with resistance on the idea for any number of reasons, spoken or unspoken.  After the third idea presentation, one may gain the realization that no matter what is presented, it doesn’t matter until either the coach makes it their way or they come around after discussion believing it is their own idea.  You might watch out for the “yeah but” type of coach.  The word ‘but’ negates whatever precedes it; it is generally accepted as an indication that the really important part of the sentence is coming up.  The comment, “That seems like a good idea but…” used regularly by your coach could be stifling the passion that you once had. These coaches have lost their way and strayed from the true mission of coaching, which is to find ways of supporting you, expanding your strengths and building new skills, not imposing their ideas.
  4. Your coach isn’t someone who finds time for you, resulting in you feeling minimized and a second-class citizen.  It is a crappy feeling when you don’t feel like a priority because your coach says, “I’m busy with another client and don’t have time.”  How much interaction do you actually have between sessions with your coach? Are there follow-up or check-in emails or phone calls?   Your coach should be making time for you. Even when they become busy, a good coach makes time in their calendar to do the follow-up with you they promised when you originally signed up with them. There’s no such thing as a credible coach who you never hear from because “they just got so busy” or “have another client that really needs me” or whatever the excuse may be.
  5. Your coach encourages you one way this session and berates you at the next after you update them on your progress having taken their original feedback and suggestion/s to heart. A sense of consistency in any relationship is important and it is difficult to work in such an unpredictable manner.  The consistency of unpredictability is not a example of a positive coaching scenario.
  6. The coach’s own actions do not match their coaching. Consider what your coach is doing and what they are saying. Do they match?  If what they are saying means nothing and it is just talk, this speaks volumes about the type of coach they are.

Your role as client

When a coach exhibits an overly pushy, bullying or aggressive behavior, it is often an indicator of their own weakness and lack of self-esteem.  In over-compensating for that weakness, interactions with others can come out as confrontational or aggressive.  It is not your role to fix the coach because they are supposed to be there to help you, the client, unlock your potential.

The key to dealing with an aggressive coach

  1. Assess the relationship in terms of safety – emotionally and physically. I personally do not believe that, “The best action is no action.” The best action is to take back some control over your life by valuing your own safety and security and by understanding that you have the right to live your own life, freely and safely. Un-hire as necessary.
  2. If you’re wanting or being required to stay in this coaching relationship because of your employment contract, have a frank discussion with your coach about what’s happening and what you need and expect from the relationship. This should bring clarity including any next steps you may need to take even if it means reporting the situation to your supervisor or HR manager.  Also, document every interaction with this coach as you may need it later for a coaching assessment interview or review or possible legal situation.
  3. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals to clarify your ideas, focus your efforts, use your time and resources productively, and achieve what you want. SPECIFIC focusses on what you want or need from the coaching experience.  MEASUREABLE targets what outcomes or return-on-investment (ROI) you are seeking from the coaching experience. ACHIEVABLE emphasizes how important your goal for coaching is to you and what you can do to make it attainable; the goal is meant to inspire motivation, not discourage.  RELEVANT stresses what makes sense with your broader career or business goals; what about your coaching is relevant?  TIME-BOUND highlights setting realistic timing, providing target dates for action/step and/or goal achievement; it is also effective in setting evaluation or review dates for your coaching experience.
  4. Apply the G.R.O.W. model to your relationship.  GOAL is the end-point you are envisioning for the relationship as a whole or for each session.  REALITY takes into consideration the present; where are you now with respect to coaching issues and challenges and how far away are they from the ideal coaching relationship? OBSTACLES are those areas of personality, skill, and ability of the coach to help you in a productive and positive coaching manner?  OPTIONS can include finding ways of dealing with the obstacles in order to make for a successful coaching arrangement.  WAY FORWARD emphasizes the revised or new rules of engagement for the coaching relationship going forward.


If you’ve come to experience your sessions resulting in you feeling negative and down about yourself or questioning your value, expertise, or confidence, then it’s a toxic coaching relationship.  A good coach helps you succeed in business and in the world. They’re going to be there for you in the worst of times and they also want to see you learn from those experiences and grow as an individual. A good coach is not afraid to call you on your BS but they’ll support you as you develop. What are your next steps in dealing with your coaching relationship?

Written by Tamelynda Lux