Do You Know When To Say No?

In the previous post I asked, ‘What Does Life Coach Mean?’ 

It wasn’t a flippant question as you may imagine seeing as I call myself a Life Coach, but a look at a term that many people either dislike or struggle to explain.

And that’s just the coaches, the general public for the most part are entirely baffled.

One person left an interesting comment saying that he knew Life Coaches didn’t treat mental illness and then followed up with a very interesting and insightful question:

“How does a Life Coach know that a potential client has a mental illness without training and experience in psychopathology and diagnostic evaluation?”

Now that’s a catch 22 if ever I heard one. 

When Should A Life Coach Say ‘No’?

We shouldn’t take on clients with serious mental conditions, but if they don’t tell us, how are we supposed to know?

I think with a topic as thorny as this one, a little bit of common sense is called for.

I have done hundreds of consults and whereas I’m not qualified to diagnose people with mental illness I can on occasions get enough of a sense that something’s wrong to know when to back off.

 I do run the risk of losing a client here and there by being cautious, but I’d rather have that happen than finding I have a client on my hands who should be under medical supervision.

In the first instance, if either via e-mail or on a consult the client says they have considered suicide, then that’s an immediate no-no for me – and it should be for you too.

And by the way, I have heard that 20 or more times over the years.

Another warning sign for me is somebody who declares they feel lost and don’t know where to turn.

I will often follow up by asking something along the lines of, “Do you often feel like you have no hope?”

I Am not Diagnosing Depression

 I must stress that I am NOT trying to diagnose depression here. I am merely trying to ascertain whether there is a possibility that it may be present.

Because that is all I need to refer on, a reasonable possibility.

I don’t need to know for sure because if there is doubt present, then I should be moving on or drilling down a lot further.

As coaches we have (or should have) a duty of care toward, not just our clients, but our prospective clients too.

If you say ‘no, I’m sorry I don’t think Life Coaching is right for you’ and the person really wasn’t suffering from any mental illness but just having a bad week, then the worst thing you’ve done is lost a paying client.

To a new Life Coach that may sound like a nightmare!

After all, it’s tough enough getting inquiries. Turning them down on a hunch when you have bills to pay can be difficult, even scary.

However, the flip side of rolling the dice is you could make her situation worse, you damage your reputation and you could even end up facing litigation for over-stepping the mark.

Is it really worth it?

Forget the financial aspect for a moment.

My guess (and hope) is that you are a Life Coach, or want to become a Life Coach, because you want to help people.

Part of helping people is recognizing when we can’t.

You Probably Know When To Say No Deep Down

 I have screwed up on two notable occasions.

 I once took a client on who admitted to having bi-polar disorder. He insisted it was managed – but it soon became apparent that the NFL domestic abuse policy was managed more effectively.

It was a disaster, and one of my own making.

I also took on a client who has Aspergers and although that wasn’t quite as bad, I really didn’t help matters.

On both occasions I was dumb, arrogant and too prepared to bury my instinct because of a combination of ‘needing’ the money, thinking I was way more equipped to help than I was and a sheer lack of forethought.

I presume you’re not qualified to diagnose mental illness in a prospective client. 

However, you don’t need to be to say ‘no’ when a prospective client is sending you all sorts of warning signals that therapeutic intervention is probably what is really called for.

If you are trying to convince yourself that you probably can help when an inner voice is saying ‘move on’, then you’re overstepping step the mark and being professionally reckless.

If in doubt, politely decline and move on.

Trust me, the alternative is not worth the risk to you, the coaching industry and most importantly, your client.

I’m keen to hear if you have had any interesting experiences after taking on a client when your gut suggested it wasn’t wise.

The Final Life Coach Training of 2014

The final Coach the Life Coaching for this year will start on Saturday 4th October at 12 noon EST.

At the time of writing there is definitely one place left, possibly 2 (one person is deciding between doing the course or working one-on-one with me).

The early bird is still in place and I’d love to have you on board.

Remember that the new course also includes two sessions with me to help you maximize everything you learn, or perhaps look at something entirely different.

You can click here for more course information or here to read what others have had to say.


  1. Your candid comments are very interesting Tim. I have clients who are referred to me for coaching by their medical practitioner or psychologist because they are impressed by how effective a combination of the two interventions can be. Everyone concerned is fully supportive of the collaboration. The clients get the best of both worlds, and as a coach I am never in danger of being out of my depth. Obviously only the clients with profiles suitable for coaching are referred. This collaborative approach has produced some very rewarding results.

    • Tim Brownson

      And that is absolutely fine and good when there is a professional collaboration. I’m more concerned when coaches think they can achieve what doctors and therapists cannot.

  2. Great article, Tim, and I agree an interesting question. As coaches it is absolutely necessary to turn down clients who would be better served by another professional. I try, at least for local people, to have referrals so I can send them to another, more suitable professional. It hasn’t happened too often, and I know the money need to ignore the gut feeling, but it really isn’t a good thing for anyone, as you point out. I, like Pamona, did have one client who was seeing both a psychologist and me–and was in AA. Nevertheless, I found that was not the kind of client I enjoy working with the most. So, now I am really clear about who I want to work with and have been finding I am attracting more of my ideal clients.

    • Tim Brownson

      Good for you Estra! O too have worked with people in alcohol recovery and actually quite liked it on a number of occasions. but in each case they were quite a way down the road.