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5 Tips for coaching someone who is defensive and lacks confidence

By Jane Cox



Imagine you’ve promoted someone to a role in your team that’s critical to your ongoing success and reputation as a leader. You know this team member has the technical skills and experience required for the new role, you like them as a human being, and you believe they can make the step up, but quickly realise they’re behaving in a way that’s limiting their performance and progress. They seem to be doubting their own abilities and are tending to focus exclusively on the negatives. Their lack of confidence is showing up in their communication:

  • they are struggling to connect with others,

  • they are not communicating in a way that enables their ideas to be heard or taken forward,

  • and they seem to be avoiding challenging others or fully exploring opportunities that would let them showcase their expertise.

When you’ve tried to give them feedback about this, or reassure them that, given time, they are going to be able to perform well in their new role, you notice they are defensive, and perceive the feedback you give as criticism. If anything, they seem fearful that they are “being found out” and are anxious that you are going to push them out of the team.

What do you do? How can you coach them without further derailing their confidence?

Well, here’s a few ideas for you to consider.


1) Take a step back and examine what’s going on from all angles Be open to the fact that you may need to re-set the relationship! So, go grab a cuppa, settle down, and be curious about:

  • Your Intention What do you want for him? And for yourself? Be brutally honest. For example, are you wanting him to be successful in his role, and for you to have been validated as having made the right appointment? Your belief in him is a reflection of your ability to recognize talent, but only if he is successful. If he isn’t successful others might question your capability as a leader and coach. That means you are personally invested in his success. Does he know this? Do you have a strong enough relationship with him, where you could share this? If not, what actions could you take to strengthen it?

  • Your Capacity & Capability Do you have enough energy, enthusiasm, or skill yourself to be an effective coach for this person currently with everything else going on in your world? Or do you need to ask someone else to support you directly, or indirectly behind the scenes?

  • The Organizational Culture How supportive is your company culture of learning? How long have you got before you need him performing effectively for the sake of the business? How long have you got before others in the organization start to question what you are doing about it? Can you reassure him that he is in a learning phase? And it’s normal for things to feel a little bumpy as we stretch ourselves and transition into new roles?

  • Role Expectations How well is your role as a leader understood? Would you benefit from re-contracting around your respective roles – so that your team member truly appreciates that you would not be fulfilling the expectations of your role as a leader, if you were not interested in further developing him? Would he benefit from a session where you re-confirm and clarify your expectations? Have you agreed a set of well-formed goals with clear measures of success? Do you have a mix of performance and learning goals? And plenty of opportunities to recognize progress as he develops?


2. Build the Relationship

It sounds obvious, but have you invested enough time into getting to know each other? And if not, consciously create conversations and moments so that you can gain a better understanding of each other’s likes / dislikes / motivations etc. Get to know the things that really matter to you both.

3. Identify Obstacles / Blockers to Success

Do you know what’s getting in the way of his performance? If not, a simple tool like the Obstacle Analysis Grid created by Michael Neil (2007) might help to understand what is holding him back and start to determine how he can tackle the obstacles.



You could ask him to:

  1. reflect on a specific challenge he is facing.

  2. whilst thinking about this, review each of the nine areas on the grid and give himself a score of 1-10 in each of the areas (1 being an area of weakness and 10 being an area of strength)

  3. Look at his areas of strength and consider how he can utilise these to overcome the challenge he is facing.

  4. Identify what areas he needs to build on? What does he need to do this? What support might he need?


If belief or mindset is the blocker, encourage him to learn more about a growth mindset, recognise how we are all developing all the time, and choose a more enabling and empowering one.


4. Give Feedback – What does he need to hear?

To help you give feedback in a way that enables it to be heard, you might want to consider using a feedback model such as COIN. The COIN model which is based on four steps:

  • Context,

  • Observation,

  • Impact,

  • Next steps

guides the feedback process by addressing the situation, describing the observed behaviour, discussing its impact, then collaboratively identifying the way forward. By giving direct feedback using non-judgemental language to describe behaviour rather than your interpretation of the behaviour usually opens people up to considering what you have said. However, if you find he is still being defensive, then I would recommend you take a pause and revisit the topic in your next 121. And make the topic of the next piece of feedback his defensive response. For example

Context: “In our last 121 where I asked you focus more on the positive ..” Observation: “ you closed the conversation down by saying ‘I think I’m positive enough" and quickly diverted onto another topic” Impact: “I worry this response comes across as you being defensive, which can make it more difficult for others to give you feedback or make suggestions that might help you.”

Next steps: “Are you aware of how this comes across? Is being more open to feedback something you might like us to work on together?"


5. Boost confidence

Our 5th tip is to experiment with taking direct action to build confidence, for example:

  1. You could ask questions about how he rates his current confidence level in relation to a particular task on a scale of 1 to 10, Be curious about where he is currently is, and where he would like to be. Encourage him to describe what he would be doing and saying if he were where he wanted to be, what it would feel like. Identify one or 2 small behaviours, and then set the intention to adopt those behaviours the next time this situation arises.

  2. Or notice and challenge any flawed thinking about competence, by assessing the evidence. E.g. Drawing a line down a page. On one side listing all the “Evidence that I am inadequate” and on the other side, “Evidence that I am competent” A simple list like this can really help bring perspective as you encourage him to collect, acknowledge, and focus on the proof of his competency.

  3. Or you could introduce him to the Learning Zone Model to examine:

    • what aspects of his role might be in the comfort zone,

    • what aspects feel challenging but manageable - ie. the stretch zone,

    • and finally what aspects land him in the panic zone

By categorising and discussing his role like this, and being curious about the learning he has already done, you enable him to see that he already has the knowhow to stay in the stretch "learning" zone. ie:

  • he can grow and improve with effort.

  • he can tolerate discomfort and vulnerability for a while.

  • and if things get bad, he can always step back into the comfort zone and try stretching again tomorrow.

There it is, if you are looking to further improve your coaching skills, here are our 5 suggestions for overcoming defensiveness and boosting confidence. Do have fun experimenting.

And remember there is never one perfect approach in coaching, just an intention to have a conversation with a purpose, and in the words of Sir John Whitmore “to unlock a person’s potential to maximise their own performance!”


The Obstacle Grid, and COIN feedback model are two of the techniques we introduce on our Coaching Skills for Leaders programme. If you want to learn more about how our coaching skills programmes could support your people and organisation please get in touch here.


Author: Jane Cox


Jane is one our Work Stories founders and resident executive coach. To find out more about Jane click HERE

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