How to Build Strong Coach–Participant Relationships: Insights from Program Leaders, Coaches, and Participants

How to Build Strong Coach–Participant Relationships: Insights from Program Leaders, Coaches, and Participants

OPRE Report #2023-230
Published: Jun 30, 2023
Publisher: Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Key Findings
  • Coaches and participants from all four programs participating in the evaluation developed strong relationships. For some, meeting with their coach felt like “visiting a friend” or “being seen as a person, not a number.”
  • A strong, trusting relationship is central to coaching. Coaches and participants reported that when the relationship was strong, participants were more likely to open up and share their true goals, motivations, and challenges. Coaches reported that having this information enabled them to coach participants more effectively.
  • Strong and trusting relationships helped participants build confidence, be motivated to achieve goals, and lower their stress.
  • Staff and participants commonly said the following practices were important ways that coaches built strong relationships: offering information and resources, withholding judgement, listening actively, cheering participants on, and self-disclosing to relate.
  • Meeting frequently early in the relationship and in person with the same coach helped catalyze and strengthen the relationship. Short-term participant engagement in the program and coach turnover were barriers to relationship building.
  • Program leaders should consider hiring coaches with strong interpersonal skills, create shadowing opportunities, and provide time to debrief with new coaches about the interactions they observe. Although some staff did not view it as a necessity, hiring coaches that have had similar experiences to participants might help build strong relationships.

Employment coaching involves a trained coach working collaboratively with a participant to set personalized employment goals and determine action steps to meet those goals. At the heart of employment coaching is the relationship between coach and participant.

This brief describes what we learned about the coach—participant relationship from talking with coaching program staff and participants as part of the Evaluation of Employment Coaching for TANF and Related Populations. We discuss the benefits of strong coach—participant relationships, approaches to building them, program features that can affect them, and how program leaders can promote them.

This brief is intended to inform providers and program developers about how to build and promote strong coach-participant relationships based on lessons from an evaluation of four employment coaching programs.

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