Coaching Research: Is Face-to-Face More Effective Than Phone Sessions?

November 24, 2012 by Sandra Mashihi

“I’ll happily mentor anyone who wants mentoring, and most of that goes on by internet rather than face to face.”

Bernard Cornwell

As the working world becomes more technologically advanced and globalized, there tends to be a decreased level of interpersonal or face to face interactions. Often times, we are utilizing email, social media, skype as sources of communicating with one another.

As coaches, one of the issues we face has to do with whether we can coach our clients virtually, online rather seeing them face to face. This is particularly concerning when we work with clients beyond a range of proximity to actually coach them in person.

So, what do we do?

Often times, clients that are seeking my coaching ask me if I can make a trip to different states, countries, etc. as a way to see the client I am coaching. While I am open to this, I should educate my potential client about whether or not that is feasible and worthwhile to them if there is not a difference in the outcome of coaching effectiveness if I was to coach them via phone. But beyond, coaches and organizations have often pondered and debated about whether coaching virtually can be less effective than face to face coaching.

Coaching Research Review

Researchers such as Berry, Ashby, Gnilka and Matheny (2011) ((Berry, R.M., Ashby, J.S., Gnilka, P.B., Matheny, K.B. (2011). A comparison of face-to-face and distance coaching practices: Coaches’ perceptions of the role of the working alliance in problem resolution. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 243-253.)) investigated the relationship between the working alliance and whether face to face vs. distance coaching resulted in a difference with coaching outcomes and problem resolution.

They specifically explored the following:

1. The relationship between the method of contact (face-to-face or distance) and the coach’s perception of the working alliance.

2. The relationship between the method of contact (face-to-face or distance) and the coach’s perception of client problem resolution.

3. The relationship between the coach’s perception of the working alliance and the coach’s perception of client problem resolution.

4. Whether or not the meetings and the experience level of the coach relate to the working alliance or client problem resolution.

Research Implications

The results of their study suggested that NO significant differences were found between the reported levels of face-to-face coaching sessions vs.distance (phone) coaching sessions. Coaches self-reported strong levels of working alliance in both conditions. This suggests that coaches may actually have successful coaching relationships and outcomes regardless of the method of contact they use.

Interestingly, while I have always preferred to see my clients face-to-face, I personally found these finding to be true. Both my long distance or phone sessions resulted in similar outcomes to coaching compared to those sessions conducted in person.

So, what does this mean for coaches and those seeking to be coached?

For coaches, they may not need to shy away from coaching assignments that may need to be conducted by phone. However, since they do not have access to visual cues such as body language, perhaps they need to communicate or check in with their clients throughout the session to ensure they are well in tune with the clients thoughts and/or feelings.

As for companies and/or those individuals seeking coaching goes, they may want to consider utilizing the coach that is best suited for their client without eliminating coaches that may be long distance or not as accessible face-to-face. In fact, researchers such as Lambert & Barley (2001) suggest that 40% of the effects of a therapeutic outcome is due to the expectancy of the coach and client, compared to therapist’s skills/techniques (30%), the therapeutic relationship (15%), and factors outside of therapy (15%). In other words, what the extent to which the client thinks he or she will improve is more significant than other factors including whether or not the coach is working with them face-to-face.

What is your perspective about whether coaching face-to-face is preferable or similar to coaching on the phone?



Dr. Sandra Mashihi is a senior consultant with Envisia Learning, Inc. She has extensive experience in sales training, behavioral assessments and executive coaching. Prior to working at Envisia Learning, Inc., She was an internal Organizational Development Consultant at Marcus & Millichap where she was responsible for initiatives within training & development and recruiting.. Sandra received her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and received her Master of Science and Doctorate in Organizational Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology.

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