By Dr. Bethanie Hansen
Faculty Director, School of Arts & Humanities, American Public University
Many new or less experienced coaches approach their sessions with fear or concern about how things might unfold. Coaches might worry about whether they will know the right things to say or the right questions to ask. To calm these fears, a focus on clarifying, understanding, and fully establishing the coaching agreement sets the stage for success and puts the coach’s fears to rest.
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Establishing a coaching agreement with your client is one of the most important parts of a session and the relationship. Although it might seem that establishing the coaching agreement is about signing a paper contract or service agreement in terms of logistics, it is also the initial part of a session that creates a foundation for working and sets the tone for what is to come.
Open a Coaching Session with a Topic Question
To ensure that you and your client begin a coaching session effectively, I recommend asking a direct question such as, “What would you like to focus on today?” or “What would you like to explore today?”
In response to this question, some clients have a clear idea about the topic they want to discuss. For example, a client might state that he would like to prepare for a big presentation. Another client might explain that she is struggling to make a job change and to feel comfortable in a new role.
There are many areas in which clients desire growth or clarity. Narrowing the coaching session to one specific topic is essential to keep things focused and beneficial for your client.
After the initial question, give your client the space to discuss the topic at hand. If necessary, count to three to avoid interrupting, and provide your client the space to be heard while you are fully present, listening and understanding.
Consider the Language Used during Sessions and Ask Open-Ended Questions
Because no two people are alike, the words your coaching clients use might be clear to them but unclear to you as the coach. To ensure that you understand your clients’ concerns, consider asking open-ended questions about what they meant to say.
For example, on a recent coaching call, a client wanted to discuss an issue that involved workplace and life areas. After a little opening dialogue, I realized that my understanding of what she meant by referring to the workplace in her comments was not really what she meant at all. At this point, I asked her, “What exactly do you mean when you say you want to talk about the workplace?”
After that question that led to further exploration of my client’s language, all suddenly became clear and the topic was plain to me. Rather than considering whether she wanted to go back to work, she was trying to best determine how to help others with their workplace concerns.
Some exploration early in a session is important to define the topic and make it clear. Be sure to establish the boundaries of what your client would like to discuss and determine what outcomes can reasonably be achieved by the end of the coaching session.
Dive Deep into a Topic to Uncover Your Client’s True Intent
As part of establishing agreement at the start of the session, diving deeper into the meaning of the day’s topic for your client can help expand and clarify the topic before the real coaching begins.
For instance, a question to uncover your client’s intent might be, “What is important to you about this?” This kind of question gives your client the space to consider the benefits to him in moving forward or growing in a certain area, or what is holding back another client from taking action.
Spending a few minutes exploring a client’s intent empowers your client to become more self-aware early in a coaching session. It can also help clients to feel more self-motivated about discovery and solutions.
Determine the Outcome Your Client Expects When Establishing Your Coaching Agreement
In addition to determining and exploring a topic, both you and your client need to clearly understand what the client expects by the end of the coaching session. As part of establishing the coaching agreement, it is common to ask the client, “What would you like to achieve by the end of our time today?”
In asking a question about the expected outcome, you will be better able to check in with your client throughout the session about how it’s going and whether that client feels like the coaching session has been helpful in the development of a solution. This technique keeps things clear and provides a way to keep a coaching session on track.
Although the desired outcome should be discussed early in the session to establish the coaching agreement, checking back on the expected outcome several times throughout the coaching visit ensures that progress is made and that the client is still interested in the agreed-upon topic. If something should change later in the session, it may be necessary to ask your client whether they still want to focus on the given outcome or whether changing to a different outcome might work better.
Bear in Mind that a Client’s Big Decisions May Require Several Sessions
Be cautious if the client suggests that the desired outcome for a coaching session is to make a big decision. Most people do not make a big decision in a short 30- or 60-minute period. It is highly unlikely that in one visit, your client would be able to completely decide on something big or important.
When a client begins by stating that he or she would like to focus on making a big decision, ask your client if there is a smaller goal that could be achieved within the session’s time limits that would help them work toward making a bigger decision in the future. For example, a client who would like to decide whether or not to quit his job might instead be able to focus on exploring options, uncover what pros and cons exist in leaving the job, and gain additional clarity that could lead to the future decision being made. In such cases, the client may be able to gauge the outcome through a feeling of decreased anxiety or the sense of increased clarity around the decision to be made.
Manage Session Time Carefully
After you and your client are both clear on a topic to be discussed, what meaning the topic holds for the client, the expected outcome, and how the client will know whether the outcome has been achieved, check in regularly on how much time remains in the session to work through the topic and coaching process. With this clarity and forward-thinking planning, let the coaching session begin!
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About the Author
Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities at American Public University. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, an M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University, and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a holistic life, career, and executive coach, educator, manager, writer, presenter, published author, and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.