When planning your annual family vacation, you can already visualize the route you will take.
You see the road ahead and the pit stops, and you see yourself arriving at your destination.
The kids pile out of the car, racing to be the first to splash into the sea. It comes naturally, since you have taken this trip many times before.
As professionals, we may not always consider our way of preparing for sessions as planning since it is something that we naturally do.
Yet planning and having a rough outline of the conversation you will have with your coachee are essential pieces of guiding them to achieve their goals.
This article will provide you with several ideas on how to structure your coaching sessions, useful tips for planning your sessions, and specific examples of successful coaching conversations.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.
This Article Contains:
How to Structure Your Coaching Session
Structuring coaching sessions is beneficial for clients and provides the coach with a clear outline to keep them organized and focused on achieving the client’s objectives.
One of the most widely known models used in various types of coaching is the GROW model (Whitmore, 1988). Our GROW Coaching Model article provides an outline of this popular model, as well as a selection of tools and coaching techniques to integrate into your practice.
While having structure is important, it is also essential to understand how the coaching structure benefits both yourself and your client. One of the most effective ways to do this is through questioning.
Asking good coaching questions is at the heart of effective coaching, regardless of the model that the coach uses. All coaching approaches use questioning in various forms to help uncover individual thought processes (McMahon, 2021).
The coach can stimulate thinking and turn ideas into actions by using five key questions (Barlow, 2005) . The five questions can be asked in order, based on the difficulties and topics the coachee wants to discuss, as the ultimate goal is to get them where they need to go.
1. Where have you been?
Ask the client about their history, such as education, previous work experience, or even their personal experiences that have led them to this point. It builds rapport and creates space for the coachee to feel comfortable. By establishing a history, they can pinpoint where they want to go in the future.
2. Where are you now?
Exploring the present situation is key to understanding why and how the coachee wants to engage in self-improvement. This can also be done by asking your client about their general state of mind (i.e., what they are thinking and feeling; Nawalka, 2020).
By understanding their trajectory and where they are coming from, the coach is better able to meet the client’s needs.
3. Where do you want to get to?
Once the present situation has been explored, this question can help the coachee visualize what they want to achieve. We also consider this the breakthrough point of the session, where the coach should be at their most present, engaging the client in questions that force them out of their comfort zone and create the internal shift they need to move forward (Nawalka, 2020).
Powerful questions are open ended and cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” A way to ask open-ended questions is to start with one of the following statements (Evercoach, 2020):
- What do you think about… ?
- Tell me more about…
Asking open-ended questions guides coachees to come to realizations on their own, rather than toward the answer you think they should pursue.
A lot can happen in the silence between the questions you (the coach) are asking and the coachee’s responses, as they are processing what you are asking them and making connections within their subconscious (Evercoach, 2020).
4. How will you get there?
After identifying where they want to be, the coachee may have trouble figuring out how they want to get there. This is often when the learner really wants advice from the coach but can be assisted to think through the alternatives and options that they might use.
Going through each option or playing through the plausible scenarios helps them select the counseling approach they are most comfortable with (Barlow, 2005). Alternatively, the coachee may choose to play through the riskiest option first as rehearsal with their coach so they can develop the courage to go outside their comfort zone and achieve their goals using a method they may not have considered before.
5. How will you know you have arrived?
This last step asks for the learner to examine how they would measure their learning and decide if they have achieved the learning goals they set for themselves. It can also help clarify what actions to take and the method they will use (Barlow, 2005).
This final section is also referred to as the “takeaway,” where the coachee can reflect on what they need to do next and whether they learned or discovered anything new during the session (Evercoach, 2020).
If the coachee is having trouble identifying anything concrete, they can also reflect on how they are feeling after the session, as this will still be helpful in moving them forward.
Planning Your Sessions
To achieve this, the coach should structure the first session around developing a connection with their coachee.
While it is important to prioritize the coachee’s goals, it is difficult to understand their objectives without making them feel emotionally comfortable.
The “where have you been?” and “where are you now?” questions from Barlow’s (2005) model are good questions to establish a baseline.
One strategy coaches can use to help clarify their clients’ goals is to invite them to complete a short, standardized questionnaire prior to their first coaching session.
This can give clients the space to carefully consider their coaching goals without the fear of being judged or the distraction of any anxieties or nerves about their first session.
Quenza (pictured here) is a great tool for the job. It features a simple drag-and-drop activity builder that allows coaches to design a range of questionnaires and activities that clients can complete on their handheld devices.
Using the tool, coaches may also design the check-in surveys for completion throughout the coaching relationship. These can give clients the opportunity to express how they feel they are progressing toward their goals, provide feedback, or indicate what they’d like to discuss in their upcoming sessions.
After establishing an understanding of the coachee’s motivations, it is time to understand each goal and work through how the coachee will go about achieving them.
Goals provide a basis for planning, guidelines for decision making, and justification for actions taken. It is worth stressing that the realization of the coachee’s goal often consists of particular actions that require particular behaviors (Dolot, 2017).
Goals can be set using a variety of different theories and goal-setting methodologies, depending on what your coachee wants to work toward. Our article on goal setting has 20 templates you can explore and use when helping the coachee identify and break down their objectives.
2 Useful Templates for Your First Session
These two templates can help you in the initial stages of getting to know your coachee and helping them discover more about why they are pursuing their goals or objectives.
- Is Coaching Right for Me? — A few questions for coachees to consider before pursuing coaching to achieve their goals.
- SMART Goals Worksheet — A worksheet that takes the coachee through the SMART goal-setting process, which is useful when figuring out if the objectives they are striving for are measurable and realistic.
Tips for a Successful Coaching Conversation
Knowing how to engage the coachee in conversation during a session is one of the most important aspects of coaching.
Here are three guidelines that can help facilitate a meaningful coaching conversation.
True listening goes even further than active listening and aims to listen to understand. Listening to understand is recognizing that there are multiple levels of information during a conversation to consider.
While engaging in coaching, it is important to listen for emotions by not assuming what the conversation is about and, rather, allowing space for the coachee to express their ideas and the underlying emotions that drive them.
One method of doing this is expanded on in the next section and focuses on asking questions in your response to the coachee.
2. Further questioning instead of expanding or directing
This is a strategy that is used in coaching and other helping professions such as teaching and counseling. When the coachee discusses or states a goal they want to achieve, it is important not to give too much direction on how they will get there, but instead get the coachee to explore or answer that question on their own.
A few leading questions (adapted from the Center for Creative Leadership, 2021) that can prompt the coachee to reflect instead of request direction include:
- What else can you do to set this initiative in place?
- Is there anything else that occurs to you?
- Have you discussed this with anyone else? What were their initial thoughts or reactions?
- Who else may be affected by this? How do you think you can address this?
3. Leaving room for discovery
Instead of immediately problem solving or giving the coachee the answer based on your experience, give them the space to figure it out. Strive to provide a balance of challenge (through questioning) and support during coaching sessions.
Providing support is done through giving assurance that you hear your coachee and understand where they are coming from (Center for Creative Leadership, 2021). Giving this balance will ensure that your clients are receiving the support they need and challenging the assumptions that may hold them back from achieving their goals.
Life coaching structure to elevate your coaching sessions
Examples of a Coaching Session and Conversation
When structuring or timing a coaching session, it is important to ensure that you leave enough time for the coachee to get situated, engage in meaningful work, and then wrap up the session while still keeping what they have learned fresh in their mind. This begs the question, how long should your coaching sessions be?
The answer is that timing is variable, depending on your coachee’s goals and how they work best. While a few individuals might work best under pressure and thrive in a 10- to 20-minute session, others might need 60–90 minutes to dig deeper into their answers.
Regardless of how long your coaching session is, the bulk of the session should be focused on exploring how your coachee will achieve the objectives they have identified.
Below is a sample of how a coaching conversation may materialize, using coaching techniques that have been outlined in this article.
Sample of a session warm-up
Coach: Hello ____. How are you doing today?
Coachee: Hi. I’m doing well, thanks and you?
Coach: I’m doing well. How has your week been going?
Coachee responds. 2–3 minutes of neutral conversation.
Coach: Great. I’d like you to start today’s session by thinking about where you have been. Think back to the conversation you just had with me about this week to get started. Give a minute for the client to reflect.
Coachee: Wait… how does thinking about where I’ve been this week relate to goal setting?
Coach: How do you think it might relate? Give the client a minute to respond. Now, I’d like you to identify something that could have been improved upon this week. Think about what could have been improved and how you would have liked to see it materialize. Let the client respond.
Coach: Great. This exercise was meant to help you use an event that was recent in your memory to help you go through the process of identifying the event and what you would have liked to see improve. Now, let’s apply this same exercise to a broader area where you would like to see improvement. Start by identifying the area where you would like to see improvement and what you would like to see change.
After this introductory activity, the coach can continue to discuss the goals or objectives with the coachee. The bulk of the session should be focused on breaking down each goal and guiding rather than directing the coachee toward a solution.
An example of how to engage the coachee in this type of dialogue is included below.
How to guide your coachee
Coachee: One of my goals is to get a promotion within this calendar year. Do you have any tips or advice about how to do that more quickly?
Coach: Okay… so let’s break that down. You want to get a promotion in the next year. That sounds like a pretty significant goal.
Coachee: Yes, but it’s really hard to get a promotion in my department.
Coach: Do you think it would be more helpful to break down this objective into smaller, more manageable goals?
Coachee: Why would I do that?
Coach: Sometimes, larger goals like the one you mentioned might be intimidating. By breaking down this promotion into a step-by-step process, it may help you better plan what you need to do to achieve this goal.
Coachee: Okay… well, I guess I need to start by having a conversation with my boss.
Coach: Okay. How do you think that conversation should look?
The coach would then guide the coachee through this goal, using leading questions such as “how do you think… ?” or “do you think it would be more helpful to… ?” This forces the coachee to examine how they would approach a situation.
While suggesting the coachee break things down into smaller parts might be interpreted as being directive, setting specific goals leads to more effective coaching (Coaching Research Institute, 2013). Therefore, this is considered an important part of coaching, as it allows for the process to take effect.
Questions to Ask Your Clients
When asking questions in a coaching session, it is not about what question you ask, but how you ask it.
Powerful questions are open ended and asked with true intention.
One of the most effective ways to understand the coachee’s intentions is by asking how and why, framing the questions around the intent or purpose that they are chasing.
By keeping the questions open ended, you are allowing your coachee to think more about the significance of their objectives and understand the steps they need to take to achieve them, which is fundamental in understanding the process of self-improvement.
For more specific coaching questions, this article lists powerful life-coaching questions that will help your clients achieve their goals.
A Take-Home Message
Although planning a conversation may sound like a redundant process, it is an essential skill to develop as a coach. It maximizes your client’s time and provides them with more targeted conversations that will help them achieve their goals.
Since coaching is about learning and not teaching, allotting as much time as possible to encourage a client to enhance awareness of their potential through conversations is key to achieving your client’s objectives.
We hope this article provided you with practical examples to integrate into sessions with your clients and gave you ideas to initiate meaningful conversations in your practice.
Please feel free to discuss any other resources or conversations that you use in your coaching practice in our comments section.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.
- Barlow, L. (2005). Effective structure of coaching: Using five questions. Development and Learning in Organizations, 19(6), 11–12.
- Coaching Research Institute (2013). Behaviors and structures for coaching to maximize effects on coaching. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Behaviors-and-Structures-for-Coaches-to-Maximize-on-Bansho/1242bd92d1077275ae6e3705912d5f061ec807ef
- Center for Creative Leadership. (2021). How to have a coaching conversation. Retrieved February 7, 2021, from https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/how-to-have-a-coaching-conversation/
- Dolot, A. (2017). Coaching process and its influence on employee’s competencies in the hospitality sector: Case study. International Journal of Contemporary Management, 16(2), 75–98.
- Evercoach. (2020). Chapter 2: The three-step coaching structure. Retrieved February 6, 2021, from https://www.evercoach.com/ultimate-guide-to-transformational-coaching-sessions/coaching-session-structure
- McMahon, G. (2021). The purpose of coaching questions. Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. Retrieved February 6, 2021, from http://www.cognitivebehaviouralcoachingworks.com/the-purpose-of-coaching-questions/
- Nawalka, A. (2020). What makes a great coaching session? International Coaching Federation. Retrieved February 6, 2021, from https://coachingfederation.org/blog/what-makes-a-great-coaching-session.
- Whitmore, J. (1988). Coaching for performance. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.