In order to explain the structure of a coaching session, I’ve observed there are roughly three phases to every coaching session; a Beginning Phase, a Middle Phase and an End Phase. (Okay, so some of you are leaving this article already 😊.)
The skills, behaviors and mindset of a coach mentioned in this article apply to all three coaching skill levels; MCC, PCC and ACC.
This is a resource article, with many examples of questions offered.
Broadly speaking the Beginning Phase includes;
- How the client is arriving at this coaching session, and allowing the client to speak further
- Engaging in conversation with the client based on what they just shared, which could be non-verbally as well as verbally
- Exploring and confirming the client-desired session outcome
- Partnering with the client by asking client to choose where to explore now, in order to gain clarity about the outcome they are seeking.
The Middle Phase;
- Is following the client lead about where to explore. This phase is all about Discovery, using the client-desired outcome as the guiding light about what the client wants to discover.
Coach presence especially in this phase remains open to not knowing the answers for this client. Therefore the coach is curious, responding with customized, open-ended questions, as well as offering comments, intuitions and observations which may support to bring client self-knowledge of thoughts and feelings, to their conscious awareness.
The End Phase includes;
- Inquiring into client learning, including comparing from the beginning to the end of this session
- Asking client how they want to take their learning forward after this session
- Clarifying post-session actions, including follow up questions about support, resources, obstacles and commitments as appropriate to each client
- Acknowledging client progress in this session, or across sessions
- Closing the session by allowing client to say the last words.
The remainder of this article focuses on the End Phase, which ICF terms “Cultivating Learning and Growth” as evidenced by coaching behaviors and mindset named in Core Competency #8: Facilitates Client Growth
The ICF definition of Competency #8 is, “Partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action. Promotes client autonomy in the coaching process.”
Here’s a quote I use in my mentoring programs about insight:
“Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our head. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell
The second part of the ICF definition is, “Promotes client autonomy in the coaching process.” Especially in this End Phase, coaches often become more directive and act as a teacher, parent or consultant by telling the client what actions to take, assigning homework, recommending books, articles, and resources, whether the client has asked for them or not. This is not promoting client autonomy in the decisions the client makes about how to take their learning and insight into action. More on this in the paragraphs below.
This last, or End Phase, is often short-changed or missed by many coaches.
A main reason for any coaching session is for a client to experience insight, learning or discoveries (choose your word). Then for the client to determine how to take those insights beyond the session. Stopping at the Middle (Discovery) phase, means the client may not have had the opportunity to process their discoveries in a way that supports them to easily move to action beyond the coaching session.
As the Malcolm Gladwell quote alludes to, insight that isn’t given a chance to more fully form, might easily be lost (snuffed out) by the client because they may not create enough space for reflection and integration after a session to consider what they learned and how to apply that learning.
In The Upgraded Target Approach, I call Competency #8 an Output Competency, meaning that what happens in this part of a coaching session, is an output of the Beginning, and especially the middle, Discovery Phase.
Here are the parts of Facilitating Client Growth (as I’ve categorized them):
- Post-Session Actions
- Closing the Session
One of they key outcomes of any coaching session is for the client to reconnect with their self-knowledge, or become aware of something they weren’t aware of before the coaching session. Then find out what else they need to know, to then be able to more easily move forward based on their new or renewed awareness.
The act of engaging in dialogue with a Professional Coach supports the client to uncover or remember things that will support them to move forward in the areas important to them, which is their desired session outcome. The broad terms for this uncovering or remembering is Learning, or New Awareness.
Below are generic questions that demonstrate inquiring into client learning from the beginning to the end of the session. Please customize each question incorporating client words and phrases to personalize:
At the beginning, you said you wanted [more confidence] from this session. Where are you now with your understanding about [how to have more confidence?]
Going back to what you wanted to accomplish from this session, what progress have you made toward your outcome and/or your measure of session success?
Note: Depending on length of the session, it is good practice to check on session progress somewhere around halfway through the session as well. This also supports “client autonomy” to determine if the direction of conversation is serving them, or if the direction needs to be changed or refined.
For example: We’re about halfway through our coaching session. How is this conversation so far, supporting you gain the clarity you were seeking about [what’s preventing you from feeling more confident?]
Generic questions that demonstrate inquiry into client learning from the session:
Note: I’ve deliberately provided similar yet different questions to support coaches go beyond asking the most common, standard question I hear when assessing for ICF MCC, PCC and ACC credential submissions, or even in my own mentoring clients: “What have you learned about yourself?” This is good, yet there are so many different ways to ask about learning:
What learning has occurred for you [around your confidence] in this session?
What else have you become aware of in this session?
What’s shifted for you [around how to be more confident] since we began this session?
What changes in thinking or feelings have you experienced in this session relating to [your ways of building confidence?]
What else have you discovered as a result of this conversation?
What insights do you have now about [how confidence works for you?]
What awareness have you gained about yourself and [your confidence]?
What’s become clearer to you about [how your situation is affecting your confidence?]
What if anything, is different about you than when you began this session, [especially how you relate to self-confidence?]
What insights are you aware of that can support you in the situation you brought to the session [that was lowering your self-confidence?]
As coach inquires into client awareness from the session, the client might naturally begin to consider what they want to do after this session with their learning. Coach can then take the client lead and continue to inquire.
Again, please customize these questions using client words or phrases (and these are just a few examples):
How can you use your learning in this session to change your [communication approach?]
How will you use what you discovered [about your best communication approach], after this session?
Where else could you use this learning about [your way of communicating] in your work or life?
It seems you just shared in your learning some next steps and actions; What are you ready to commit to of what you just shared?
What actions do you feel ready to take forward after this session? (Action can include inward action such as reflection, not just outward action).
Of the things you’ve become aware of through the session, what do you want to commit to doing?
What ideas have you had about next steps?
What are the actions that now make sense for you to take?
This next set of sample questions, are most often asked as follow up questions to actions client has mentioned:
What support would help you follow through with your actions [about changing your communication approach with each person in your team?]
Who might support in following through with your [communication] plan?
What could get in the way of you taking those actions [to implement your customized communication approach?]
What resources could you access to take support you with these actions? (for example, resources could be speaking with certain people, researching, reading, listening, or contemplation).
What do you need to follow through with your stated action/s? And if so, from who?
You also mentioned you wanted to feel more [confidence in your communication approach with each person.] What might you do next time you are [doubting yourself?]
What’s the right time frame for you to follow through with [your communication plan?]
What could prevent you from sticking to your commitment to yourself [to communicate differently with each team member?]
What’s the best way for you to ensure you will stick to the [communication plan] you’ve outlined for yourself?
What is your level of ownership for the actions you’ve mentioned [about your customized communication plan?]
How does accountability work best for you [so you continue to experiment with your communication approach?]
Back to Promoting client autonomy…
Again I’m going to say that coaches often become the opposite of “promoting client autonomy” in the post-session design phase of a coaching session, shifting to a more directive and consultative mindset. This means the coach no longer seems to trust the client way of processing their insights/discoveries and instead seems to believe it’s the job of the coach to tell the client what they think the client should do.
Coaches also often seem to insert themselves in client accountability process, such as telling the client to send them confirmation of following through with an action (by text, email, etc). This can also seem parental to many adults. Instead trust the client methods by asking questions which allow the client to determine their own external accountability process, if needed.
Every client has self-knowledge of how they get things done in life, every day. Every client has good self-accountability methods in their life otherwise they wouldn’t be getting out of bed in the morning, and be able to accomplish anything. Everyone has developed their methods of follow through in their every day life, at home, at work, at play. It’s the job of the coach to use their coaching skills to elicit client best accountability methods, if they need them at all.
Perhaps the coach has been taught to “hold the client accountable” for actions. Or the coach is defaulting to coach beliefs about how the client is to be accountable. Yet a coach is naturally a form of accountability as coaching is an ongoing relationship, and client may choose to share in the next session what they’ve been able to accomplish between sessions. The key word is if client “chooses” to share. The client may have well and truly moved on since last session with their actions, which may be a week, two weeks or a month between sessions. Coach may be slowing the client down or wasting the client coaching session time by automatically checking on client actions at the beginning of a session. It’s best for the coach to ask the client if they want to share their progress on actions since last session, or if they want to instead move to where they are today, and the topic/outcome of their choice. This is promoting client is promoting client autonomy in the coaching process. 😊
Closing the Coaching Session
Nearer the end of each session is generally a good time for the coach to acknowledge what they observe is different about the client now, than at the beginning of the coaching session.
This might include acknowledging client personal qualities demonstrated in this session (for example, their courage to be honest with self, vulnerability to explore uncomfortable areas, determination to find their way through a challenging problem). Or coach could acknowledge a shift in client energy (such as seeming lighter, more energized, sounding clear and confident).
Coach might also observe to the client any differences across coaching sessions. This might include the depth of what client is now exploring about their own behavior and mindset.
Some generic examples of coach observing and acknowledging the client, for you to tailor to each client:
It seems you made great progress [around understanding your communication approaches] since our last session.
You seem more [at peace] with the situation than when we started this session [and how you can change your communication approach.]
You seem to have [more courage] to say what’s true for you than when we began our coaching [a few months ago.].
There’s a difference in your energy now than when you came to this session, you seem lighter, as I see a smile on your face.
Over the past few coaching sessions, I’ve noticed a shift in how you are speaking about yourself, less self-critical and more kind.
Alternative version might be, “Over the past few coaching sessions, you seem to be speaking about yourself in a less self-critical and more kind manner.”
Lastly, it’s good practice to allow the client to have the last words of substance in each coaching session. Coach may say good-bye of course, after allowing the client to speak 😊.
Some generic examples:
What would you like to say as we finish this session?
What would you like to say to bring this session to a close?
How do you want to complete this session?
While I’ve presented three phases of a coaching session, this is a schematic approach for the purposes of learning about structuring a coaching session as coaching is a dynamic process.
There may be discovery that occurs for the client in the beginning phase, where inquiry and questions by the coach around client-desired session outcome, might already bring awareness for the client. Or inquiry into how client is arriving to the session, might reveal deeper levels of honesty for the client about how they are feeling, which coach might acknowledge the client for.
There could be learning occur anytime in the Discovery phase, which might be a good time for client to naturally consider next steps after the session; and at other times, the learning needs more time for Discovery, as the flame is still flickering.
The idea of phases can support coach to be more effective in structuring a coaching session for client success. At the same time, coach then needs to engage their listening skills and stay full present to what is occurring in this moment and adjusting accordingly.
Written by Carly Anderson, MCC
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