The flow of a coaching conversation

A coaching conversation is a conversation with a purpose, being a client-determined topic and outcome for each coaching session.

Professional Coaches are trained in how to structure a coaching session, so there is maximum opportunity for the client to gain the value they are seeking from being in the coaching process.

Knowing how to consistently structure a coaching session also develops confidence in the coach. There’s a flow to a coaching conversation that can be replicated every time for consistent experience of the client, being able to gauge the satisfaction and results client is receiving from being coached.


Coaching Session Structure

Every coaching conversation has three phases; Beginning, Middle and End. As well as “transition” skills used between each phase. There’s also a dynamic quality to the flow, meaning what I’ve outlined is generally the flow, and the order of some parts of each phase may be evident in other phases.

Beginning Phase, consists of;

  • Greeting and connection
  • Partnering on where to begin the session
  • Coaching Session Agreement clarification process

Transition: Partnering on where, what or how to explore now

Middle Phase, consists of;

  • Exploration using coaching skills such as use of open-ended questions, summaries, observations of sensing or intuition by the coach.

Transition: Partnering on readiness to move to end phase

End Phase, consists of:

  • Progress check-in
  • Learning inquiry
  • Post session action clarification
  • Acknowledge client progress
  • Closing the session


Beginning Phase

Approximately the first 10 minutes of a coaching session is where a coach needs to especially “lean in” to listening. The coach has to be fully present in the moment and ready to hear, observe and sense what the client is saying verbally (such as words and emotions) and non-verbally (such as facial or body movements which may indicate emotions that reinforce or mismatch what the client is saying).

Greeting and connection

How the coach initially connects with their coaching client is important. Is the coach present and ready to hear however the client is arriving to each coaching session?

For me, coaching begins “from the very first breath.” Meaning as soon as coach and client are connected (by phone, web conference, in-person), the coaching session has begun.

This includes inquiring and responding to how the client arrives to the session.

Example greetings might be;

  • How are you today? (and coach genuinely wants to know, versus using that as a trite phrase).
  • How is your energy as you arrive to our session today?
  • I notice you took a deep breath as you arrived into our session, how are you feeling? (coach might then be silent to allow client to respond as they want to)

Partnering on where to begin the session

Coaches often assume it’s their job to hold the client accountable to actions the client said they’d engage with between coaching sessions. Yet the client might have moved through a lot of “life” circumstances in that time.

Unless the client has specifically asked the coach to check in with them on specific actions at the beginning of the coaching session, coach uses a Partnered Approach to allow the client to choose what to speak about, so client gains maximum benefit from time allocated to their coaching session.

Examples might be:

  • It’s been two weeks (1 month) since our last coaching session. What do you feel is relevant for you to share that’s occurred for you since then?
  • We could begin with how you went with completing actions from last session, or you might be ready to go to setting a focus and outcome for this session; what’s best for you today?
  • How do you want to begin our session today?

Coaching Session Agreement clarification process

Having a client-desired session focus and outcome frames what happens for the majority of the session and will support both coach and client to make best use of their time together.

The process of clarifying client-desired session outcome can be awareness building for the client, an example of the Middle or End Phases even being present from the beginning.

The ICF has defined behaviors of a Professional Coach for establishing a coaching session agreement, which are named as the following sub-points for Core Competency #3: Establishes and Maintains Agreements. They including partnering with the client to identify or reconfirm what they want to accomplish in the session, defining what might be preventing them from having their outcome already, and how session success might be measured by the client.

The behaviors of a Professional Coach are evident at ACC, PCC and MCC skill level. The difference is how the coach inquires about each of these components, and whether the coach is able to hear both the “What” and the “Who” of what the client is saying.

Coach ability to summarize what they heard client wants from this session, also lets client know the coach is listening.

An example summary by the coach might be:

“To confirm for this session, you’d like to explore ways to handle the overwhelm you’re feeling of having so many urgent projects. This coaching session will be a success for you if you understood how to work with your “people pleasing” belief and you had a feeling of relief by the end of our session. Did I hear you correctly or miss anything?


Transition – Partnering

Once coach and client are aligned on the session focus and outcome, next is to Partner with the client to allow client to choose what, where or how to explore now.

Partnering ensures coach is attending to what client wants to explore. Which might be different than what the coach is “curious” to ask about, which might be interesting and of value, yet not where or what the client wants to explore now.

Example Partnering offerings might be;

  • You’ve mentioned you want ways to handle the overwhelm you’re feeling and are aware of having a people pleasing belief that contributes. Where do you feel would be best to explore now?
  • How would you like to explore lessening overwhelm and understanding your people pleasing beliefs?
  • Where do you want to go deeper now?
  • We could explore what people pleasing beliefs, or something else; what seems best for you now?


Middle Phase

This is where a Professional Coach uses their coaching skills to support client self-discovery. Coaching skills include asking customized and responsive open-ended questions, summarizing what coach is hearing (for client to respond to), offering observations of what coach is seeing, hearing when client shares. Or offering sensing or intuition by the coach for client to respond to.

Refer to ICF Core Competency #6: Listens Actively, and #7: Evokes Awareness, to understand the range of what coach can be listening for and the skills to support client gain awareness.


Transition – Partnering

Coaching sessions are time-bound. Sometime during the session, coach can observe to the client about the time, and inquire client readiness to move to the “end phase.” Or coach might hear in the flow of the conversation where discoveries are emerging for the client. Which could signal a Partnering approach to moving to a different part of the coaching session.

Example questions might be:

  • We have about 10 minutes left in our session. What else do you feel you need to explore toward the outcome you want from this session?
  • We have about 10 minutes left in our session. Would you like to continue exploring, or do you feel ready to go to progress, learning and actions?
  • Hearing some awareness and clarity in the way you are speaking. How do you feel about checking on your progress in this session, as well as learning and actions?


End Phase

Refer to ICF Core Competency #8: Facilitates Client Growth, to understand the range of coach skills engaged in this phase of a coaching session.

The client may have awareness emerge earlier in the session, which means some of the End Phase can occur at that time as well (such as observing client learning, asking what, if anything, the client wants to do with their new awareness, acknowledging the client discoveries…).

Progress check-in

A valuable coaching skill is to check on progress client has made in this session toward their desired outcome as this allows the client to compare and contrast where they began versus where they are now.

Example questions might be:

  • You’ve explored a lot in this session. How much progress do you feel you’ve made today toward your outcome of understanding the source of your overwhelm?
  • Given you wanted to have a feeling of relief, where are you now with that feeling?
  • What progress have you made in this session toward your success measure for this session, which was a feeling of relief?

Learning inquiry

New learning may also be referred to as insights or discoveries. Philosophically, the purpose of a coaching session is for the client to gain clarity about something of their choosing, which then supports them move forward. Checking on session progress can naturally have the client begin to speak about their learning too.

Some example questions might be:

  • What awareness do you have now about your relationship with overwhelm?
  • You said you now have more understanding about what’s driving people pleasing behaviors; what else might you have discovered in this session?
  • What are you learning about yourself?
  • What insights have emerged for you?

Post session action clarification

From the coaching process of asking questions, summarizing, offering observations (the Middle Phase), client awareness and learning emerges, often accompanied with motivation to do something as a result. What does the client want to do to move their learning into action?

Examples questions might be:

  • How will you use the clarity you’ve gained?
  • With what you’ve learned, what are the next steps for you?
  • What actions do you feel ready to commit to?
  • You said you want to continue your reflection process; how can you do that?

Acknowledge client progress

As client, it’s often challenging to perceive the progress, shifts or changes that have occurred to us in the coaching process. The coach can offer authentic acknowledgement to the client, of what they’ve observed.

Examples might be;

  • I acknowledge you for your courage to dive deeper into your people pleasing beliefs and for what you discovered by your willingness to explore.
  • I’m sensing a different energy present in you now, more smiling; your body seems more energized than when we began this session.
  • Having coached you for awhile now, I observe a pattern that has emerged of being kinder to yourself. When we began coaching 3 months ago, you were often speaking harshly about yourself, and I notice how much you’ve shifted the predominant way you speak about yourself to being more kind.

Closing the session

A good practice is to partner with the client so they can bring closure to the session. And to let the client have some of the last words in the session.

Example questions might be:

  • As we’re nearing the end of our time together, what would you like to say to close the session?
  • What would make this session feel complete for you?


In Closing….

When we know how to structure a coaching session, we demonstrate an important part of our role as a Professional Coach – to ensure every coaching conversation is purposeful for the client. And to build confidence in the coach to replicate a consistent experience of the coaching process.

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC


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