Whatever You Do, Always Establish the Agenda
Early in my coaching career, I was fortunate to make—and get caught making—a major mistake.
While listening to a recorded coaching session, my supervisor asked, “What was the agenda for this call?” I was stumped. My client and I began without ever agreeing on what we were talking about or why. There was no agenda.
As a result, the coaching sounded more like a chat with a friend going through a tough time than a coaching conversation. I heard myself jumping in with questions whenever there was a lull, each leading us down a new path, a path that only I had chosen.
By not establishing the session agenda, I was driving and desperately trying to create meaning for the client. I was flailing, trying way too hard, and I was exhausted. Most important, I wasn’t holding my client naturally creative, resourceful and whole.
Since that day, I have never again held a coaching session without an agenda. And what I’ve learned is that it’s more complex and nuanced than simply asking, “What’s your topic?” I offer four additional considerations when establishing the agenda:
1. Establish the “Big A” Agenda
During a recent supervision call, I asked my mentee, “Why did your client come to coaching?” He replied back with a question, “I think he wants more fulfillment in his life?” When I asked what fulfillment meant to this client and how he would know if he was moving in that direction, my client drew a blank.
Too often, we breeze over our client’s “Big A” agenda and don’t establish the purpose for the coaching engagement. Without a purpose, the coaching may be helpful, but it is rarely transformational because neither coach nor client is clear on what is trying to shift.
Dwell on why the client is coming to coaching and find out:
- What is the motivation to make a change? Why now?
- What will be different if the client makes a change?
- How will you know if the client is moving in that direction?
- What is the cost to the client of not making a change?
- Who else will be impacted?
In Immunity to Change, Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s seminal work on adult development, they share that to make big, adaptive changes, there are three necessary ingredients: motivation to change (gut), simultaneous engagement of thinking and feeling (head and heart), and changing mindset and behavior (hand). This dwelling on desired outcomes is meant to activate these ingredients and build the resonance necessary to embark on a challenging journey.
2. Tie to the Big A Agenda
When the client shows up with an exciting topic for a coaching session (“small a” agenda), it’s tempting to launch forward. But before taking the plunge, help the client understand how this small a ties to the Big A agenda.
As coaches, it’s our job to help the client see the meta-view. Questions like, “How does this support your larger goals?” or “What makes this topic important to you now?” will support the client in seeing why the topic matters, or perhaps, doesn’t really matter.
Offering the meta-view is one critical way that a conversation with a coach is different than a conversation with anyone else.
3. Question the Agenda You’re Given
Sometimes clients don’t show up with a clear agenda, or they think it’s clear, but we need to do some work to make it resonate. I constantly remind my client (and myself): Slow down to go fast. I’ll often spend 15 minutes crystalizing what the client wants to work on and why. It is time well spent. From there we cut through the noise and focus.
Get insanely curious about what’s important about this agenda, how it ties to the larger context, and what might be missing. This may feel strange or overdone at first, but coaching is about creating a new form of conversation and holding a different space.
Ask what the client wants to be different at the end of the session and gain clarity about how you’ll know if you’ve gotten there. You should be so clear on the desired outcomes that by session end, both client and coach can answer the question, “How did we do today in moving you toward your desired outcome for the session?”
4. Return to the Agenda
At the end of each coaching session, check back in on both the small a and Big A agendas.
“How did we do?” I ask. I want to know if we accomplished what the client was hoping. What shifted for the client? Returning to the agenda helps the learning stick and gives the coach instant feedback. Questions such as “What are you learning?” or “What’s different for you now?” help the client reflect on how they are doing, and most important, who they are becoming.