A way that quickly helps me understand how a client wants to work is by examining whether their focus is on in-session or out-of-session work. This is key as exploring their motive helps a coachee direct their attention more actively on what they want to achieve.

What does in-session versus out of session mean?

 When coachees start a session they might discuss what has happened, what they want to achieve or their thoughts and feelings about something. As coaches, something we would be looking out for at this stage is whether what the person wants to work on is active ‘stuff’ that would happen during the session itself or later on.

For example, a coachee could say that they want to spend some time to think about what their values are as a leader, what they stand for and identify behaviours they have that support these values. This would indicate that the person wants to actively work on this during the coaching session.

Picture now the client saying to you, “I clearly know what my values are. I think about them a lot and even have them written down on my notebook at work. However, I want to be able to show them to people who I am working with as I don’t think I do. Particularly with more senior stakeholders.” This indicates an activity they want to do outside of the coaching session.

How do I figure out whether the client wants in-coaching work? 

Like many things in coaching, ask the coachee and let them tell you. Of course, we’d avoid coach-talk terminology and that’s why contracting at the start of the session is ideal. Essentially, contracting means setting some agreements, typically verbally as one of the many ways that we can ensure that the session is always client-led. 

Ask: ‘So, what would you like to get out of the session?’ Or ‘How would you like to feel by the end of our session today?’ ‘Or even, ‘what would made a successful coaching session this morning?’ Spend some time exploring this – you don’t want to rush through this part!

 Your aim here is twofold. First, you’re supporting the client focus on what they want to get out of the session, giving them accountability and ownership for the next hour. But also, through their answer, you’ll have an understanding of whether what they want to work on requires in-session work versus out-of-session coaching work. 

Let’s take a short case study as an example

 Imagine you ask a client, who has just started a new role, what they want to work on. And they say they want to explore a limiting belief that they have – perhaps that they’re not good enough. To me, that would say that possibly the client wants to discuss and work through this thinking pattern in the actual session (as a starting point of course!) However, picture the same client who says instead that they want to identify how they’re going to implement a vision for their new team. In this case, they will use the session to plan what they are going to do outside of the session – when they’re going to meet the team, which stakeholders they need to involve, how they need to behave or be during the meeting etc.

Can you see how there’s a difference between the two? One requires the person to do the challenging work in the session with you, whilst the second scenario will see the person using the coaching session as a springboard to go back and action plans they’ve set.

Knowing what the client wants and how they want to work will pave the way for a much better coaching session that develops accountability and allows you to be fully present.

Give it a try on your next session and let me know what you think. It’s something that we also cover in our coach training programme – the ICF Diploma in Integrative Coaching