The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: Fundamental Steps for a Successful Session

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The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: Fundamental Steps for a Successful Session

By Chester Jackson

Coaching is a great way to help others gain new insights and move forward.  Coaches are there to help provide the space for this forward progress. We help them work through their plan.  As we begin our journey to become awesome coaches, it is essential for us to also have a coaching arc or coaching plan to follow. This coaching arc is a tool that helps us have an effective and successful coaching conversation by maintaining some structure when the conversation digresses.  In this article, I will outline the arc of coaching conversations and the importance of each step to ensure your coaching is productive and successful for your clients.

The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: 6 Steps for a Successful Session

Using an arc of a coaching conversation as a guide will provide some structure to allow the conversation to deviate and come back to it when necessary. A basic coaching conversation plan gives the coach and client some confidence they won’t get lost when exploring the topic and help ensure the session is more productive for them. There are various frameworks you can use as a guide when coaching others and they all use the same coaching skills. The GROW model and 7 Essential Coaching questions use active listening, powerful questions, evoking awareness, and many more. 

We can use the arc for the whole coaching engagement as well as each coaching conversation. This can help us to look at the process as a whole – rather than focusing on the individual topics of each session – and it will maintain the focus on achieving the relationship goal. 

In a game of chess we have opening moves, middle moves, and the endgame. The opening moves and endgame are as important as the middle moves.  In a coaching conversation, we can often get lost in the discovery process in the middle and not focus enough on the beginning and end. I believe that the beginning of the coaching arc is the most important step.

Let’s review how we check in and establish focus, establish goals for the session, follow up on commitments, explore and discover their challenge, plan the next steps, and review and reflect on their learnings to structure the arc of a coaching conversation. 

1) Check in and Establish Focus

We should get into the habit of starting our coaching conversations aimed at cultivating trust and safety to develop a connection with our clients. We need to create the right environment for them to open up and be honest with themselves. Be a non judgemental and empathetic listener to make them feel heard and understood. 

The first step in the coaching arc is to check in and establish focus with your client.  Give them a few minutes to share whatever they feel like they need to share with you before you get started. Ask them about what’s on their mind that may impact today’s coaching session. Be aware, many of our clients will ramble on during the check in and will be very confused about the topic of the session and what they want to accomplish.  If you haven’t learned the art of interrupting, now might be a good time.  It is important to not let your client ramble on. As we have previously mentioned in the article What Coaching Is and Isn’t, coaching is about going deep, not broad. Set a time box and then move into establishing focus for the current session by asking what they want to accomplish in your time together.  Help your client move to an outcome they want from their conversation with you. 

2) Establish a Coaching Plan and Goals for the Session

During the coaching agreement we create alignment on our shared outcome, so that we have a clear direction for our conversation. We partner with our client to co-create the goal and establish how we will know when we get there. Imagine if we don’t: we have a conversation without knowing where we are heading: no goal, no focus, no direction, probably no value.  

Setting goals for the coaching session and knowing how they will measure their progress towards that goal, will help us not get lost during our exploration through divergent and convergent conversations. ‘What do you want to walk away with today?’ and ‘How will you know when we have it?’ are great questions to ask at this stage.  Remember, if our coaching conversation ventures too far away from the goal, using the coaching arc will help you regain your focus.

It is also important to connect the session goals to the overall relationship goals. Again, the conversation arc comes to help to keep the focus on what our client wants to accomplish in our coaching relationship. 

3) Follow-up on commitments

“With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive”, Angela Duckworth.  Effort counts twice towards achieving a goal. 

Providing space for our client to share and celebrate the effort they’ve taken to reach their goals and the progress they have made since the last session will help them own the accountability and build confidence to continue their hard work. If they begin to diverge from their original goal they have a choice; pursue the new goal or go back to the original goal.  

4) Explore and Discover: Active Listening and Powerful Questioning

Now that we know where we are going, the next step of the arc of a coaching conversation is to explore their challenge and their relationship to that challenge to help them discover any new awareness they may have.  Coaches help others discover this new awareness by being present, using active listening skills and emotional intelligence, asking powerful questions and sharing observations.  

  • Active listening is connecting with someone in such a way that you begin to see and understand the impact of whatever is being said, has on your client.  You get out of your own head and into theirs.  When we begin to see things from their perspective and their shifts in emotions, we develop empathy and connect with them differently than the way we may connect with a co-worker or a casual acquaintance. Read more about active listening in our post on the 3 Levels of Listening.
  • Powerful questions are used to transform how our clients think about themselves, others, or their situation or challenge. When we listen actively and connect with our client on a deeper level, something magical happens.  We instinctively know the next question that needs to be asked.  The next question will present itself  to the conversation.  
  • Observations help out clients see what is not visible to them: behavioural or thinking patterns, assumptions, limiting beliefs. When we observe, we are holding up a mirror to our client so that they become aware and make more conscious decisions about their future steps. 

Also read: Emotional Intelligence and Coaching: the importance for effective practice

5) Plan the Next Steps

As the coaching conversation moves through exploration and discovery and new awareness is made, we begin to transform the learning and insights into action.  Getting to action is a critical part of the coaching conversation and without action, it is difficult for our clients to move forward.  Actions could be reflecting on what they learned during our conversation, an action they need to take with someone else, or even something they need to go build or create.  Like any action, we should help our clients decide when that action will take place and help them identify anything that may get in their way of getting it done. Actions are created and owned by our clients and not the coach so don’t get in their way.  Trust that they know what needs to be done.

6) Review and Reflect

Finally, as the conversation comes to a close, we want to check in with our client and  help them identify any new learning they had about themselves and their challenge and reflect on how this conversation will move them closer towards their goal.  Our clients should continue to see the coaching conversation as a valuable tool to help them move towards their goal.

Conclusion

Coaching is not just about active listening and asking open-ended questions. There is a natural flow and important steps to cover.  Not every coaching conversation will follow along the arc of a coaching conversation from beginning to end. Sometimes the conversations will deviate.  We should expect it to deviate if that deviation is what the client needs. Stay with your client.   

Use the arc as a guide to help you get back on track and regain focus when the conversation drifts into an area that may not be helpful for them.  Allow your coaching arc to grow and change over time to fit your coaching style.

References 

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