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Letting the Client Lead by Tony Stoltzfus

Sep 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Content

Coaching is based on internal motivation. The biggest obstacle to growth and change is motivation, not information. You can come up with a great idea for how to make a client’s life better, but if that person isn’t looking to change in that area, proposing it was a complete waste of time. People are the most motivated to act on their own plans and ideas. Therefore, if you want to maximize growth, you’ll allow people to set their own agenda, because that’s where the motivation is highest.

Letting the client lead is also an expression of faith in God’s work in the person’s life. God initiates change. That means God was at work in this person’s life before a coach ever came on the scene, and He is actively leveraging every circumstance in the person’s life to bring him or her to maturity. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people, speak to them about what they need to be doing, and use life circumstances to motivate them to change. He’s pretty good at getting people’s attention—he’s worked with a few billion more people than you have. When you believe that God is already at work in a person’s life, it follows that the one who has the best handle on God’s change agenda is that person. Therefore, the most dependable way to get in line with what God is doing is to let the client to set the agenda.

Here’s what that looks like practically. When I am in a coaching conversation, I’m not spending any time attempting to discern what problem we should work on. Setting the agenda is the client’s job. I’m not hunting for blind spots or wrong behaviors in other areas of the client’s life so that I can turn on the light—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. I believe that God is able to spur the client to want to work at the area He intends for them to work on. And I believe that if the client isn’t seeing the light, God will divinely order circumstances to bring the pertinent issue to the surface. This doesn’t mean that I’m passive or I never challenge the client—it simply indicates that I let God and the client lead the process.

Who’s in charge has a tremendous impact on how a coaching conversation develops. Here are several practical examples of how this works:

Example 1: Deciding What to Talk About

The coaching appointment is just starting. If the client is in charge, the coach might begin like this: “What would be the most important thing we could talk about today in order to move you toward your goal?” The coach is in charge if the coach begins by saying, “I’ve been praying about your progress this week, and there were a couple things I wanted to talk over with you today.”

Example 2: Developing Action Steps

The client is contemplating the effect of a staff change on morale. If the client’s discernment is leading, a coach might say, “What action could you take that would strengthen your relationship with your staff?” If the coach is in charge, he might counsel, “I think you should talk it over with your boss first, and then announce the change.”

Example 3: Problem Solving

The client is frustrated with an ongoing conflict with a co-worker. If the client’s discernment is directing the process, a coach might ask, “What could you do to make things better?” If the coach is leading, it might come out like this: “I think your anger got the better of you and you overreacted. You better go back and ask forgiveness and make things right.”

What does the coach do?

You might be wondering, “If a coach doesn’t set the agenda, discern the problem, generate options or solve problems, what exactly does a coach do?” Here’s an interesting example. A few years ago I was doing a workshop with a newly-minted coach. I’d tapped Linda to do a role-play for the group about coaching decisions without telling. Once they got settled, the volunteer client started sharing with Linda about the decision she needed to make and how stuck she felt. Five or six minutes into the role-play, all of the sudden the client exclaimed, “I know what I need to do!” She proceeded to lay out her solution, thanked the coach profusely for being so helpful, and went back to her table and sat down. Perplexed, the coach looked up at me and shrugged apologetically. Her job was to demonstrate coaching for the group, but she had only asked three questions, and one of them was, “What do you want to talk about today?”

I thought it was a fantastic demonstration. This client had been completely stuck, but after only a few minutes with a coach she knew exactly what to do. It clearly wasn’t anything the coach said that made the difference. There was no amazing question that broke open the situation. The fundamental gift that Linda gave her client was not advice, or even great questions, but a listening environment that unlocked her own creativity.

The second great paradigm shift in coaching is that you are not giving your clients a product (information, expertise or answers), but a service: an environment that helps them think more clearly; an acceptance that frees them to explore without shame; and an unconditional belief that leaves them energized and motivated to change. Coaching is like putting a plant in a greenhouse: with the right amount of sun, heat, fertilizer, and water, the plant will grow much larger than it will out in the cold.

Certain things are hard for human beings to do by themselves. One of those things is getting perspective on ourselves. We just aren’t that rationale when it comes to our own lives. Our emotions trip us up and make it hard to think clearly. Since we only see ourselves from the inside we miss things that are obvious to others. We experience internal resistance and don’t understand why. We are easily distracted and lose focus even on what’s most important to us. We talk about accomplishing something, but fail to nail ourselves down and really commit to a certain course of action. Sometimes our lack of confidence keeps us from even trying things, which we could easily master if we could muster up the courage to get started.

Being human means having limitations. Coaching provides the missing ingredient that helps us accomplish some of those things in life that are difficult to do alone. The simple act of listening intently to someone without saying a word (like in the role-play above) can make a huge difference. When you combine listening with unconditional acceptance, powerful questions, and a support structure for change, you have a real hothouse for growth.

The Coach’s Job Description

The fact that coaches don’t direct the conversation doesn’t mean they are passive. Once the client sets the agenda, the coach takes responsibility to focus the conversation and push it toward action. The coach’s job is to help you think more clearly, to push you to go deeper and reach higher, to provide the structure you need to stay focused on the agenda you’ve chosen. A coach has three main logistical responsibilities during an appointment:

  1. Ask for a progress report to provide accountability.
  2. Manage the coaching conversation so it moves the client forward toward the goal.
  3. Make sure the client arrives at a set of concrete, committed action steps.

 The coach manages the time and the flow of the conversation in an appointment to make sure these three steps take place. The coach also tracks progress over multiple appointments. For instance, by keeping records of the client’s goals and steps, a coach can ensure that the relationship stays focused around the long-term agenda. Within the boundaries of these responsibilities, the coach uses listening, powerful questions and other techniques to move clients forward toward their goals.

Seven Ways to Keep the Client in Charge     Keeping the client in charge of the coaching relationship is a challenge. The gravitational pull of the old advice-giving habit tends to suck us back toward taking over. A great way to reinforce the client-centered principle is to build structures into your coaching relationships that reinforce this ideal. Here are seven ways to do it:

  1. Ask the client to set the main agenda during each appointment. I often ask, “What could we talk about today that is most important to move you toward your goal?”
  2. Have the client keep the list of action steps. When you do a progress report, work from the client’s list, not yours.
  3. When asked for suggestions, offer multiple options (instead of just one) and ask the client to choose which to pursue.
  4. When there are multiple directions the coaching conversation could go, present the alternatives to the client and let him or her make the call.
  5. Use the words “action steps,” not “homework” or “assignments.” An assignment is something a coach gives out; the client develops action steps. Let your language reflect your values!
  6. Ask the client to develop options and action steps first before you offer any ideas.
  7. Make sure the final wording for a goal or action step comes out of the client’s mouth, not yours. A statement made by the client is the client’s statement.


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