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Getting a coaching agreement when your client isn’t focused

When you took your life coaching certification, you learned that one of the ICF core competencies is setting the coaching agreement for each session. This means allowing the client to set the agenda for the session. A coaching agreement, including the desired outcome for the session, ensures that you and your client are moving in the same direction.

Sometimes you’ll ask clients what they’d like to focus on for the session, and they respond, “I don’t know.” Or the client may not be very focused, making it difficult to settle on a specific topic or outcome. Here are some coaching tools I’ve used with my clients to reach a coaching agreement when they aren’t sure what to focus on.

Empty out

Sometimes the issue is that the client simply has a lot on their mind and needs to sort it all out. You can begin with an open-ended question to begin the conversation. When my client doesn’t know what they want to focus on, I start with, “What feels the heaviest or most pressing to you right now?”

Once they answer, get them to empty out by repeatedly asking, “What else?” until they have nothing else to add. You now have a good idea of what’s pressing or challenging for them. Now you can focus on narrowing it down to one of them.

Another option would be simply saying, “Tell me more about that,” to their initial response. Then continue with “What else?” until they’ve fully emptied out their thoughts. You may find the focus of the session through this process.

Check-in on goals

Another tool I like to use is checking in on the goals for the coaching engagement. You could revisit the goals and ask your client if one of them is something they would like to focus on or if they’re still the correct goals. I’ve found that sometimes when my clients don’t know what to focus on, it’s either because they’ve forgotten the goals or something changed, and those are no longer the most relevant goals.

If the client wants to focus on one of the goals, you can ask follow-up questions to develop the coaching agreement. Ask them where they think they are achieving the goal and the next biggest challenge.

Follow up on something from your discovery session

I always do a longer first session with a new client. In that session, we set the goals for our overall time together. Still, as part of that process, there’s usually a list of other challenges or issues that are only tangentially related to their goals for coaching. You could check in on some of those issues and see if there’s something that the client wants to address.

Allow them to talk

Sometimes, your client needs to hear themselves talk through their thoughts to get insight into what they want to focus on. You can make this your coaching agreement. Simply clarify with your client that the session's outcome is that they want to talk through their thoughts and get things off their chest. This is still a valid coaching agreement. If your client wants to make this the goal of your sessions more than a time or two, you may want to clarify how coaching works. Remind them that to get the most out of your coaching, they need something concrete they want to accomplish.

Use tarot to prompt them

Another tool I use is to draw two tarot cards. Depending on the client, I’ll either show them the card and ask them what it brings up, or I might briefly describe the archetypal themes related to that card and ask them what comes up for them. Based on their answer, you can use open-ended questions to dig deeper and find a focus for the session. Usually, one card does it, but I can move to the second card if it doesn't. This allows you to repeat the process and discuss comparing the two cards and their themes.

When your client doesn’t have a focus for the session or says they don’t know what they want to work on, there are several ways that you can start to zero in on a coaching agreement. I’ve shared some of my favorite tools for this. Try them out, and let us know how they work for you.

If you would like professional, ICF- accredited coach training where you learn how to conduct a full session with powerful foundational coaching skills and a variety of tools and exercises to facilitate change in your client's lives, check out our next cohort for the coach certification program to become a highly skilled spiritual life coach.

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