Preparing for Coaching Conversations

I’ve received a few emails asking about how to plan for coaching conversations. There’s a whole section in my book on that very topic, so for those who don’t have it yet, here’s an excerpt.
Planning for a Coaching Conversation
Planning for a coaching conversation is similar in some ways to planning a lesson–we construct a couple clear goals, design a route to meet those goals, anticipate the challenges that might arise, and review material that might be helpful. As when you design a lesson, when you plan a coaching conversation keep in mind that you may need to change course, modify plans, or even abandon the directions and activities you planned because some other skill gap becomes apparent or a more pressing need presents itself.
Planning for a coaching session is essential. After some experience, we might be able to walk into a meeting with a client and wing it, but we will be much more effective if we have a plan tucked into our coach-minds. As we move through the conversation the client won’t notice when we subtly guide the conversation, the thoughtful questions we seem to pose on the spur of the moment, or the way we calmly react to whatever comes up. If we are planned, then we might have anticipated that the client could need a particular resource and we’ll have a copy of that resource copied and ready to hand over. If we are planned, then we walk into the coaching meeting with the big picture fresh in our minds–the needs of the client and his goals, as well as the needs of the students and community he serves. So how do we plan this meeting?
Step 1: Where Does My Client Need to Go?
The first step to plan a coaching conversation is to identify where my client needs to go in a particular session. To do this, I read over the notes and reflections I made after our last meeting. This helps me remember where my client was in her learning the last time we met. Then I consider where the conversation might need to go to move the client toward her goals. In order to do this, I review the work plan and my notes from recent sessions. I consider the evidence that my client is making progress and speculate on remaining gaps in skill, will, knowledge, or capacity. I look through my notes to see if there are any patterns in the holes–are there topics or issues that the client seems reluctant to address?
Based on the client’s goals and recent sessions, I plan for the upcoming meeting. What might be a meaningful outcome for this meeting? What might be helpful for my client to think about or do? Which coaching approach might be the most effective? Might it help to engage in some action together? Or have we been doing a lot of activities but not spending enough time reflecting on them? Coaching Session Planning .doc for a planning a coaching conversation.
Step 2: Who Do I Need to Be?
Once I have determined where the client needs the conversation to go, and I have some ideas about how we can get there, then I figure out who I need to be as a coach. This is the second step in planning a coaching conversation.
I know my clients need me to be grounded and present when I walk into their rooms. Simply by conveying a sense of calm a reflective space is opened that invites others to slow down and learn. I consciously, regularly cultivate a grounded state of being. There are many ways to do this. Some are daily habits such as getting exercise, prioritizing eight hours of sleep, and eating nutritious food. I encourage coaches to consider how they attend to their own emotional, physical, social, and spiritual needs–doing so will definitely improve a coach’s skills.
I also have a set of practices which I engage in right before a coaching session. First I take stock of my own mood–am I feeling tired? Agitated? Worried? And what kind of disposition might my client need me to be in? And then I work to make any shifts that might help. I often listen to music while driving to a meeting–music always transforms my mood. I rarely go into a coaching session without spending at least five minutes, almost always in my car, quietly breathing. I schedule this in my day–I arrive early, turn off the music, close my eyes, and breath. Those five minutes are critical to the effectiveness of my work.
Some of the other strategies I use to become calm and grounded are:
• A quick, fast walk
• Yoga stretches
• A journal write where I get out all the thoughts that might distract me
• Saying mantras or affirmations such as, “I am focused and calm,” “I can hold a space for learning,” “Everything is OK.”
• Talking with a trusted coach-colleague to clear my mind if anything work-related is clogging it.
I’ve discovered that even if it means I’ll be late, I can’t go in to a meeting without taking time to get grounded–five minutes is usually enough and makes all the difference in the subsequent hour. When my client greets me and asks, “How are you?” I need to be able to smile and honestly respond, “I’m good.”
Getting grounded is essential, but it’s not the only preparation a coach can do. I know that for a client to be receptive to coaching, I need to be non-judgmental–and I am not always in that frame of mind; before a meeting, I often activate my compassion for a client. Sometimes I visualize that I am the teacher or principal I’m about to meet with; I imagine what his day has been like–what he’s seen, done, heard, felt, wondered, feared, and needed. I recall his core values, vision, and commitment to students–all things that inspire me and make me believe in his potential. I remind myself of how grateful I am to have this client’s trust and how privileged I am to be a witness to his growth and development. I can’t take this for granted. This visualization often helps me transition into a more compassionate stance as I enter a meeting.
Sometimes if I’m particularly plagued by judgmental thoughts about a client, I visualize taking all my feelings and putting them into a big box. I put the lid on, and tell myself that after the meeting, if I want, I can open the box and reclaim them. Of course, sometimes they sneak out of the box during a coaching session, or sometimes a judgment surfaces that I forgot to stuff away. But before I go into a coaching meeting, I scan my mind for any thoughts that might not help us reach our goals for that day and then I clear them out of the way. Most of the time, I am more committed to being a good coach and transforming schools than to letting my judgments run wild.
When I knock on a client’s classroom or office, I know that a large part of what will make the meeting successful is my disposition: If I’m confident, compassionate, grounded and present, I know I can create a learning space for someone to explore his beliefs, behavior and being.