What should you cover in your first coaching session with a coachee?

What’s in, what’s out and what’s weird!

Buzz Aldrin. The man. The Legend

(Image credit: Buzz Aldrin/NASA via AP)

They’ve agreed a time. The appointment is in your calendar. You have your Sharpies and PostIt notes prepped. The webcam is polished and the microphone dusted #corona. Arrrrghhhhhh! What do I do next?

Doing something for the first time is always scary. Ask Buzz. He was so worried about what to say when he stepped on the moon, he subbed the work out. To an expert. His wife. His brother. Possibly. Possibly not.

Starting a coaching engagement sometimes feels a bit like stepping onto a dusty surface. Without gravity. Or a whiteboard. If that feels scary to a coach, have you ever wondered what a coachee is thinking and how best to help them?

I’m an Agile Coach in Cornwall. Yep, we do exist :-). I tend to find what helps both coach and coachee is to run through a quick checklist (thanks Atul Gawande) to make sure you have all of the bases covered in the first session.

Here’s what I tend to cover, my top 10. It has changed and developed over the last few years and I would love to know what you include, exclude and call this first session so do let me know; my contact details are at the end. Okay, here goes with my top 10:

  1. We aren’t coaching today - phew!
  2. Fancy a sandwich? Coaching vs mentoring vs training
  3. Push me, pull me, not anyway way you want me
  4. Coaching = advancement. Coaching != remediation.
  5. Confidentiality and scorched ground, with feedback (on me)
  6. Agreements are important. Sign here please.
  7. I won’t be your counsel, you will be your guide
  8. When you want, how you want, cancel anytime
  9. Check-in - how are you feeling about coaching now?
  10. Next steps - what do you want to do, when and how?

Right, let’s dive into some detail on all of these.

1. We aren’t coaching today - phew!

As a typically introverted British individual, the thought of sitting in a room with one other person to discuss something in my work life I wanted to make better, is terrifying. Well, it was terrifying before I started coaching some four or so years ago. It’s not now but I always try to keep this in mind before doing a first coaching session with somebody as it could be how they are feeling at the other end of the desk. Of course these days, #corona, it’s going to be looking down a camera rather than a table, but that could well be from their bedroom or front room to yours, which could be as panic-inducing as the knarled table in the small, grey meeting room at the end of the corridor. Shudder.

I never coach on the first meeting. Never. Well, I try not to as it’s really meant to be a chat, to put them at ease, answer any questions and also set down some ground rules for us both to agree too. It’s a kind of try-before-you-buy session as well because it’s up to the coachee to decide at the end whether they want to start being coached afterwards and to make the arrangements. I also try to keep it to 30 minutes so it doesn’t feel too onerous, on either side.

2. Fancy a sandwich? Coaching vs mentoring vs training

Even if somebody has been coached before, at work in a formal setting or maybe in the world of sport, I always make sure that the coachee understands the difference between coaching, mentoring and training.

Here’s Bob. He is going to teach you how to make a sandwich from scratch in his Bob’s Fiery Sandwich Course. It’s available online or at the local diner, after work, for two hours with a certificate. If you see anything like that, then I call that training.

Want to make the hottest sandwich in the world? You need to hang out with Bob. He’s the best short order sandwich chef in this diner! Go and hang out with him and pick up some tips and tricks while he gets orders ready. I call this mentoring.

What kind of sandwich do you want to make? Can you visualise what kind of ingredients you want to include and how you want to serve it or to who? Have you ever made hot sandwiches before? If you wanted to find out about sandwich cuising, where would you go? In my mind, these are all coaching questions.

You can easily have all three of those in the same conversation or just focus on one. They could be separate sessions, with colleagues if training a whole team, or just you on your own but it’s important to make the distinction between them. I believe a great coach can train, mentor and coach, choosing the right approach for the right situation, depending on what is in front of them.

3. Push me, pull me, anyway way you want me

When you start talking to more and more coaches, you found out how they tend to handle engagements. They often stand back, wait to be contacted, rather than diving in and hassling people like a sort of annoying broadband sales person chasing a monthly target two days before the end of the month. Why? Because coaching only works when it’s a pull not a push. You can send all of the coaches in the world into an organisation but unless somebody chooses independently to seek out coaching, it just won’t work.

4. Coaching = advancement. Coaching != remediation.

If your coachee understood you waffling on about sandwiches and the differences between coaching, mentoring and training, hopefully they understand what it is, but they do understand why they are doing it? I always try to make sure that the person sitting in front of me understands that coaching is not about remediation, it’s positive and helps the coachee improve something that they want to work on. If they have been told they need to get something fixed and I can help, then we shouldn’t be talking, I should be talking to their boss / lead / manager / other person who pointed them in my direction.

5. Confidentiality and scorched ground

I remember my first coaching session like it was yesterday. It was four years ago, but what stuck in my mind was something that seems so obvious now. About ten minutes in, I became pretty sure, that every word spilling out of my mouth was gospel. Surely the coach sitting the other side of the table would want to be jotting this down…you know, for posterity, to quote later on to friends and co-workers, maybe even put on a range of t-shirts to sell online? Surely???

Of course he didn’t. He wasn’t take any notes at all. This reinforced two very clear concepts for me and ones I like to remind a coachee. Firstly, nothing that is said in our meetings is recorded at all. It’s completely confidential and is only for our purposes, it’s not for anyone else. Not your line manager, your colleagues or anyone else. The only caveat is illegality. If something appears to be illegal, I am duty bound to report as a fine upstanding member of society! Well, member of the public anyway. Everything else including your choice of socks and penchance for hot chilli in breakfast cereals is just for us to discuss and us alone.

Secondly, it’s for you as the coachee to jot anything down for themselves, actions, thoughts or ideas, not the coach. It puts the emphasis on them to record, not you.

6. Agreements are important. Sign here please.

Despite the fact I have these 10 things in a list, despite the fact that I spend a good 15 minutes or so explaining them to the coachee in my lovely, relaxing, lilting tones, I am sure five minutes after they leave the room / exit the call, they won’t be able to remember more than one. I don’t take it personally. What I do do, is make sure they have a formal agreement where these 10 and more are listed. They get a copy and have to sign it. I like people to print it and actually find a quill borrow a pen and sign it. There’s a reason artists sign their work. They are proud of their achievement and want to show it. I want to celebrate the fact that a coachee has committed to working with me to improve something and doing it on paper is a great way to do that. It also helps to remind them of these 10 things and morel

Download sample coaching agreement

7. I won’t be your counsel, you will be your guide

One of the most important elements of the coaching agreement that I like to pick out is about counselling. Working with somebody 1-2-1, is a very private and intimate experience. Whether somebody has had experience of it previously or not, there could easily be a tendency for it to develop into a counselling not a coaching session. While we all like to blow off steam in whichever way we want, and I certainly like a good moan as well as the next man, I always make sure that coachees know that we are coaching and not counselling.

If I feel that somebody during coaching is moving a conversation into that area, I will stop, flag the situation up and make it clear that we cannot proceed. That’s not to say I stop there. Often as a coach, I have signposted coachees to other resources, sources of help inside an organisation or from the rest of the healthcare sector, it’s just not coaching. I want them to be as healthy as possible so we can tackle things together when they are well. If there are other personal issues that are getting in they way, I want to make sure I can do everything I can to help them help themselves, so we can resume coaching.

8. When you want, how you want, cancel anytime

The coachee takes the notes. They sign the contract. They want to turn up. Hopefully it won’t surprise anyone reading this, that I also make sure they know that I want them to book all of the coaching sessions. They can decide when, where and how these take place and put them in my calendar, rather than the other way around. It’s another great, transparent example of that push vs pull mentality that has to exist for coaching to work well.

Of course, if you as a coach have dedicated slots in your own week’s calendar that you are making available to coachees, they can certainly grab one of those. The fine details though, are down to them. Skype vs Zoom vs real room. Morning vs afternoon. 30 minutes vs an hour. All their choice. 1 session, 10 sessions, 5 sessions. Weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Or not at all. If they want to stop any future sessions, then they can. It’s entirely under their control.

9. Check-in - how are you feeling about coaching now?

After overloading a coachee with the 8 bits above for a few minutes, I like to build in a bit of a pause for some initial reflection. At this point, I turn the session over the coachee and do a little check-in. Do they have any questions on anything I covered? Did anything scare them, interest them or need a bit more explanation? If all is good, we can get to the 10th and final step. If not, then that is fine too. We can part company here and hopefully the not-coachee at least knows what coaching is, even if they have decided it is not for them.

10. Next steps - what do you want to do, when and how?

If you’ve made it this well, well done and thanks for staying with me! If the coachee has done the same, it’s now over to them. They have decided that they want to take this further and start an engagement. That’s great! As I have tried to explain above, now it’s up to them to decide when and how we do this and get that first session booked in when it works best for them. That’s it, all 10 done :-)

Over to you…

That’s my whistle-stop through through all of the things I tend to cover in a first coaching session. It’s now over to you, as I would LOVE to know the following:

  • What did I miss…is there anything you always mention that I didn’t?
  • What should I have left out…what out of the 10 shouldn’t be here?
  • What do you call this…is this a discovery session, something else?

HMU on the usual social media in the footer below and let me know what you think, I would love to see your thoughts and comments on this. You can also read more about me and my experience as an Agile Coach in the UK Civil Service. If you want to ;-) BFN, R

Written on April 22, 2020