Perhaps the most difficult coaching conversation a coach can ever have is the one that lacks focus. Focus-less conversations go in circles, they skip across the surface of issues, and they bounce around without ever creating any helpful awareness. In other words, they are a waste of time. They can also be frustrating – at least for the coach.
Sometimes a client will come into a coaching conversation without an issue on which they want to focus. The coach asks, “What do you want to focus on?” and the client responds with some version of “I don’t know,” or, worse, “Nothing.” Ugh! So what do we coaches do in that kind of situation? Simple: we help them find focus.
As coaches, we need to embrace the fact that creating awareness about where to focus is a legit aspect of a coaching conversation. Certainly a coaching session is more immediately rewarding when the client comes to the session with a juicy topic, but it’s also permissible for a client to lack focus. We shouldn’t interpret lack of a topic to mean the client is not coachable. Instead, we should understand that our first obligation in such a conversation is to evoke awareness about where to focus.
Finding focus is important. To help you find focus with your clients, here are four methods I sometimes use with my own coaching clients. (BTW, my context is leadership coaching, so these examples fit my clientele.)
- Influence Map. No topic? No problem. A quick way to help a client find a coachable topic is what I call an Influence Map. It’s a simple printable graphic with a center circle and a larger circle divided into two halves: professional and personal. I ask the client to write the names of people they influence. If there’s a high degree of influence, the name goes in the center circle. If not, place the name in one of the halves, with the closer to the center representing more influence and the further out representing less influence. Sometimes I challenge the client to write at least twenty names.
Once they’ve listed several names, I ask them to write two or three names outside the circle – these are people with whom they have zero influence, but they’d like to. With a page of names, I ask the client to circle the names of two or three people the client would like to have more influence. In other words, whom do they want to move closer to the center of the map? When they have circled some names, I ask them to pick one for us to focus on. Now we have a coachable topic: one person with whom they want to have greater influence.
- Wheel of Life. This is a simple assessment that allows the client to quickly consider key aspects of their life. Once they rate each area according to level of satisfaction, I ask them to pick one for us to focus on. A recent client chose “health.” I asked him how he scored it and he responded that it was a six. We explored what was true about his health right now that led to the score, then I pivoted to examine what would be different if he were at a level eight. Notice that I did not ask him what it would take to move it from six to eight, instead I asked him what an eight would look like, be like, feel like, etc. Only after exploring the current reality (6) and the future reality (8) did we shift focus to what it would take to close the gap.
- Things that Need to Change worksheet. Sometimes I use this resource early in the coaching relationship to help the client identify coaching topics that we can focus on as the relationship develops. Other times, I use it in the moment when a client comes to a session without a focus. The worksheet allows the client to identify changes in his world and changes in himself. From the list, I ask the client which change he’d like to give some attention to in this coaching session. Once we have an issue, we can work to focus it down to its coachable aspect.
- Sailboat metaphor. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman re-envisioned Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a model he represents with a sailboat. The boat represents three needs related to personal security while the sail represents three needs related to growth. With some unfocused clients, I quickly share the model (less than five minutes) and let the model reveal a coachable topic by asking the client, “What does this model tell you about your life?” Alternatively, I invite the client to describe each of the six aspects (safety, connection, self-esteem, exploration, love, and purpose) before asking which one could use some focus in her life.
I’m sure you have your own tools and techniques for helping clients find focus. If not, I’d encourage you to develop (or borrow!) some. Asking the client where they want to focus is good, but having some backup methods can be extremely helpful when those not-so-focused clients come for coaching.