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How to Set Agendas with an I Don’t Know Client

October 04, 2017 by John Andrew Williams


How to Set Agendas with an I Don’t Know Client

Coaching the I Don’t Know

Coaches help clients achieve their goals and overcome challenges. They ask powerful questions. Coaches listen intently and empathetically. They offer tools that are tailored to the client’s situation. Coaches provide value through deep, meaningful conversations around the client’s chosen topic for the session.

But what if the client doesn’t know what topic to discuss?

When asked, “What would you like to talk about today?” the client may respond with a blank, I Don’t Know. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, if a coach was hired on the behalf of the client, then he or she may not be personally clear on what the point of coaching is. Sometimes clients have experienced major setbacks or major leaps forward making them less prepared for a new or deeper topic. Other clients may have a difficult time understanding the distinction between consulting and coaching expecting the coach to set the agenda.

Regardless of the reason, I Don’t Know moments in coaching can be very detrimental to a session. If a coach:

  • Compromises with a shallow agenda, the session will only stay surface level.
  • Chooses an agenda for a client, the partnership between coach and client will be compromised.
  • Expresses frustration at an “uncooperative client” the client will get the hint and be even less willing to engage in further coaching.

Helping Your Client Win

I love board games. I want to play games where I have a reasonable level of confidence that I can crush my competition (my children) and pat myself on the back for defeating their hopes and dreams with my superior intellect and planning. Take that 6 year old Zeke!

It turns out that it’s never fun to play a game you cannot win. When I get into a divide and conquer mood towards my kids, I can see them disengage in the process. The same is true for coaching. Step into the shoes of a client who comes with an I Don’t Know agenda. What is that client experiencing at that moment? Oftentimes they may feel like they have begun a guessing game they cannot win. They don’t know the rules. Perhaps the client doesn’t know what topics are acceptable. Or the client may just not know why they should bother doing the hard work of coming up with something meaningful to discuss.

I Don’t Know is not a judgement against coaches. It is a signal for the coach to act. It is critically important to respond to clients who are unsure of an agenda in a way that empowers them. Coaches must not take offense here. At the same time, coaches should not answer the question for them.

Options for I Don’t Know

Here are some options for those I Don’t Know agendas:

1. Aligning the Agenda with the Alliance

When a client is unsure about what to talk about for this session, but has identified a broader agenda they want to work on through the coach-client alliance, the coach can refer back to the broader agenda to help set one for the current session. Coaches can ask questions like, “Where are you right now in your plan to apply for college?” “On a scale of one to ten, how prepared do you feel for the job search coming up?” “As you consider this bigger challenge we have been working on, what is still missing?” These questions help take a practical bird’s-eye-view of the client’s bigger goals and apply that perspective to the session agenda.

2. Narrow the Question

Sometimes a client simply feels a bit overwhelmed by how many options they have on the table. People who are new to coaching tend to hesitate to set a specific agenda because they don’t know what will make the most of the investment and they do not want to experience a loss of time or money in choosing the wrong direction. In these cases, coaches can ask questions like, “What is something that will challenge you over this next month?” or “What is the biggest opportunity in your life you would like to work on?” Also, a coach could use the Wheel of Life exercise to identify a variety of areas in the client’s life where they may want to see improvement. Keep in mind that we want clients to feel like they can win this game, and it is the responsibility of the coach to help the agenda setting process work for the client.

3. Offer General Examples

In some cases, the client will still be unsure of where to focus. Often, with younger clients and those who are more naturally hesitant, they may be afraid of giving an incorrect or unhelpful direction. These are the clients who ask the coach to let them know what would be most helpful. In this case, coaches should not take full responsibility by letting the client know which direction would be best. Instead, coaches should help clients settle on a topic by offering a few different options (none of which should sound like the “correct” option). Coaches who need to offer some general options should use language like, “We can work on whatever you find most helpful today. Some clients work on their next step with ______, others need to focus on ______, and some clients spend their coaching sessions doing _______. There are many other topics we could look at. What would be one or two that you would find most interesting or helpful today?”

4. Revisit the Coach-Client Relationship

Finally, if a client consistently offers pushback to agenda setting, then it is time for the coach to speak to the coach-client relationship itself. Coaches should never allow the client to force them into setting the agenda. Coaches help people grow in their ability to help themselves. This means that coaches must let their client know the boundaries and expectations of coaching so that the client isn’t expecting something the coach isn’t offering. When a client refuses to come up with an agenda relying on a coach to direct the session, the coach should spend time describing the nature of coaching before continuing to serve that client.

The growing coach develops confidence in their own coaching skills as well as their client’s ability to build a helpful agenda for a session. Use the approaches above to help clients win more with agenda setting, and you will find that they win more with their entire coaching experience.

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