What Makes a Great Coaching Topic?
"I had to google it," a client confessed to me on the phone last week. "I mean, I just want to make the most of these sessions, and I always feel like I'm picking the wrong topic." While reassuring her that no topic could ever be wrong, I realized that offering some guidelines for choosing a good coaching topic might be useful for my clients and non-clients alike.
Unlike a prescribed, one-size-fits-all self-help program, co-active coaching asks the client to name her own topics at the beginning of each session. This can be an uncomfortable moment for clients -- trust me, I've been there with my own coach. However, choosing a coaching topic is an incredibly important part of the process. It prompts you, the client, to focus your attention, develop your curiosity, and take responsibility for your own growth and change.
Sometimes, it is the first time all week you have paused to take stock and check in with yourself.
A few tips for picking a great coaching topic--and what makes a topic coachable--are below:
1) Choose something that resonates with you personally. A great coaching topic has three essential qualities: it's authentic, it's current, and it's motivated by a desire for change. It can be anything from a general sense of dissatisfaction in a personal relationship to a hunger for a promotion at work. The best topics are meaningful and relevant to you. In other words, a topic suggested by your boss or best friend might not resonate with you personally.
The topic may be something you have been working on your whole life, or something that occurred to you in the last five minutes. I recommend keeping a running list of potential topics that come to mind in the weeks between coaching sessions. A helpful hint: something that you want, want more of, or do not have, is a potential topic. So is anything that knocks you off balance or disrupts your inner peace. Go with the one that feels most important in the moment -- the thing that keeps you up at night, or the long-smoldering dream.
2) Topics can be very specific, or somewhat vague. Some of the best coaching sessions happen when clients are unafraid to charge forward in the investigation of a subtle feeling, a calling, an impulse, or an undefined sense. "I feel like I'm ready for a change, but I'm not sure what it is," one client said to me. Great topic.
Specific topics can be equally useful: "I need to find a name for my new company" or "I want to get along better with my mother-in-law." Don't be afraid if the topic changes as you get a better sense of the core issue. It may not be about the snarky email at all, but rather about your secret desire to quit your job. Don’t be afraid to charge into a session without a clearly defined topic.
Coaching is 80% exploration. What do you notice? What are you learning? How do you make a shift? Sometimes it can feel uncomfortably muddy, but in coaching, this time spent playing in the mud is bookended by strong accountability and action steps. There is always value to be found in exploration, even (and especially) without a perfect road map to where you are headed.
3) Consistency of practice is key, not consistency of topic. At the beginning of each coaching engagement, I spend time with a client outlining outcomes and goals for our time together, as well as core values and their relative expression in a client's life.
Some clients prefer to keep sessions laser-focused on these goals and values week after week, which can be an excellent way to source coaching topics (i.e. Are you working towards your goals? Where are you getting stuck? Which values are being honored and which ones are being stepped on?) But in some cases, the coaching topic comes from a specific recent experience. Maybe five minutes before the call, a client has a particularly upsetting conversation with a boss, or has struck on a new idea that sizzles with possibility.
Bring these topics to the call if they feel urgent to you in that moment. Show up as your whole self. Draw on your full range of feelings and the disparate parts of your life that make you a dynamic, diverse, and integrated whole. All of it is fair game for coaching topics.
4) We never run out of coaching topics. Sometimes a client will get on the phone and immediately apologize for his chosen topic: "I know we talk about this every session," he says, or "I just can't think of anything to get coached on today".
There are always areas to explore -- no kernel too small to unlock something important, no human so resolved there are nothing but neat and tidy edges and clean swept corners. As humans, we are constantly changing and evolving.
Coaching holds space for deep, non-judgmental curiosity and self-examination in the service of transformation. Every session and every topic results in some new awareness, some new learning and insight to put into practice, and -- as if by magic -- whatever topic comes forth tends to be exactly what was needed in that given moment. No topic wasted, no moment out of place.
So take courage to bring your full self and varied topics to this process (and a coach near you). If you are not currently in coaching, the same principles apply as you bravely charge into a life lived in celebration, exploration, and curiosity.