What do I do when a coaching session isn’t going anywhere?

By Toku

It’s minute twenty of a sixty-minute session and all of a sudden I realize that we’re not really talking about anything. There’s this long silence happening, but not one of those good, deep thoughtful silences. It’s like a silence in the midst of a bad first date. I look up at the time again, twenty-one minutes of a sixty-minute session. How the HELL IS TIME MOVING SO SLOWLY?

Thoughts run through my head as I try to look like I’m being present:

Man, I suck at coaching…

What should I ask next…?   

This dude’s never going to hire me…  

Oh my god, can he tell I’m totally lost… ?   

I can’t believe this is happening. I had a great session just this morning…

What was that question Rich asked at the intensive… ?

Man, I wish I had written it down…

Okay, I should ask something…

What should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask, what should I ask…?

Finally he says something, he starts talking about his job, even though we were talking about something else. But I nod my head and pretend to listen. I look at the clock again… twenty-three minutes have passed.



If you’ve never had a session like this, then consider yourself lucky. I’ve seen this happen to a ton of coaches, both inside the Dojo and in real life. I can think of three times at least I saw this happen to Rich Litvin live on stage at an intensive. Imagine that, having a session LIVE on stage in front of a HUNDRED-plus people, that goes NOWHERE.

In truth, sessions that seem like they go nowhere can happen. Using the Coaching Canvas model we’d say these sessions are missing the Shift phase, because the Shift phase is where the insight and shifts in perspective, beliefs, viewpoints, etc. all happen.

But very often sessions that don’t OCCUR to you as going somewhere can actually be really important and powerful sessions for your clients. It’s one of the reasons I encourage coaches in the Dojo not to try to hit home runs in their sessions. When you get attached to a certain kind of feel in a coaching session you often miss the subtle nuance and joy of all the other kinds of coaching.

But all of that aside, I get that being in this kind of session can feel terrifying or at least disconcerting. So here are some things you can do when you’re in a coaching session without a Shift:

1) Look Back – Step Back:

Very often when nothing is happening in the Shift phase of your coaching conversation it’s because you missed something vital earlier in the process.

It might have been in the Open phase:

  • Maybe you didn’t create the container very powerfully, but instead just let the client start talking at you.
  • Maybe you didn’t create a context of possibility, and so the client is mired in disbelief.
  • Maybe you didn’t set up how the conversation is going to go, so the client’s waiting for some other shoe to drop and it’s having them be defensive and on guard.

It also might have been in the Drop phase:

  • Maybe you didn’t find out what the client wanted.
  • Maybe you just accepted their beliefs about the world without looking deeper.
  • Maybe you rushed past the Drop in search of a Shift and now are kind of lost along with the client.

So take a moment. Maybe even ask your client if you can have a moment and look. Is there anything you could’ve created back there that might have helped you arrive someplace else over here? Then, if you see something, CREATE IT NOW!!

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you didn’t create it earlier in the call, you can’t create it now. Own up to it.

Say: “Hey, you know, I realize I missed something earlier in the call that really matters. Do you mind if we step back for a minute?”

The client will often be inspired by your honesty and relieved that what’s going on can be addressed. After all, they’re probably thinking the call isn’t going anywhere because of something they did or didn’t do.

2) Trust Your Client:

Very often when the Shift phase is empty or a session isn’t going anywhere, it’s because you’re trying to make the session go somewhere it doesn’t want to go.

You have an agenda.

You might not even realize you have one, but it may be that you’re trying to get something YOU think the client needs to see and YOU think there’s a way or process that they need to go through to see it.

You might be right—but if you were, the session probably would have gone there. So instead of pushing, let go. Just trust the client to guide themselves where they need to be, make the topic the client selected the RIGHT topic. Make the answers they give the RIGHT questions.

Stop trying to control the outcome. Relax and choose the session you’re in.

Very often when you do this the session will naturally correct itself or the topic you’ve been considering will arise on its own. But it’s not possible unless you trust your client.

3) Reflect:

Sometimes you see a thing as a coach you want your client to see. But then your coach brain kicks in and says, “YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TELL THEM!!” As a ‘good’ coach, you know you’re supposed to draw it out of the client.

And while this is true, 90% of the time breadcrumb coaching is BAD coaching and leads to false or nonexistent Shift phases. So if you find you’re trying to get the client to ‘guess’ the right answer to your process, STOP IT!! Using a process to guide a client through an experience is one thing, trying to get them to say to themselves what you want to say to them is another.

Reflection is a POWERFUL coaching tool that’s very often underused. So stop underusing it. Instead, if you see something for a client you believe might be powerful, reflect it to them.

Say, “Hey, I think I’m noticing this thing in what you’re saying and I’d like to reflect it to you, would you be okay with that?”

Then if they say yes, reflect it and add a caveat that you might be wrong, it’s up to them to decide.

Simple reflection either as a sharing of an insight or a simple restatement of what you’re hearing can create deep insight for your clients naturally. We simply do see and hear ourselves very well. So while it may seem very simple, it can also be very powerful.

4) Shake Things Up:

This is your method. You are using it with the client. Nothing is happening. But you double down. MORE METHOD. But nothing, nothing, nothing.

If this happens, do something different. Anything. Make a dog barking sound. Get up and dance. Try the opposite energy. If you’ve been holding lots of space, trying leading instead. Guide them through a practice. If you’ve been leading them a lot, shut up. If you’ve been structured, be flowy. If you’ve been flowy, add some structure.

The more you coach (and this is especially true for regular clients) the more likely you are to get stuck in your process or for you clients to adapt to you as a coach. It’s sort of like diet and exercise.

Great athletes have to vary their routines, and anyone who’s lost a lot of weight will tell you that you need different strategies at different phases. Humans are great at adapting to and stabilizing change. This is true for change work especially. So if you notice your session isn’t going anywhere, do something different.

Of course there’s one exception to this rule. But it’s a big one. Don’t change too fast. Sometimes, often in fact, certain tactics in coaching take more time than we expect to yield results. Most coaches don’t stick it out long enough.

They don’t leave enough space for the Drop, or have powerful Opens. They rush. They switch tactics, they ask three questions when one would do just fine. So this last one is the exception to the exception.

Most coaches get better first by simplifying. By spending more time on the fundamentals. BUT if you find your fundamentals are failing and you’ve given it a good go and waited past the first and second urges to switch, then changing tactics can be incredibly helpful.

Final Thoughts:

As coaches we have a hidden expectation FOR FIREWORKS. Part of why many of us became coaches is that the powerful moments of our own transformation shine in our mind like crazy diamonds. And we want that. We want that for our clients, for ourselves, and for our coaching. And I get it. I love it, too. I love being in the midst of it with a client who’s having POWERFUL INSIGHTS. But because we remember those moments we often forget the rest.

We forget that there were many days, weeks, month, hours, and minutes of nothing happening, of struggling and wrestling with the same problems again and again.

So if you’re in a session that’s going slowly, DON’T PANIC. Take a deep breath and remember that you have no idea what’s going on below the surface. If you need to try something else do it. Stay curious. But don’t shake and rattle for no reason. This phase is called the Shift, not the EARTHQUAKE, for a reason.

Even earthmoving insight begins with small Shifts, and so that’s all you’re looking to create. The small Shift that changes the very ground your client stands on. And with that intention remember that patience is as important as persistence.


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