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It’s Time to Stop Setting Agendas in Coaching

Aug 15, 2022

If you’ve ever wondered how to write the perfect agenda for your next class or coaching session, this is for you.

In this post, we’ll explore how agendas are often used in coaching and why this strategy is flawed. We’ll also…

  • Introduce structured emergence (our alternative for agendas)
  • Show you how to use structured emergence in your sessions

By the end of this blog, we hope you will feel inspired enough to start one of your next sessions with no agenda other than to be present and observe what is emerging for your client.

The Limited Power of Agendas

Many coaching programs recommend setting an agenda for each session. That’s because agendas provide:

  • Guidance for what you think you need to accomplish
  • Structure and comfort by creating a visible path forward
  • A familiar framework that your clients recognize

Checking items off your agenda gives you a sense of accomplishment and even a nice hit of dopamine. For some coaches, agendas provide a sense of structure and control as they start each session.

Yes. Agendas do have their benefits.

Despite all of this, we want you to stop relying on agendas.

That’s because the drawbacks to setting an agenda far outweigh these benefits.

If you’re feeling skeptical, stay with us. We’ll explain why setting an agenda is counter-productive and what you can do instead.

Why Starting with Agendas Is Ineffective

Agendas may provide comfort and structure, but that’s where their benefits stop. Here’s why:

  1. Agendas are often structured around long-term goals. Here at The Moment Institute, we rarely set goals — especially at the start of a coaching conversation. Instead, we want to help clients notice and work with what is happening in the present moment. Otherwise, their true aspirations often remain hidden and their achievements are less sustainable.
  2. Agendas assume that growth is a linear process that we can know and plan in advance. Yet, we know that’s not how humans grow in real life. By setting an agenda ahead of time, clients are boxed into where they should be on their journey instead of being free to explore where they actually are.
  3. Agendas are often based on your assumptions. The first order of business is to help your clients to notice how they are doing and what feels important today. The client who left your session last time is not the same person who walked into your session today. When you set an agenda based on who they were, you miss a lot about who they are now.

This third point might be the most powerful. There is so much to learn from being present with your client during your session.

Any agenda more extensive than:

  1. Be present
  2. Bear witness

… prevents you from discovering what the client values most and is ready for today.

What to Do Instead of Setting an Agenda

Be present and bear witness.

You won’t find “success” by writing a fixed agenda for someone who’s in a constant state of change. Instead, the structure and scaffolding you provide for your clients should unfold in real-time.

Rather than planning what you’ll do ahead of time, hone your ability to stay present with your client and the unfolding process you are in with them. It may sound paradoxical, but we find that when you stop planning how to solve problems, your clients attain more meaningful outcomes.

This happens because the secret to what your client really needs can only be uncovered by inquiring into their awareness in the present moment.

Structured Emergence as a Powerful Alternative to Agendas

We don’t believe in writing agendas, but we do believe that structure can be helpful (and even necessary). This is because structure provides a strong sense of safety and a secure base from which your clients can grow. It gives them the confidence to try new things, form new stories and get new results.

However, when you over-prepare and over-plan, you miss the opportunity to use what’s present in the moment as a catalyst for change.

In order for you to provide the right type and amount of structure, remain present to what is emerging for your client and what support they will need to leverage the learning and development potential.

This is called structured emergence.

Structured emergence provides space for your clients to discover what is most essential for them and their growth in each session. Your job then is to let your client be in the driver’s seat and work with what is most important to them.

It looks like this:

  1. Be present with your client as they narrate their current experience.
  2. Bear witness to their experience and identify needs that emerge in their narration.
  3. As they progress, offer them the necessary scaffolding to help them fulfill that need.

Structured emergence means having your processes and your formulas in your back pocket as opposed to leading with them. It means leaving behind your assumptions about what you think the client needs. And it means giving up control over where each session ends up.

A Note From David:

Personal answers to ultimate questions. That is what we seek.

This powerful insight from Alexander Eliot speaks to our invitation to be patient in your coaching sessions. Be willing to sit with your clients in what cannot be known yet until such time as the true purpose for the conversation ripens and reveals itself. This feels even more important now as coaches and clients seek to make sense, meaning and choices in these liminal times.

Learn How to Use Structured Emergence for Yourself

It’s time to stop making assumptions about what your clients need. When you stop planning ahead of time and practice structured emergence instead, you’ll get to the crux of your client's issues much faster and more deeply. You will be able to conserve more time and energy walking with your clients. The most important preparation is of yourself to hold the space for others.

Walking into a session without a plan or starting a coaching conversation without an agenda may feel daunting at first. But over time you’ll learn to trust in your ability to provide suitable structure for what’s trying to emerge in that session. In the end, not only is the impact greater for your clients but the joy and fulfillment are greater for you as well.

Learn how to use structured emergence by joining The ID Way™ or The Narrative Coach® Program in 2023.

To get a sense now from your peers who are already utilizing structured emergence, join the conversation already happening inside The Threshold Lab.