From TJ Magazine: Coaching begins at hello

The opening moments of a coaching session offer a treasure trove of impressions and information, says Professor Erik de Haan.

I have observed a great many coaching conversations over the years, and I have been amazed by the phenomena occurring just at the time when consultant and client begin the conversation.

Once we start paying attention to those first moments, which I now believe are rather fateful, we can notice a quick succession of slightly angular, often co-created movements – a sharp intake of breath, a brusque movement, a stretching of the spine, a widening of the eyes, and so on.

In those very first moments of transitioning into a personal conversation, it looks as if the client gathers herself, demarcates and then occupies a space (a bit like stepping into a busy lift or a tiny shop). She focuses the mind and seems to look for the right ‘amount’ of connection with the consultant.

The phenomena are as diverse as the conversations that unfold. Sometimes eye contact is deliberately sought and sometimes the client looks away, perhaps to find the right words more easily.

It is important to remember that the beginning of a session, and the beginning of a case presentation slightly later on, are rather anxiety-provoking moments.

Those very words, the first words, are also packed with meaning, in my opinion. Even if they are still about the client’s journey, the weather, politics, how we are or what has happened recently, they often prefigure something of what might come later. They give us insight in forthcoming issues and ‘the organisation in the mind’ of our client.

Then, when the client does begin talking about what is at stake in this conversation – what she wants help with – the very first words often carry most of the meaning. I have noticed many times that they do not just convey the core problem but its potential solution too.

Seeking reassurance

Here is an example from a recent group supervision session:

An experienced coach from central Europe presented her case of a young entrepreneur looking for a new challenge. Before she launched into her narrative, she bent her head forward as if in a plea to the group, almost seeming to placate them in some way, and apologised for the quality of her English.

Some members of the group immediately reassured her with gestures and a quiet ‘no problem’, and then she took a deep breath to start telling us about her client.

She told the group about several career challenges for this client, the most acute one being the tension between his new-found career interest and several very lucrative offers relating to his former business that he had founded.


He seemed particularly inhibited and tempted by a peer group of other, more successful, founders who were offering him those lucrative positions not in line with his new-found career aspirations. 

After much back and forth and helpful thinking for the executive coach, I suddenly remembered how she had begun the session, and I suggested a hypothesis. Is your client held back by the need to apologise for the lack of success of his former business, perhaps towards the other founders, the way you apologised for your English in this group? And how is that apologetic stance affecting his own development now?

The client confirmed that this need to apologise, this seeking of reassurance, was one of the main features of the case and something that did hold the client back. 

Anxiety-provoking moments

It is important to remember that the beginning of a session, and the beginning of a case presentation slightly later on, are rather anxiety-provoking moments.

The client is in transition, is only beginning to open up, and may therefore let out more than intended, and may want to roll back later on what has been conveyed or asserted at the very beginning. In any case, the client will somehow feel less in control than later in the session.

However, even if we accept that the beginnings of conversations are important, they are not always so easy to attend to for us as helpers. Those first moments are equally anxiety-provoking and transitory for us.

We are often still trying to settle into the session; we feel we need to host our clients or put them at ease in some way, or we may be filled with curiosity – say about how they have worked with the previous session’s outcomes.

All of these may make us less perceptive and even self-conscious, so we may miss some of what might be the most revealing and important material of our sessions. 

Opening gambits

My colleague provides another example: 

He had a business meeting scheduled before two coaching sessions, so was wearing a suit and a tie. The first client’s initial words were ‘you are very professional today’. The same client told him, 30 minutes into the session, that his boss had said he needed to be a ‘more professional manager’.

This became a key topic in the coaching session and had been present already with the first words the client expressed. Yet it took them a long time to remember those words and identify them as key to the issues we were exploring.

For me this helpful, revelatory moment at the beginning of a session is by no means the only one. There are many later moments in a session, of similar import. The client may move into a new topic, or the client may take a minute to respond to something or to provide new information about the current topic.

Either way, the opening gambit will normally be the place where we can intuit what the client might be most concerned about, or where the core ambivalences lie.

The feeling in the room at that first moment will give us good access to any deeper feelings of the client at the time; to the unconscious patterns that are brought into this session from other relationships such as the one that the client is talking about.

This is an excerpt from a feature in this month’s TJ Magazine. For the full insight subscribe here.


About the author

Professor Erik de Haan is director of the Centre for Coaching at Ashridge @ Hult International Business School. 


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