The coaching conversation

This guide to coaching and mentoring conversations is based on observation over nearly 30 years of what effective coaches and mentors actually do, not on assumptions of what they ought to do, according to some (often unvalidated) theory. It has no fancy acronym (unless you think that PIESSS qualifies as one). It does, however, present a clear logic for constructing a developmental coaching or developmental mentoring conversation.

The conversation model emerged in the early 1990s, based on observation of mentors in a variety of contexts, but particularly in workshops aimed at topping up existing mentoring skills. It underpins mentor training in many programmes in countries around the world. In the late 1990s, as the worlds of mentoring and coaching came together and it was realised that, in their developmental styles, at least, coaching and mentoring were very similar processes with different, but compatible purposes, the conversation model has increasingly been used to support coaching relationships as well.

The problem with coaching models

There are literally dozens of coaching models, with acronyms, such as GROW, OSCAR, GLASS, or CLEAR. An immediate general problem is that they are not models of coaching, but only of the coaching conversation. That conversation does not take place in a vacuum – it is simultaneously part of a process and a relationship. Another issue is that they typically present a structure, which coaches are expected to follow. For example, GROW, the most popular and well known model, requires the coach to start by helping the client identify their goal. Yet when we examine the evidence for this assertion, it is very thin. What evidence we do have indicates that:

  • Goals typically evolve – the starting goal may be very different from the final goal
  • Goals are emergent – clients often come to coaching or mentoring for help in working out what their goal is
  • Once they know what their goals are, many clients don’t need further help – goal-setting may be the end-point of the relationship or conversation
  • Initial SMART goals are more typically a crutch for the inexperienced coach or mentor, rather than a requirement of the coaching/ mentoring process, or a need of the coachee/ mentee.

So why the need for a conversational model at all? An effective model, appropriately used, serves two purposes. It should provide a sense of direction and progress for the coaching conversation, in the context of the broader relationship purpose. The assumption behind most models of coaching conversations is that they should provide a structure for content (for example, GROW can be seen as a content model based on What do you want to achieve? What’s stopping you? What can you do about it? Are you actually going to do anything different now?). This can easily result in rigidity and “mechanical” behaviours by the coach or mentor.

An alternative approach, much more in keeping with what we observe really competent coaches and mentors to do, sees the conversation as a progression of mind-states or thinking perspectives.

Progression through thinking perspectives

Evidence from observation and from other disciplines tells us that:

  • The quality of the coaching/ mentoring conversation is partly dependent on the reflection the client has done before the meeting. Coaches and mentors need to encourage this and acknowledge what has occurred for the client in this pre-thinking phase.
  • Conversational quality is also dependent on the mental state of the participants. For example, clients (and sometimes coaches/ mentors) often arrive tense or distracted from a previous meeting. Ensuring readiness for coaching/ mentoring and re-establishing the depth of rapport necessary for authentic dialogue is a critical phase in the conversation – and one often missed.
  • Jumping to solutions is more likely to lead to quick fixes than durable changes. One of the problems with Solutions Focused coaching is that the coach has from the beginning of the conversation the goal of ensuring the client finds a solution. But what is needed near the beginning is a mind-set of non-judgemental understanding. A core skill of effective coaching and mentoring seems to be NOT thinking about solutions in the early part of the conversation and accepting that the client will decide when they are truly ready to seek a solution. While they may initially have said they want a solution to a problem, it often emerges that do not want a solution yet.
  • “Moving on points” (MOPs) are fundamental in behavioural change and in a coaching/ mentoring conversation. MOPs occur when the client is ready to move to a different mindset or conversational focus. Key MOPs are:
    • When they have achieved an appropriate state of mind to begin addressing the issue they have brought to the session
    • When they perceive have achieved sufficient understanding of the issue to be ready to move into solutions mode. The coach’s or mentor’s role here is often to challenge this perception by illuminating aspects they may not have considered – something they may do, for example, by using their own naivety (“What I don’t understand is…”)
    • When they have reached a mental stage of readiness to choose between alternative courses of action (or inaction — doing nothing can also be a viable option).

Moving through the conversational mindsets

The diagram below has remained largely unaltered since its inception. In this section, we look at some of the practicalities of taking a thinking perspective approach to the conversation, under the headings of Preparation, Issues, Exploration, Summarising, Solutioneering and Summarsing Again.


Aim: to ensure that the client and the coach/mentor are in an appropriate state of mind for dialogue i.e.:

  • Relaxed
  • Creative
  • Attentive
  • Able to be open
  • In rapport

Useful questions to the client:

  • How is your world today?
  • How are you feeling?
  • How purposeful/ creative/ confident/ relaxed are you feeling?
  • Have you been looking forward to this conversation?
  • What has changed for you since we last met?

Useful questions to yourself as coach or mentor:

  • How can I bring myself to an appropriate mindset before this conversation?
  • What concerns or distractions might I be bringing into the room? How can I put these out of mind for the next hour or so?
  • What assumptions about this client do I need to put aside?
  • What am I looking forward to from this session?
  • How much do I care about this person? What could I do to show that I care?
  • What can I tell them about me that would help them relax?
  • What do I notice about them when we greet each other? (What does this tell me about their state of mind?)
  • How confident am I feeling?
  • What emotions am I likely to project onto the client?

Useful approaches:

  • Be genuinely interested in them
  • Use simple relaxation techniques
  • Laughter – for example, what’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve observed since we last met?
  • Take two quiet moments to think about what you want to achieve today
  • Share family experiences – demonstrate real interest (superficial chit-chat is transparent and can have the opposite effect!)
  • Improvise – for example, tell a short story about a business issue in the news, with each of you providing one word at a time.
  • If appropriate, acknowledge signs of tension or other emotions you have observed

Litmus test: Do we both instinctively feel we are ready to get down to business?


Aim: to agree a broad theme and direction for the conversation.

Useful questions to the client

  • What is it about this issue that makes it important now?
  • What was the trigger that made you decide you needed to think it through?
  • What has stopped you dealing with it before?
  • How does this relate to the broad purpose of this learning partnership?
  • How does this relate to your life purpose?
  • How have you explained this issue to yourself? To others?
  • What is this issue not?
  • Is your aim today to understand this issue or to resolve it? (Which requires understanding en route.)
  • When we conclude this conversation, how different do you want to be in how you think and feel about this issue?

Useful questions for the coach/mentor

  • How does this theme fit with previous conversations and/or the relationship purpose? Is it appropriate to make a link?
  • How does this issue resonate with me? Is there a danger I might over-associate with it, with the result that I unconsciously steer the client towards solutions that would work for me?
  • What is the right balance between clarity and ambiguity about this issue at the start of our conversation?

Useful approaches 

  • Before someone can identify a specific goal, they typically start with an ”itch” – a sense of unease about something. The trigger may, for example, have been a comment by someone else, or a feeling of discomfort in a meeting. Ask them to put themselves back into that moment and reconstruct their thoughts and feelings
  • Between an itch and a goal comes a series of questions, which deepen understanding. Rather than try to identify a goal at this stage, suggest they seek to formulate a question that will aid their thinking. For example, “What do I have to do to get myself noticed by my boos’ boss?” Using a question helps to keep the issue open and more flexible than focusing on a specific goal.
  • Five key words. Say: “Give me five key words that capture what’s going on here for you”. Explore the meaning of these words, then help the client structure these into a sentence beginning “What I’d like from our conversation today is ….”
  • Chunking up or down. Examine briefly if the issue is actually two or more issues wrapped together; or part of a cluster of related issues. (This is an aspect that is likely to be revisited in the next stage, Exploration.)

Litmus test: Do both client and coach/mentor feel there is sufficient, but not too much, focus to begin to explore this issue?


Aim: to help the client understand the issue and its context sufficiently to make decisions about how they want to tackle it.

An important factor here is how much the coach/mentor needs to understand the issue. There is a necessary balance between knowing enough to ensure that you ask the right questions and are able to help them identify appropriate sources of support, on the one hand; and getting embroiled in detail, on the other. It’s easy sometimes to become a voyeur – seeking more detail simply because the story is so interesting.

Useful questions to the client


  • What thinking have you done about this so far? (Essential to avoid making assumptions about how far their understanding has evolved.)


  • What is happening here?
  • Who is involved?
  • What is the impact (practical and emotional)?
  • How are you feeling about it?
  • How do you want to feel about it?
  • What’s at stake here for you? For others?
  • What do you think you know and don’t know about it?

Testing assumptions

  • What evidence do you have for saying that?
  • Do you think that or know it?
  • If you know it, how do you know it?
  • What might a disinterested observer, who didn’t know any of you, think was happening here?
  • What alternative interpretations could you imagine here?
  • How pure are your intentions here?
  • Are you been completely honest with yourself?


  • What patterns do you see emerging here?
  • How might your behaviour be influencing their behaviour?
  • What parts of this issue are clearest and foggiest for you?
  • What conflicting demands are others making on you?
  • What conflicting demands are you making on yourself?
  • How does this fit with your personal values?
  • What might happen if you act? If you do nothing?
  • What are your priorities here?

Drawing on experience

This is primarily an issue in mentoring, where the client may specifically wish to tap into the mentor’s knowledge and seek advice. Of course, on relatively rare occasions coaches can and do advise as well, where the situation demands it (for example, to ensure client safety), but the emphasis in both relationships is always on helping the client to think things through for themselves. Mentors and coaches tend more typically to use their own experience to help craft questions or to open up areas of conversation, which the client has not considered.

If the coach / mentor does refer directly to their own experience, they should always seek permission with questions such as:

  • How do you think other people (like me) have tackled similar situations?
  • Would it be helpful at this point, if I shared with you some of experience in a similar situation?

If you do share your experience or give advice, never leave it at that. Use it only to stimulate the client’s thinking. Redirect them back to a explorative mindset with questions such as:

  • What resonates most or least with you in what we’ve just discussed?
  • What do you find most/ least easy to fit into your own perspective?

Useful questions for the coach/mentor


  • What would help the client better understand his or her situation more clearly?
  • For whose benefit am I asking this question?
  • Am I steering the conversation where I think it should go, or sharing the steering with the client?
  • Am I being sufficiently challenging both to their thinking and my own?

Useful approaches

  • A pragmatic way to give access to your own experience without dropping out of the exploration mindset is to use retro-engineered learning. You might say.
    • Here’s a similar situation I found myself in. The players were…
    • What question would you have posed to me to help frame the issue?
    • The question I actually posed was…So I decided to ask my boss for help. What would you have advised me to say to him?
    • What I actually said was… What do you think happened as a result?
    • And so on…
  • Impact v intent. Explain how, although we may have good intentions, people don’t always interpret our words or actions as intended. What filters might prevent others from seeing the client’s intent?
  • Draw the issue. Simply depicting the issue as a picture, or as a story told through pictures, can reveal a great deal and put elements of the issue into context.

Litmus test: Do you both feel you have enough understanding of the dynamics of the issue, to move towards a resolution?


Aim: to review the learning so far and assess where to take the conversation next.

In practice, the coaching/ mentoring conversation may involve several short sessions of summarising, which serve as a check in that both parties are taking the same meaning out of what has been said, and which help them to restructure and refocus their thinking. At the critical MOP between exploration and solutioneering, however, summarising also acts as a safety barrier, to prevent the conversation crashing into solution mode before the issue has been properly understood. Without that safety barrier, it is easy to end up finding a great solution to the wrong problem; or to create solutions, which go against the client’s inner and often unspoken values, and which are therefore less likely to be implemented, or to stick if they are implemented.

It is critical at this point that the summarising is joint effort between coach/ mentor and client. Both need to feel comfortable about moving the conversation on to solution mode. So the coach/mentor is likely to say, for example: “May I summarise what i have extracted from what you have said?” It is important that the coach/mentor provides this input, because the client may not be aware of:

  • Potentially significant phrases they have used (possibly several times)
  • Dissonance between words and body language
  • Highs and lows of emotional expression
  • When they sound most or least convincing

Useful questions to the client

  • What has changed for you in your understanding of this issue?
  • Is it still an issue for you? (If not, what else shall we talk about?)
  • What has changed in the outcomes you are looking for from this conversation?
  • Have we been talking about the right issue?
  • If we were to start this conversation again, what would you say differently?
  • Do you feel you understand sufficient to try to want to find a solution?

Useful questions for the coach/mentor

  • What are the key themes I observe from this exploration?
  • What else have I observed?
  • What has NOT been said?
  • What, if anything, does the client seem reluctant to accept or consider?
  • How genuinely non-judgemental have I been? Where might I be imposing my perspectives of the issue?
  • Do I feel confident between us enough understanding of the issue to discuss possible solutions?

Useful approaches

  • Take a brief physical break to emphasise that this is a new phase of the conversation. Stand up, change chairs, grab a coffee. Two minutes is long enough for a mental reset.
  • Let the client decide who offers their summary first. Let them complete their summary before offering comment. Don’t critique their summary – that will discourage them from being open next time. Instead, maintain the coaching / mentoring mindset by saying for example: “That raises some additional questions for me. Can I ask…”

Litmus test: Are we both intellectually and emotionally ready to look at solutions?


Aim: to decide a practical way forward that is compatible with the client’s values.

N.B. This may be to accept the situation as it is.


Creating the mindset for solutions

The exploration phase of the conversation can be pretty bruising for the client, who may have had to face up to some uncomfortable moments of self-insight. Our observations of coaches and mentors reveal that the most effective, client-focused practitioners invariably spend some time ensuring that the client is in a positive creative frame of mindset. They make a point of expressing, often in very subtle ways, their belief in the client’s ability to manage the issue, on which they have sought help. The conversation is therefore less about whether they can resolve the issue than about which way forward they want to choose and how they make that choice.

Useful questions to the client

Confidence/ motivation

  • What do you want to happen in our conversation now? (e.g. Do you still feel the need to resolve this issue, or would you prefer to decide how you will gather more data?)
  • How confident do you feel in your ability to tackle this and achieve a successful outcome?
  • What would give you greater confidence?

Agreeing options

  • What solutions already occur to you?
  • What else could you do?
  • What have you ruled out? What would enable you to rule that in?
  • What’s the most outrageous solution you can think of?
  • What would be a courageous solution?
  • Are you looking for a short-term fix or permanent solution?
  • Who else has a say in your decision?

Agreeing actions

  • What values will you apply to making your choice?
  • What instinctively feels right to you and why?
  • Would this solution open up more options later, or close them down? Which do you want?


  • When do you want to have achieved this?
  • How will you know you are making progress?
  • What will keep you motivated?
  • What would you enable you to do it in half the time?

Useful questions for the coach/mentor

  • Am I genuinely letting them come to their own solutions/conclusions, even if those are not what I would choose? (Or am I “Yes, butting”?)
  • Am I helping them evaluate a wide enough range of options?
  • Do I sense that they are relieved/ excited/ motivated by the prospect of doing this?
  • What does my instinct tell me about their intentions as a result of this phase of the conversation?

Useful approaches 

  • There are several very useful decision-making tools that help clients structure the sometimes complex choices they have to make. For example, the Change Balloon asks them to imagine all the things they would want in, say, a new job, then to write each on a separate sandbag, handing off a drawing of a hot air balloon. When the balloon springs a leak, a sandbag has to be thrown overboard. As the leak worsens, more and more sandbags are jettisoned until only one is left. This provides a priority rating for selection criteria.

Litmus test: Is there a “bias for action” resulting from this part of the conversation?

Summarising again

Aim: to ensure commitment and to permit the client to revisit any element of the conversation, about which they still have concerns.

This can be important in identifying and overcoming any lingering barriers to change.

In this concluding part of the coaching/ mentoring conversation, the client should always give the summary. If the coach/mentor summarises, the client may simply nod and agree and there is no opportunity to check for genuine alignment of expectations.

Useful questions to the client

  • What did you learn?
  • What has changed for you?
  • What do you intend to do differently?
  • What do you want to be able to say to me about this issue when we meet again?
  • What might prevent you and how will you deal with that?
  • What will you reflect upon after this conversation?
  • Who else will you discuss this with?

Useful questions for the coach/mentor 

  • What did I learn?
  • Are there issues here I’d like to seek advice on, in terms of my own practice?
  • What further help can I be to the client between now and the next meeting?

Useful approaches 

  • As in the mid-point summary, take a short break. This gives an opportunity for any remaining concerns to surface?

Litmus test: Do you both feel good about the conversation, even if it has involved some tough moments?

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

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