I’ve been reading a few posts and comments in various coaching forums about doing “discovery” sessions. I don’t think of the first session as a discovery session. Here’s what I do:

What to listen for in the first session (and every session)

The first thing to understand is what your goals are for the first session.

One is to establish rapport and build trust.

The second goal is to hear their story. There are specific things that I’m listening for, including their identity (their beliefs about themselves), their beliefs about what they are trying to create, and their values.

Third, and most importantly, I’m also listening for their essence, their way of being in the world that adds value without any thought or effort on their part. My role as their coach is to help them create a form in the world that’s congruent with their essence so they can be more successful and fulfilled.

I’m also listening for their essence, their way of being in the world that adds value without any thought or effort on their part.

Those are the most important things. I’m not listening for their needs because I know those are going to change (stay with me…).

Your first task is to just be curious and to help them really think about and look at their story and then reflect that back to them. When they share a limiting belief, you just say, you point out, “You know, that’s a belief. Is that really true?” When they share a value — and they’re not going to say, “I value creativity,” or whatever, they’re going to say, “I wish I was doing something that wasn’t so routine.” — you can reflect back, “Sounds like one of your values is creativity. Are you creating something that gives you an opportunity to express your creativity?”

You’re listening to their story, but you’re not listening to the content, you’re listening for what’s underneath that and reflecting that back. As Joseph Campbell said, “Don’t think of what’s being said, but of what’s talking.” And usually what happens is that does a couple of things:

As Joseph Campbell said, “Don’t think of what’s being said, but of what’s talking.”

One is it helps them to really feel seen and heard, which is incredibly important because for a lot of people that’s half the value of coaching. There may be no other relationship in their life where they feel seen and heard the way you see and hear them. And the other thing is that just being seen and heard is incredibly powerful for creating something. When people feel seen and heard for who they are and what they want and so forth, that in itself is empowering.

You’re listening for the story there. You’re encouraging them to tell their story by being more and more curious, asking more open-ended questions, getting them to talk. Some coaches think it’s not a good idea to let people go on and on about their story, but it’s one of the reasons I do two-hour sessions — I think it’s actually really important to let people go on and on about their story.

But I’m not really listening for how they’re defining the problem or what they think they need or anything else. I’m listening for what’s talking. And I’m reflecting that back and then I’m saying, “Great! So what is it you’re trying to create? Let’s dream together. If we were to work together, what would you want to create?”

Don’t settle for a “bonsai dream.”

And almost always they will tell you a crippled version of their dream. I call it a “bonsai dream.”

[A]lmost always they will tell you a crippled version of their dream. I call it a “bonsai dream.”

They’ll tell you this miniature version because they have these limiting beliefs about what’s possible for them. And so they’re going to tell you the bonsai version, a crippled version of their real dream, or they’re going to tell you somebody else’s dream. You know, it’s either their spouses or their parents or their friends or their bosses or just what they think they should want as an extension of their past. And so whatever that is, whether it’s a bonsai dream or somebody else’s dream, your job is to challenge that and to break their bonsai dream container and get them to dream as big as they really want and to dream a dream that’s their real, authentic dream.

And again, if you do that, that in itself is incredibly powerful for people. That’s why I have them talk about dreams instead of needs. Needs are based on the past. You don’t want to help them create something based on their past. You want to help them create from a future of unlimited possibilities.

It’s also the reason why they might want to work with you because if they’re just creating something they already know how to create, if they just want to solve a problem or create a bonsai dream, they probably don’t need you. If they’re just creating a goal they already know they can create, they don’t need a coach. Your job is to help them dream something so big that they say, “Wow, you know, that’s what I really want and I recognize that’s not really possible for me right now. I would have to change, and not only would I have to do a lot of things, but I would have to change in order to create that.” And when they have that realization they understand why they want a coach and if you’ve helped them do that, now they understand why they want you to be their coach.

Your job is to help them dream something so big that they say, “Wow, you know, that’s what I really want and I recognize that’s not really possible for me right now. I would have to change, and not only would I have to do a lot of things, but I would have to change in order to create that.”

BTW, I included the picture because I always like to meet clients in cafes when I can (I coach clients all over the world via Zoom). Why? What do people usually do when they meet people for coffee? They talk about personal things. I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about personal things like their biggest, most authentic dreams. Most of my clients are executives. Not all life coaching is executive coaching, but all executive coaching is life coaching.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash