A Peak into a Coaching Conversation

learn how to have a coaching conversation

I’m offering you, in this article, a peak into a coaching conversation.  I’m doing it for two reasons. First, perhaps you can learn something for your own life from how  coach helps a woman navigate an upsetting set-back. And second, you don’t have to be a professional life coach to help other people. In other words, these are not just coaching skills but influencing skills. Hopefully, you can learn something that you can apply in any kind of position to lead and influence others—as a parent, teacher, manager or supervisor, ecclesiastical leader, partner or even friend.

(I will say that you don’t use the skills without some level of authority or trust in your relationship. The skills won’t work if you don’t have some basic respect and even consent from the person whom you are helping.)

That said, here’s the situation, which I present from the point of view of Donna’s coach.


Donna informs you that she was just passed over for a promotion that she had anticipated for months. She is feeling devastated. The worst part is that the job went to Richard, a family member of the owner of the company, someone less experienced and knowledgeable than Donna.  Donna tells you that she has been depressed since she was informed of the decision. She has lost her motivation and been unable to concentrate. To make matters worse, Donna now reports to Richard. She knows that she has a lot of information and knowledge that he needs to succeed but doesn’t much feel like sharing it. She has thought about quitting but recognizes that the job market isn’t good. She is now coming to you for some coaching.

What would you say or do?

Coach: Hi Donna. Welcome. How are you?

Donna: I’m not doing very well.

Coach: What’s up?

Donna: I learned a few days back that I was passed over for the promotion that I’d told you about. I’d been anticipating it for months now and so am feeling pretty devasted. It seems like I’ve lost my motivation for my job and even working for this company and don’t know what to do.

Coach: Oh, my. That was hard news. It sounds like it’s left you reeling.

Donna: It has. I thought I was such a good candidate. It was something I’d been preparing for, for a long time, so I’m really at a loss.

Decision Point

As a coach, you now have to make a decision about how much time to give your client to talk about the situation and her feelings. Sometimes, especially when strong feelings are involved, a client needs a little time to express herself. You want to make it safe for her to talk about the situation and/or her inner experience. You do this by being curious, making it safe, and using good listening responses. You’re “creating space” for your client to express how she sees and feels about things.

Coach: I want to help you move forward, Donna. Most important is that you be able to figure out where to go from here, but I don’t want to rush you. What more do you need to tell me about what happened or how you’re feeling before looking forward?

Donna continues to share. She talks about how unfair it is that that the president would hire Richard, his nephew. She talks about the resentment she feels towards the company president and how hard it will be to report to Richard. She also talks about not wanting to work for the company anymore but is not sure there are any good options out there, in today’s marketplace. She feels good and stuck.

The coach continues to listen, showing respect for Donna’s point of view, asking clarifying questions, and reflecting back what he’s hearing. Donna appreciates being heard and, after ten minutes, or so, her feelings are less intense and words less rushed. So, the coach begins making a transition into another step of the coaching conversation.

Exploring Options

Coach: Can we begin to talk about some options, Donna? How you might move forward?

Donna: Yeah. I suppose. I know I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do.

Coach: So, what possibilities do you see?

Donna: I don’t know. (She pauses and her coach is quiet, giving her space to explore her thoughts.) I suppose one decision I have to make is whether I’ll stay with the company. I could leave. Not only did I not get the promotion but now have to report to the person who did. And I can’t get over the fact that it’s the president’s nephew.

Coach:  Are those factors so big that you know you want out, that your best option is to leave and find a different job? Because I’m hearing you say that’s a real option.

Donna: It is. I’ve been thinking about it.

Exploring Consequences

Coach: So, what would that mean? What would it be like if you made that choice?

(Donna takes a few minutes to explore this possibility.) A new start might feel good. But then I’m concerned about the overall job market and what a search could mean for my family. My husband loves his job so wouldn’t likely want to start over if I found something in a different city. Plus, I’ve worked myself up to a nice salary.

(She continues to ponder.) Leaving is a possibility but it would bring some real disadvantages. It wouldn’t be my first choice.

Coach: I’m hearing you say that although an option, there are some real downsides to leaving and so that isn’t a great choice. So, let me ask you what would happen if you stayed?

Donna: I’d come to work every day, keep my head down, and put in my time. I could focus more on the paycheck and what I do outside of work and less on trying to advance.

Coach: So, a second option would be to stay but be less engaged. How satisfying would that be?

Donna: Not very. But I think it’s what lots of people do. I guess I’d have to give up some ambition and just fall in line.

The coach hears the discouragement and resignation in that last statement. One option is to ignore that feeling tone and ask her to explore the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. It is a choice and the coach can let her think through the consequences.

A Coachable Moment

However, the coach also recognizes this as a coachable moment, an opportunity to help Donna become more self-aware, learn new skills, and even empower her with greater self-responsibility and capacity for the future.

So, the coach teaches Donna the Empowerment Model (something I’ve presented in a number of articles). Her coach explains and diagrams the empowerment model which has to do with the cause effect relationship between the elements of the model:

            Circumstances    →     Thoughts    →    Feelings   →   Behavior   →    Results

The circumstances are that the president made the decision to hire Richard instead of Donna. That is a fact, reality, the way it is.

Her coach realizes that part of empowering Donna is helping her understand that more important than the circumstance are her thoughts or meaning she gives this circumstance. She, Donna, has some choices, not only about what it means, but how it will impact her feelings and behavior.

How to Use the Empowerment Model in a Coaching Conversation

So her coach teaches Donna how to use the model. He asks Donna to tell him what she feels. It often takes people a little time to understand something as simple as feelings. Most people express thoughts when asked what they feel. I tell people that feelings are what go on in our bodies not in our heads and can be summed up in a single word.

With some guidance, Donna gets into it and identifies that she feels let down, disappointed, depressed, and resentful.

Now her coach asks Donna to identify her thoughts that create these feelings. It may take Donna a few minutes to understand this idea, but eventually she gets it and identifies the following thoughts (which her coach writes down):

  • “I was the most qualified candidate for this position.”
  • “What happened is unfair.”
  • “The company president is guilty of paternalism.”
  • “My career has hit a dead end.”
  • “They don’t value me around here.”

The coach helps Donna see how her thoughts and not what happened, per se, created her feelings of disappointment, depression and resentment.

He then helps her see how her feelings drive her behavior. She spends more time in her office, avoids co-workers, and accomplishes less work every day.

The coach also invites her to see the longer-term consequences or results of these feelings and behavior. Donna recognizes that she’ll be less productive and a less valuable employee.

The coach shows Donna that these results will lead to more and similar circumstances—Richard and even the president of the company may not value all she has to offer and the cycle will become self-perpetuating and defeating.

After walking Donna through her thoughts, feelings, behavior and results, her coach asks, is this what you want?

Donna: Not really. But I don’t see another option.

Creating More Empowering Thoughts

Coach: I want you to try out some different thoughts, some that would be believable to you and yet more empowering than what you’re now telling yourself.

(Although it takes her a little time to do this, as Donna understands the concept, she changes her original thoughts to the following):

  • “I don’t know why the president made the decision to hire Richard. It seems paternalistic but I don’t really know what went on in his mind.”
  • “I am a really great contributor to this company and have lots of years left to leave my mark.”
  • “There will be more opportunities in the future.”
  • “Richard deserves a chance.”

The coach helps Donna think about the feelings that would result from these thoughts. She identifies greater hope, peace, and optimism.

 He then asks her to describe the behaviors that would come from these feelings. Donna mentions that she’d be engaged in her work and with her co-workers. She would be productive.

The result would be she’d be a valuable partner in her department.

A Third Option

So, as Donna begins to understand the empowerment model, she comes to value a third option—changing herself, her way of viewing her circumstances. They explore how this option empowers her and how it would work better than the other two options (quitting or simply putting in her time) and is now ready to move to another step in the coaching process.

Before moving to that next step, let’s take a step back and recap. So far, her coach has taken Donna through a number of steps of a coaching conversation. They started with establishing their agenda. They then spent some time clarifying reality or the way things are currently. They moved into exploring options. And they’ve talked about the empowerment model for Donna to challenge her thoughts and come up with a new way of thinking necessary to move forward successfully.

Coach: So, you think that your best option is to stay in your current position. That’s your best option going forward. Now let’s talk, more specifically, Donna, about how this might work. What kinds of actions will you need to take to make this work to your advantage? I’m encouraging you to think about actions to thrive, not merely survive in your role. What can you do to maximize your chances of success, both in the short-term and long-term?

Donna: Oh…I need to think about that.

Coach: Go ahead. We have time. Just brainstorm some ideas for now and begin formulating a plan.

Planning Actions

(Donna ponders the question.) Okay. One thing I need to do is get to know Richard.  Before we started talking today, my tendency would have been to limit my contact with him but I now see that, for me to be successful, I’ve got to build a relationship with him.

Coach: Okay. Good. What would that mean? How can you go about doing that?

Donna explores how she’d approach Richard, what she’d do and say, with her coach helping her think through her approach.

Although there will be other actions that Donna can take during this step, the coach moves to the next step, which is thinking through obstacles regarding this part of her plan—that of building her relationship with Richard. After thinking through obstacles, the coach will then go back to help Donna think through other actions she can take to achieve his vision of maximizing her success in her current position.

This illustrates how you loop back and forth between different steps in a coaching conversation. You explore possibilities, plan actions, empower, identify obstacles, do more planning, identify more obstacles, etc. It’s not always a linear process moving from step to step.

Coach: So, Donna. It’s a big step for you to do some relationship building with Richard. A few minutes ago, you wanted nothing more than to avoid the man. So, what’s it going to be like as you do this? What will you be feeling as you talk to Richard to set up a meeting? Or as you walk into his office to meet with him?

Deepening the Plan

Donna: It’s going to be hard, even though I know it’s the right thing to do. Maybe I’ll be feeling some resentment.

Coach: Yeah, I can see that. How will you handle it?

Donna: Well, I think being aware of it is the big thing.

Coach: So, true. Anything else you can do?

Donna: I’m not sure.

Coach: I’ve found that the clearer you are about your purpose or your outcomes the easier to not get side-tracked into unproductive tangents. So, be really clear about what you want out of the meeting. That should help you.

So, imagine yourself leaving that meeting with Richard and walking back to your office. What would feel like a big win to you?

Donna: I’d want him to know that I want to support him in his role. (Donna pauses and continues to think.) I’d want to help him understand our department as much as possible. Of course, it will be a little early in his tenure so I don’t want to overwhelm him. But I’d want him to know that I’ll give him good information, that he can come to me with questions. (She continues to think.) I’d want him to know that I’m a valuable contributor.

Coach: Good. Nice outcomes. Let those guide what you say and do. So, let me ask another question. What could go wrong?

Donna: Maybe he doesn’t want my input. He doesn’t really want to build a relationship with me.

Coach: That’s a possibility. How would you handle that?

Donna: I can only do what I can do. I wouldn’t want to force it. I’d let it be and watch to see what happens over time. I’d have to take some of my cues from him. I recognize I don’t really know much about him right now.

Exploring More Obstacles

Coach: Suppose he turns out to do things really differently than what you would have done or you think the department needs? Suppose you think he’s a poor boss or manager of your department?

Donna: We’ll have to wait and see. I’d still like to do a good job in my role. I could still be a good contributor to our department.

Coach: I’m glad to hear you say that. It would be easy to fall back into a “I told you so” attitude and let him fall on his face. I’m hearing that’s not what you want to do.

Donna: Yeah. After talking today, I recognize it’s going to be best for me and the organization if I stay committed and engaged.

Coach: Anything else that could go wrong in your meeting or relationship with Richard?

(The coach gives Donna time to explore this. He continues asking questions to help Donna think through anything that could prevent her from implementing her vision. And then, in this session or the next, he’ll circle back to more action planning by asking questions like, what else needs to happen for you to succeed in your role? How can you make that happen? And so on.)

Let’s Recap

A final step in the coaching conversation is a recap of the session and, in particular, the actions Donna is going to take.

Her coach asks, What are your take-aways from today? What actions will you take? These questions are also an opportunity to be clear about time-frames and accountability for any actions.

What Did You Learn?

Although a somewhat abbreviated conversation, I hope you’re beginning to get an idea of what is involved in a coaching conversation. Coaching is different from counseling or therapy in some important ways. It doesn’t usually go as deep. It doesn’t focus as much on the past but rather on the future, what a person wants and how he/she will make it happen.

I also hope you can see some ways to use this kind of conversation with yourself. You can learn to coach yourself. And perhaps you can find ways to use these skills in roles in your leadership or influencing roles as a parent or boss or leader in your church or volunteer organization.

Of course, you don’t have to go through an entire coaching conversation to be effective. Most of the time you won’t have that opportunity. But you can learn to listen and show empathy. You can also learn to ask people questions to help them explore consequences, explore possibilities, and plan actions. You can help them (with their permission) see how their thinking, more than circumstances, creates their reality. You can learn to help them challenge and change their thinking in ways that empower them.

In a world in which our relationships are paramount to our happiness and success, I encourage you to learn these skills. Although you can learn a lot from one case study, there is so much more to learn.

Free Course

I have just completed writing and recording a new several hour online video course on coaching skills. I’ll be launching it in the next month or so and invite you to learn more or sign up. Remember that you don’t have to be a coach but just interested in developing your influencing skills.

If the topic really interests you, I’d love you to be a reviewer. I’ll send you a free enrollment in exchange for your feedback and a review. Let me know by leaving a comment or sending me an email at roger@rogerkallen.com.



  1. Jesse L. Dunn

    Interested in being a reviewer
    I appreciated yuour approach to Donna.

  2. Gianfranco Arfinengo

    I am interested in improving my Coach skills. I will be more than glad to be a reviewer. Please let me know.

    Great article and dialogue of coaching, helping Donna to change her point of view and change her behavior.

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Gianfranco. I’m happy to include you as a reviewer. I’ll plan on including you and be back in touch once the course has been published.



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