How to Stay on Track during a Coaching Session | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson MCC

Coach on phone with Client

In this first of many articles under her column "Heart to Heart with Julie", Julie Johnson MCC will be sharing sample coaching conversations to help us grow. These are real coaching situations and conversations that illustrate common issues we face as coaches. Julie will also share ideas and practical tips to help you become a better coach.

We're very excited to share these with you. And we also encourage you to comment with your thoughts, learnings and own experiences in the comments below!

These articles were first posted on Julie's blog, The Coaching Cube, and have been updated for inclusion here.

In this article we take a look at what to do when our clients get off track. It all comes back to setting session goals (the session agreement) - but also being flexible.

Staying on Track - Here's my coaching conversation:

After drinking a cup of coffee together, my coachee and I settled into our regular one-hour coaching conversation.

Something told me to do a quick check-in, so I offered, "How ARE you?", using that intonation from my American accent that suggests that I actually do want to know.

  • "OK," he replied.
  • "OK? That's not your usual positive answer."
  • [pause] "Wanna talk about it?"
  • "I don't know."
  • [long pause] Then my coachee threw me a side glance as if to check for genuine interest and must have seen by my body language and eye contact that I actually was interested.
  • "Well, yes. I think I need to get this off my chest."
  • He launched into a long and complicated story about the dysfunctional dynamics on his team.
  • After about 30 minutes, he was done, and I asked if I could summarize my understanding of it all.
  • He agreed, and I paraphrased it to his satisfaction (save a couple of tweaks from him). He was ready to brainstorm solutions.
  • However, after one or two solutions quickly emerged, he sidetracked without warning to a new topic – a challenge he was having with his boss.
  • After a bit, I interrupted. "Excuse me. Can you please help me understand how this connects to our brainstorming?"
  • He replied sheepishly, "You're right. I got off topic here."
  • "That's alright," I said, "but I'd just like to know whether you want to talk about this instead, or revert back to the brainstorming about your team."
  • "No, actually, let's go back to the brainstorming."
  • We did, and then a few minutes later he started elaborating about a tough patch he'd been having with a peer.
  • I eventually interrupted again and asked, "Is this a sidetrack?"
  • "Sort of, but actually I need to give you this context in order to introduce another solution I've just thought of for my team."
  • "Great, carry on!"

We ended up getting a lot done, and he thanked me for keeping him on track. He almost apologized for 'dumping', and mentioned that it was refreshing to speak with someone who is apparently fully listening and not distracted by anything else.

Here are my takeaways from this coaching session:

When our coachees realize that they have someone in front of them who is 'all ears', they might wander from their stated coaching topic and start 'dumping' all sorts of things that they have on their mind.

It is our job as coaches to be alert to what is going on by intervening  and 're-contracting' with the coachee (clarifying their coaching session priorities), to ensure they spend their finite time with us in the way they want to.

To get and keep the conversation on track:

  • Agree (contract) on the goal of the conversation up front.
  • When a 'piece' of the conversation seems to be completed, decide together on what to do next.

When our coachees seem to be getting off track, re-contract:

  • Call attention to it, and ask how what they are saying is connected to the agreed topic.
  • Call attention to it, and ask if they would rather talk about the new topic instead.

And, if after calling attention to it, you find that getting off track is exactly what your coachee wants… well, consider yourselves on track!

Now it's your turn:

  • What did you notice or learn from this conversation?
  • What takeaways do you have from this?

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

If you liked this "Heart to Heart" column from Julie Johnson, you may also like:

Julie Johnson

Contributing Author:

Julie Johnson MCC, MIM is an Executive Coach, Coach Supervisor and Author. Her purpose is to help motivated people be at their best. She's passionate about spreading quality coaching conversations farther and wider, impacting the lives of people she'll never meet. Julie helps leaders develop an authentic Coaching Leadership Style so they grow next-generation leaders - and scale their own leadership. She also loves creating synergies by connecting 'the right people' with each other. Meet Julie in this short video here and learn more about her on her website here. You can also sign up for her monthly blog The Coaching Cube.

Learn more about Julie & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach on phone with client by Prostock-studio via Shutterstock


  1. Wendy Buckingham

    Nice and very relevant article - clients who have lots going on for them can be hard to get to focus on what you think they should be focusing on. I find it's really important at the beginning of the session to make sure the client is present and able to proceed with the intended conversation, be it around their goals or whatever. I used a Session Preparation Form, which asked the questions.
    Here are the questions I use.

    1. What have I accomplished since our last session. My wins big and little.
    2. What I intended to do but didn't
    3. What have I learned about myself and others
    4. What challenges and problems do I need to address
    5. I want to use this coaching session to.....

    This would give me a snapshot of what was going on for them and decide with them what really needs to be addressed. Then just to make sure, I'd ask them "Is there anything you want to discuss/has happened before we go ahead?" This prevents trying to coach over a distraction which might come up randomly or at the end of the session a lot of time has been wasted.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Wendy – Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing your great ideas and your form questions. I believe that working this way you do can help coach and coachee hit the ground running – having already gotten a lot done before the session has even started! Greetings from The Netherlands

  2. Mikail Audu

    This is a great Article I must confess.

    However, I sometimes let Clients go off-track to an extend as that will create an avenue of a new Project we sign a deal on. After the discovery of the possible additional project, I will bring them back to Track.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Mikail – Thank you for your positive feedback. There is another aspect that I didn’t even mention, as it is a whole new topic. When we have a coachee who tends to be long winded, get off track, or whatever – this is an interesting observation. Chances are decent that they do this with others as well. If we coaches can listen to our own feelings when they do this (annoyed, bored, frustrated, delighted, etc.) …. how we experience this could be very useful information for our coachee – the impact they could be having on more people in their lives. Greetings from The Netherlands - Julie

  3. Karen Kingston

    I think the main takeaway from this conversation is the importance of active listening. It is something I always aim for in my consultations as clients need to feel that you are invested in the conversation for it to have value. I also use a pre-session plan for clients, they don't always use it but those who do get more value from the coaching long term as they come to the session knowing what they want to focus on and are present in the conversation. That is not to say that they done become side-tracked and on occasion change the whole focus of the session when something comes up they really want to focus on. Checking in when they become side-tracked is essential otherwise a conversation can meander all over the place and little value come from it.

    • Julie Johnson

      Hi Karen – I agree with everything you’ve said here. And indeed – sometimes the sidetracking is new and important thought that emerged due to the coaching conversation! Greetings from The Netherlands - Julie

    • Alan Barry

      Karen, I love the notion of a pre-session plan! What questions/prompting are you using in that plan? Is this something you ask clients to do and send to you in advance or just do it and bring it to the session?

  4. Sandra Schmoldt

    This approach is so powerful as you co-create the desired - and contracted - desired outcome of the session with your client. Getting off track can be valuable to gain deeper or more expansive insights into the topic. However, as you described it is crucial to hold the client accountable of their journey to the result they want to gain. They are the expert of their reality and the next steps on their path. And we are here to support them, from heart to heart.

  5. Janis

    Great article, I really learned a lot! There is so much to remember when coaching and every unique coachee needs a different approach. Thanks!


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