How useful is ‘action planning’

The necessity for ‘action planning’ almost appears to be an article of faith amongst many in the coaching field. However much coaches might differ in terms of what they do during the session the need for action planning at the end of that session seems largely unchallenged. And yet at BRIEF it seems to us that action planning, somewhat counter-intuitively, is in fact counter-productive. Most people would assume that planning with clients what they are going to do following a session in order to move towards their goal would enhance the likelihood of progress. But think for a moment – is this necessarily so? What if the client’s circumstances following the session turn out to be a little different from how she imagined while sitting with her coach? And what if as a result of these differences the client fails to follow-through? The result may be that awkward ideas begin to intrude into the work. Ideas like ‘maybe this client is not motivated’ or ‘maybe this client does not want to move out of her comfort zone’ – ideas in other words that are critical of the client. And it may be that the coach then feels tempted to explore with the ‘failed-to-follow-through’ client questions like ‘what got in the way of you doing what you agreed to do?’ At the end of such conversations even the client may begin to doubt her motivation ‘that’s how it is with me I never follow through’. Between coach and client a narrative of no-change is being constructed. The client begins to remember other times when she failed and may start to derive identity conclusions like ‘I’m so weak’, ‘I’ve got no will-power’. And then other ‘weak’ moments are recalled. Things are rapidly going from bad to worse.
So what is the alternative? Find out what the client wants ‘what are your best hopes from our talking together’; then invite the client to picture the ‘best hopes’ happening in concrete and observable detail – as much detail as the client can manage. And then invite the client to watch out for anything that she does between this session and the next that takes the client in their preferred direction. Now client and coach have an infinite multitude of possible evidences of success – thousands of possible actions can be construed as progress. So when the coach at the beginning of the next session asks ‘so what’s been better’ it is almost inevitable that there will be something! And of course coach and client, unpacking the success, can continue with the task of constructing a progressive narrative, wherein both coach and client become increasingly convinced of the client’s capacity to make the preferred future a reality.
So rather than ‘action planning’ we have ‘in-the-minute-planning’. Rather than sticking with a pre-arranged plan the client can respond flexibly to a changing reality free to take a wide variety of steps that can progress her situation. Now what does it take to make this shift? Well first of all the coach has to trust the client. The coach has to believe that the client is indeed committed to making changes – that the client does not need to be ‘pinned down’. After all the only person that needs ‘pinning down’ is someone who is wriggling to avoid taking steps! And coach and client need to move away from the idea that there is any particular ‘right route’ towards the preferred future to the idea that there are a huge variety of possible pathways all of which can end in a better place than where the client finds herself right now. Avoiding the urge to tighten up is not easy – good luck!

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