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Coaching: Goals or No Goals?

Coaching is widely recognised as an effective approach to support managers to enable them to resolve challenges they face in the workplace. The generally accepted approach is that establishing goals is an important part of the coaching process. But is it always the best approach? Are goals always necessary in coaching?

I should be clear from the start; goals in coaching are really usefully in framing what success would look like for both coach and coachee. But what about the situations where goals feel elusive? 

There can be times where the goals presented before you’ve met your client or in the initial meeting(s), turn out not to be what they really want - or need - to talk about. Another example of this could be a client who is brave enough to say “I feel like coaching would be helpful but I’m not clear on exactly what my goals are. I just know there area number of things going on for me and I could use some help.” 

Amidst these times of uncertainty - the age of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)- many of my clients come with deep questions that somehow goal focussed coaching doesn’t satisfy.

Hetty Einzig spoke last year at the Association of Coaching about the future of coaching being “more purposeful and less goal orientated”. Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert’s excellent recently published book on Relational Coaching, describes the growing interest from clients in “how they can find purpose and meaning’ and in ‘existential questions’ of ‘identity and well-being”.

A recent client said to me that his thinking about a relationship at work hadn’t had “time to fully digest”to then figure out if and how to respond. This visceral description has echoes of what the British psychoanalyst Wilfried Bion described as “undigested facts”rooted in experiences that exist for us in a form that is not yet available for thinking about. 

What can coaches offer when goals are elusive? 

I think the answer lies in helping our clients increase their capacity to do the work on themselves that previously they would have done with us as their coaches. Through the relationship we have with our clients we can work with them to frame or speak about their experiences in a way that gives meaning that wasn’t there before – not necessarily building knowledge, more being with the coachee in what Bion called a “state of getting to know”.  I see and experience this as growth for both coachee and me as the coach – they of their experience and me of my experience of them to enable both of us to discover language that arrives at sense making. 

Diana Sim’s ’Tolerating the ‘Chaos Monsters’ reminds me that often our work as coaches is to invite clients to make the choice to either “cling to their old understanding (or jump to a premature new understanding) or to tolerate the experience of uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ long enough to allow new understanding to evolve.”

“Intolerance of the unknown and our need to snatch at something that explains it smothers the opportunity of coming to the truth” Bion

Are we brave enough to step into the unknown and the emotions that can stir for our clients and allow a different kind of understanding to emerge? How much is the need for clear goals from the outset a projection of our own need for comfort and security in needing to feel competent in our technical skill as coaches and that our work has



If you would like to explore this issue with Gordon or another member of the team please contact


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