At our second session, I ask my client what she wants to work on. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair, with an audible, “Huh?” Sensing she wants me to choose for her, I ask how she is doing with her first session action items, which she does not remember. After further inquiry, she asks for advice on an ongoing conflict, to which I respond by asking questions to clarify her situation and what she wants to achieve. Upon repeating her request for advice, I reiterate my role as her coach to help her arrive at her own conclusions and decisions. Soon after she decides to end the coaching engagement.

Despite clarifying what coaching is up front, we may still experience challenges like this one. Even when we draw insight and action out of clients—co-creating the learning and discovery process along the way—some may still see the coach as the sensei, teacher or consultant. When such challenges arise, how do we best ensure both sides are active participants and co-creation happens? And, given the cultural differences in play, how do we know when a client is ready to co-create with us?

First and foremost, establishing a relationship and gaining clarity on what coaching is (and is not) must take place in what we are calling “the un-contracted zone”—the time before a contract is signed when the essential pre-work to successful coaching relationships, and the resulting co-creation, happens.

The un-contracted zone serves two purposes: to (1) establish a foundation of relationship and trust and (2) achieve openness that will empower both coach and client to speak freely about expectations from the start. By investing in the un-contracted zone, it is far easier to revisit the coaching purpose, actions and outcomes at any time, especially when expectations and what co-creation looks like become less clear.


“This isn’t as helpful as I thought it would be.” My client’s words pierced my gut and overwhelming embarrassment rushed to my cheeks. Despite significant breakthrough moments, they felt dissatisfied, and I was caught off guard by the comment at the close of our second session. After a few deep breaths, I unpacked their statement and it became clear. The client had not fully embraced that coaching was not consulting. I wasn’t going to tell them what to do. I invited them to revisit the discussion from our intake session and talk openly about their expectations and the effectiveness of the coaching so far. Because of the time we spent together in the un-contracted zone, we were able to continue coaching without a problem.


After establishing a relational foundation, define what co-creation is, including the corresponding mindset and behaviors, and explore the cultural expectations attached. (Note: cultural expectations may be from a client’s personal cultural background, the organizational culture they are in, or a combination of both.)


Step 1: Start with definitions:

  • How do you define a successful coaching relationship?
  • How would you describe co-creation in your own words?
  • How do you see co-creation playing out in our sessions?
  • What are some indicators that we are creating our sessions together?

Step 2: Draw out assumptions and expectations:

  • What does having a coach mean to you? What are some examples?
  • What does a successful interaction with your coach look like?
  • What mindsets and behaviors will you need to achieve and sustain a successful coaching relationship?
  • What mindsets and behaviors will best support co-creation?
  • How do your cultural expectations impact your view of a coaching relationship?

Step 3: Agree on measures of success and accountability:

  • How will you know when we achieve co-creation?
  • What are the measures of success (thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors)?
  • What challenges may come up for you in working to achieve co-creation? How will you manage them? What support do you need?
  • How do you prefer to be held accountable in working to achieve co-creation?
  • How do we get back on track if co-creation is not happening?

Be proactive. Especially with clients completely new to coaching, revisit what you are doing together, what makes it coaching, and assess what their experience is so far during the first three sessions. This is essential when coaching across cultures, and it can help ensure that expectations are met and co-creation is truly happening. Moving forward, you can revisit the conversations and foundation set in the un-contracted zone anytime.

How we design our very first interactions in this un-contracted zone, before money has exchanged hands and services are booked, will determine how well we coach and how successfully the client will reach her goals. The pre-work sets the foundation of trust in the relationship that will ultimately enable openness and co-creation in your conversations.