Are you really agenda free?

by Jennifer Day

“Bossy-boots” was my nickname as a child. Apparently I was always telling others what to do—my father jokes that the only difference between then and now is that now I get paid for it!

Ahhh—if it were only that simple. Being a coach is, of course, not about telling people what to do—it is, as we know, about facilitating someone to arrive at their own agenda and to connect with their own inner knowing of what is true and right for them. It is about supporting her or him to stay on the path they have set for themselves. This requires that the coach “gets out of the way” and drops any judgments or agenda.

However straightforward this is in theory, it is something that doesn’t always come easily. Nor is it something we as coaches are even always aware of struggling with in ourselves! As we listen to our clients talk, how “agenda free” are we? Really? Do we always ask ourselves:

Am I judging what’s being said? Or something else?
Am I formulating opinions about it, before I hear it all?
Am I framing my own reply while I listen?
Am I looking for an opportunity to interrupt—perhaps to ask a question?
Am I thinking about other things?
Did I get enough sleep last night?
Am I hungry? Thirsty? Comfortable? Focused?
Have I prepared sufficiently?

Or we might just sum it up in one question: “Got stress?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then we have an agenda—and we are not fully listening. Whether we are completely self-aware or not, whether we admit it or not, any such “agenda” creates low-grade stress and gets in the way of effective coaching. It is a simple biological principle that when we are in any kind of stress—regardless of the intensity—our neo-cortex or “thinking brain” does not engage the way we need it to.

When we listen to a client, ideally we need to assimilate not only what we actually hear fully but also what we “hear” between the lines. We need to be able to ask appropriate questions or offer insightful suggestions that move the client forward. We need to capture the essence of what is going on for the client, and use our insights, creative faculties and often our intuition to respond in a way that is helpful and productive for the client—and the client’s agenda. In order to do this successfully, we need our brain (our neo-cortex) to be fully switched on and we need to put our own agenda (ideas, projections and opinions) aside!

Agenda-free listening is a great practice to help with this, and although it isn’t always possible to implement, it seems to improve listening generally. It is simple in concept, consisting of six steps:

  1. Self-Focus: Focus your attention in your own body (stomach, and chest area), and breathe slowly, extending the exhale as you focus on generating a good feeling and being centred in your own body.
  2. Suspend: As soon as you are centred, place your own agenda, ideas and thoughts aside for a moment. “Switch off” your own views.
  3. Commit: Make the intention not to interrupt, comment or offer guidance or advice of any kind until the person has finished speaking. Commit to this, fully.
  4. Maintain: Stay focused on breathing slowly and maintaining your own “feel-good” state. Remain open to receiving the communication without flavouring it with opinions, judgments or assessments of any kind.
  5. Summarize: When the speaker/client has finished speaking, sum up the essence of what you have heard, in a couple of sentences.
  6. Delay Gratification: Finally, take 30 seconds or so to allow your own insights and appropriate coaching tools to surface before you begin your coaching. This delay may seem a little awkward to begin with, but bear with it—it works!

Although straight-forward in its process, agenda-free listening does require focus and practice. When I teach it, either in a training or one-on-one to clients (managers, directors, counselors, parents, etc.), many find it awkward and “artificial” to begin with, but after frequent and regular practice the results are always above and beyond expectations. If nothing else, listening in this way allows the person speaking the time and space to arrive at her or his own insights, solutions or conclusions, which—like it or not—will almost always be more powerful than any advice we coaches can give! I have certainly found agenda-free listening to be a remarkable tool for getting me out of “Bossy Boots” mode and into the state of mind and being necessary to be the kind of coach I really want to be.


Jennifer Day is a best-selling author, speaker and coach, specializing in emotional intelligence and “in-the-moment” stress management programs for individuals, practitioners, organizations and families. Her most recent book Being What You Want to See: Bringing Emotional Mastery Into Everyday Life is available from bookstores and

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