Goal Setting as a Life Coach: Marcia Reynolds’s Tips

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Coach the Person, Not the Problem" by Marcia Reynolds. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you accomplish goal setting as a life coach? How do you identify and set successful goals in a coaching session?

According to transformational coach Marcia Reynolds, a life coach’s job is not to judge clients from on high, but to partner with and help them leverage their strengths to achieve their goals. In Coach the Person, Not the Problem, she gives advice on how to successfully set goals in a coaching session.

Keep reading to learn more about goal setting as a life coach, according to Reynolds’s advice.

Goal Setting as a Life Coach 

Marcia Reynolds says that coaches keep clients focused on goals and actions they’ll take to achieve them. Goal setting as a life coach provides a guiding light to aim for, decreasing the likelihood of sessions turning into a laundry list review of clients’ surface-level problems. Encouraging clients to articulate what they’ve learned during a session and commit to steps they’ll take to achieve their goals leads to concrete, positive change. In this article, we’ll describe Reynolds’s advice for setting goals during a coaching session, based on the descriptions in Coach the Person, Not the Problem.

Help Clients Set Goals

When it comes to life coaching and setting goals, Reynolds argues that helping clients identify goals increases the probability that they’ll make longer-lasting change than if you simply assign them a goal. A goal can be as simple as addressing an obstacle that’s preventing the client from making a decision or moving forward, such as an emotion, like fear, that has them feeling stuck. She says coaches shouldn’t give clients goals because it may prompt resistance. This is because change triggers a survival response in the brain that interprets doing things differently as a threat. People are more likely to embrace change when they arrive at their own conclusions about how and why that change is important—because it’s less threatening than if someone imposes change on them. 

(Shortform note: Leadership experts offer a different take on why change is so difficult: It makes people feel they’ve lost control and creates an uncertain future in which they’re forced to contemplate their relevance and competence. For example, if a new boss takes over an organization, employees may worry about the security of their job, whether they’ll have to take on a different role or expanded responsibilities, and if they’ll be able to manage these changes. To minimize discomfort that can come with this kind of change, leaders can be honest and transparent about what workers can expect—for example, they might announce early in their tenure that they don’t have plans to lay off workers.)

Though it’s ideal for clients to start each session with a goal, not every client has a clear goal from the outset. Reynolds says it’s okay for goals to evolve over the course of a session. When clients’ goals aren’t firm or shift over the course of a session, you can help tease out a direction they might like to move in using the following tips:

Summarize and present choices of preferred outcomes. If your client appears lost, listing one problem after another rather than stating a clear goal, you can sum up what you’ve heard them say then present several options for direction they might take. For example, you might say, “I understand that you’re unhappy at your job because your boss has unrealistic expectations of you, but that you also enjoy your work. Do you want to leave your job or find ways to make things more tolerable so you can stay?” Your client can then clarify that they prefer one option over the other, or present a different option.

Listen for strong words and emotions that signal what your client really wants. Pay attention to words and phrases that emphasize a client’s true desires, like “I wish” or “the worst thing is.” Look, too, for strong body language, like slumping or a distressed facial expression. These words and emotions are clues that, with additional probing, you can illuminate your client’s fears or unmet needs, which can help you identify goals that your client wants to pursue.

(Shortform note: Coaching experts say that another way to help clients identify and set a goal is to directly ask them what’s not going well in their life, what they’re unhappy about, and what keeps them up at night. Oftentimes a great goal is the opposite of what your client says they’re unhappy about. For example, if they say they feel lonely, their goal might be to make friends or find a partner.)

Invite your client to change their goals if they have a revelation. If you notice that your client has a sudden realization that shifts or changes their goal in the middle of a session, welcome the change. A revelation might come in the form of a change of expression on your client’s face, a long pause, or laughter. You can learn more about what they’re experiencing by asking what led them to pause, or laugh. If that reveals that their thinking about their goal has changed, you can invite them to consider whether they want to revise their current goal. 

If they say yes, ask how their new way of thinking differs from how they’ve thought about things up to this point, acknowledge the change, then have them restate the new goal clearly so you’re both on the same page about it moving forward. If your client knows their goal has shifted but isn’t sure what new goal to focus on, get them to commit to at least one action they’ll take to move forward, like setting aside a time to identify a new goal for your next session. 

(Shortform note: Reynolds’s recommendation that coaches welcome mid-session goal changes is embraced by coaches in boxing as well. They argue that changing up goals can help boxers grow by pursuing bigger challenges they feel more passionately about, which can lead to greater development. Like Reynolds, boxing coaches help boxers uncover why they’re shifting their goal, because if they don’t understand this, they’ll lack the motivation to see the new goal through.)

Help Clients Take Action

Aside from focusing on goal setting during coaching sessions, Reynolds says that for clients to make meaningful life changes, you must get them to articulate what they learned during each session and commit to concrete steps they’ll take to achieve their goals. Failure to do this makes it too easy for clients to forget what they learned and not follow through on their goals. 

Clients should have one goal in every session, even if that goal is simply to reflect on what they learned during the session. You can get clients to commit to a goal by asking: 

  • What their plan is to achieve the goal
  • When they plan to get it done  
  • What obstacles they expect to confront in working toward it
  • What resources they can draw upon to overcome barriers they’ll face
  • How they feel about their plan 

Reynolds recommends wrapping up your final session with clients by asking them to describe their experience and what they learned. To reinforce their commitment to growth, remind them of the good work they did to make progress, including your reflection on a moment that their vulnerability resulted in an important shift in the process, their development over the course of your sessions together, and goals they set and achieved.

Set Bigger Goals to Find Greater Success

In The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone takes goal setting to a more extreme level than in Reynolds’s life coaching sessions, arguing that you should get in the mindset of setting goals that are 10 times higher than you’re inclined to and do 10 times what you think is required to achieve them

Cardone asserts that people make several key mistakes when setting goals: They set their expectations too low and target things that don’t adequately motivate them, and they underestimate the obstacles they’ll face and the effort and resources it will take to meet their goals.

He says that when you set your bar higher than you normally would, even if you don’t achieve your goal, you’ll still end up in a better place than if you’d set a lower bar. In contrast, when you set your goal too low, you’ll never realize the full potential of what you could have accomplished if you’d aimed higher. For example, if your goal is to be less lonely, instead of setting out to make one friend, your goal should be to make 10 friends. You may not end up with 10 friends, but you might end up with two or three instead of just one. 

Cardone goes on to say that the success you find from setting and achieving goals that are 10 times what you normally would set will fuel even more success, because being successful creates momentum. He argues that successful people look to keep their success going because they have to live up to their potential to be happy. In this context, he says, being dissatisfied and wanting more success is a positive, motivating force.
Goal Setting as a Life Coach: Marcia Reynolds’s Tips

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  • The mindsets and skills required of clients and coaches to work together effectively
  • The four practices coaches should employ to make the most of coaching sessions
  • Why the role of a coach is not to fix surface-level problems

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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