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Getting in Sync with Your Client Through the State of Engagement Model

November 10, 2016

coaching tool

As a coach, few things are less satisfying than a disengaged client. Let’s face it, most of us coaches do what we do to make a difference in the lives of our clients. And when WE seem more engaged in our client’s progress than THEY do…. well, that’s a bummer!

I’ve previously discussed the importance of creating and maintaining the rhythm of the coaching relationship. And that structure isn’t always enough to keep the client consistently, proactively engaged in their own progress. In fact, most client’s commitments wax and wane throughout the coaching relationship. And what can be most useful for nurturing their forward movement, is naming with the client, their level of engagement in the work and introducing it into the coaching conversation.

coaching tool

To enable that conversation, we’ve created the simple, intuitive coaching tool, The State of Engagement Model. The purpose of the tool is to initiate a dialogue with the client about how their current level of engagement is creating what they want for themselves….or not.

The Four States of Engagement

coaching tool

The State of Engagement Model is a coaching tool that identifies four possible states of engagement the client may be in: Inactive, Reactive, Active and Proactive. Like a runner before a race, the client’s level of engagement directly impacts their progress. The runner on their toes, ready and set, will move forward faster than the one standing at attention, back on their heels or laying down on the job. The same is true for our clients and bringing their awareness to that might just get them up on their toes again.


In the inactive state, the client is “laying down on the job,” not doing anything to move herself forward. For any number of reasons, the client is bringing the same issues, questions and challenges to the coaching and isn’t doing anything to improve her situation. She is treading water, not learning, not moving forward.

Example: In session after session, a client complains about a co-worker. She says she wants to improve their relationship, explores possibilities, identifies options and creates a plan of action, only to do nothing afterward. And returns to the next session, inactive and complaining again.

This is a stuck position. I call these as “Groundhog Day” sessions: same session, different day. If this happens too often with a client, I tell her I can no longer take her money, because what we are doing isn’t coaching. This usually jolts her enough to increase her level of engagement, at least for a time.


In the reactive state, the client is only acting when acted upon. The client shows up to sessions unprepared as if hoping or expecting the coach to set and drive the agenda.

Example: The client is considering making a career change and has expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction in his current job. Beyond that, he shows up to coaching sessions without a specific focus. The coaching is hit and miss. He responds to a few of the possibilities presented by the coach and forwards his thinking during the coaching conversation to an extent. And he might follow up on some of the co-created action items. However, he’s not preparing for the sessions to set the agenda and drive the outcome and he’s not tapping into his own resourcefulness and creativity between sessions to direct his efforts and maintain his momentum.

This is a passive position. The client is moving forward mainly through the prodding of the coach and the impetus of the coaching sessions.


In the active state, the client is ready and engaged in the process, preparing for coaching sessions, following up on action items. However, she either doesn’t really know what she wants, can’t seem to decide or isn’t prepared to face the reality of a difficult choice. (This is surprisingly common.) Many people spend so much of their energy just keeping up with what’s coming at them. They lose sight of the choices they have to create their life. Or they remain in the relative comfort of their current situation versus face the uncertainty, ambiguity, discomfort of a divergent path.

Example: The client says she wants to create a plan for retirement at a certain age, living a certain lifestyle. She identifies and begins work with a financial advisor to learn what she can afford to do when. She learns from her advisor that if she remains in her current job, she won’t be able to achieve her retirement goals unless she significantly cuts her spending or works significantly longer. During the coaching session, the client stubbornly sticks to her original retirement plan, is unwilling to change jobs, cut spending or work longer. Her discomfort is kicked down the road to another day.

This is a choice-less position. The client is actively engaged in the coaching process and isn’t accepting that she has choices or isn’t making the choices to move to her desired outcomes.


In the proactive state, the client is engaged, prepared, and clear about their goals for each coaching session as well as for the coaching relationship. (This is surprisingly rare. Very few people both know what they want to do and do what they know they want, which may be why they need coaches. So if you have clients who aren’t consistently proactively engaged, it might be why they hired you in the first place. :O)

Example: The client wants to enhance his performance in his role as CEO. He’s learned about the roles and responsibilities of the CEO and what high-level CEO performance looks like. He’s prepared for each session with what he wants coaching on, is clear about his choices, make decisions and takes actions in line with his goals.

This is a creating position. The client is proactively engaged in creating his life.

This four-states model provides a rare opportunity to create an awareness for your clients as to their involvement in creating a life of their own design through their engagement in the coaching process.

The State of Engagement Model


When you introduce the Model to your clients, explain the coaching tool as a way of thinking about one’s state of engagement on any given task, project, relationship, etc. It’s the measure of the extent to which one is engaged in creating a desired outcome.

Then explain to the client each of the four states within the context of the coaching relationship and what they might look like as a client. Then ask the client which state they feel they fit into. Most likely the client’s assessment will be similar to your own. In most cases, they are somewhere between the Inactive, Reactive, and Active states on the model.coaching tool

Once the client identifies their state of engagement, consider the following awareness creating questions:

  • What caused them to identify with that state vs. another state?
  • What’s causing them to be in that state? What’s driving it?
  • What is it like to be in that state? How does it feel?
  • What’s the result of their being in the state? staying in that state?

Clients may acknowledge that they are in a state other than Proactive for a myriad reasons. And opening up the conversation about these possibilities may expand every aspect of the coaching work. They may share that they are:

  • Overwhelmed by all they feel they need to do
  • Having challenges prioritizing all of their responsibilities
  • Focused outward on pleasing/accommodating others
  • Deeply depleted and don’t have the vital energy to engage
  • Avoiding the coaching work because it’s uncomfortable and/or confronting
  • Misunderstanding what coaching is and their role in it

Stepping back from the coaching itself to assess and discuss the client’s engagement in the coaching may actually move the client forward faster than any action step the client could take.

On the other hand, some clients may see themselves in the Proactive state and be unconscious or unaccepting about their level of engagement. This is where the very gentle mirroring of the client by the coach can create powerful awarenesses. The coach’s providing more concrete examples of what Proactive engagement would look like for the client may help the client see the discrepancy. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” The client may be creating the same sub-optimal results throughout their life if they are unaware or unaccepting of their level of engagement in it (or more likely, their degree of choice in it).

Once you and your client are aligned as to their level of engagement and have explored their experience of that, determine the client’s ability and willingness to move to a different state. Consider the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1 – 5, how important is what we are working on together? (If it’s not at a 4 or 5, consider asking what would be a 4-5 and how they would like to be working on something more important to them)
  • Why is this important? (You may want to ask this several times – “and what makes that important?” to get to their deepest level of motivation.)
  • What choices do you have to create what you want? What can you control?
  • What state would you like to be in?
  • How would that feel?
  • What would moving to a greater level of engagement give you?
  • What would need to change to create a greater level of engagement?

coaching tool

By walking through an intuitive coaching tool like the State of Engagement, it can help the coach and client to look at the model together and think about the situation from a common perspective. It creates some space for the client to see how and why they might not be getting the results they’d hoped for.

You can use the State of Engagement model to move clients from disengaged and/or unconscious states to Proactive and creating states. Doing so may lead to better results for your client and greater fulfillment for you.

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Posted in: Coaching|Coaching Resources


  1. Liz - April 2, 2017

    Thank your for this article. Beautifully written, and exactly the theory/practice that I needed to support me in my work with my own clients. Bravo!

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