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Navigating a Nonlinear Client Without Getting Lost

What coaching with nonlinear clients can feel like

Have you ever talked to a client, or anyone really, and in the course of the conversation asked yourself..."Where is this going?"

You probably had an initial topic of conversation but somewhere along the way you got lost among the weeds, followed some unrelated tangents, and ended up somewhere very far from the original goal.

If that's the case, you may have had an encounter with the nonlinear thinker.

Nonlinear thinkers have simultaneously frustrated and intimidated coaches for decades because they don't follow the script, they don't easily fall into a category, and they tend to derail conversations.

Well at CLCI we think the nonlinear thinkers out there have an unfair reputation. There are ways to coach them and have a fruitful coaching relationship!

This week on CLCI Live we talk with Lisa Finck (A.C.C.), Brooke Adair Walters (M.C.P.C.), Jerome LeDuff Jr. (M.C.L.C), and Anthony Lopez (M.C.P.C). about the truth of nonlinear thinking and how we can help our nonlinear clients. By the end of the article, you may even reconsider the way you market yourself and the way you coach.

Linear vs Nonlinear. The Truth

Walking the straight and narrow.

Order vs. disorder. Structure vs. chaos. Thin crust vs. deep dish pizza.

Seems like a black an white issue. You are either one OR the other. Life and people are either linear or nonlinear. Or is it?

The truth of the matter is, life is nonlinear. Always has been and only becomes linear, organized, and made sensible by people making it so.

The real world, people, and the ideas in it are interconnected, complicated, and nonlinear. A good example of this is a map of the internet, provided by

Every speck and dot on this map is a website and could hypothetically connect and link to any other website. How can anyone ever make sense of and navigate the infinite possibilities?

Make it linear!

Instead of endlessly searching for some website you desire, it is done in a step-by-step manner. If you want to find something and don't have the immediate answer, you probably:

  1. Go to Google

  2. Type in your query

  3. Google does some SEO wizardry and organizes all the data by relevancy

  4. Google presents you an ordered list

  5. You then go to your desired website

Nonlinear made linear, seems so simple. How does this apply to coaching?

Coaching is essentially an organized and structured conversation to get a client to move towards their intended goal. Coaches ask the right questions to steer the conversation in a productive manner so that the session doesn't completely derail.

The metaphor here is that you are Google.

  1. The client brings you a question, problem, goal. (Sets the session contract)

  2. You, the coach, do some coaching wizardry and listen actively, recall your coach training, and formulate an inquiry.

  3. You assist in creating an interaction guided by your client that is relevant, insightful, and open-ended.

  4. You remain curious and focused on the intention of the session (#2) until the session contract is fulfilled.

  5. The client leaves the session feeling fulfilled and as though money was well spent.

Metaphors aside, the most common structure used by coaches to create a linear session is the GO LEARN structure.

  1. Greet: Greet the client, take a minute for small talk

  2. Own: Ask your client about the previous action plan. Explore what they learned when as they completed tasks and/or what changes need to be made to the plan.

  3. Layout: Set your session contract. Discuss what your client wants to accomplish in the session and together, create a layout for the rest of the session that will best benefit your client.

  4. Explore: Use your coaching skills and questions to explore and assist your client in figuring out the best path to achieve both their short term goals/actions and their big picture goals.

  5. Action Plan: This is when you create a definitive action-plan based on what you have explored with your client. Outlining the steps needed to achieve their goals.

  6. Reassess: Make sure you stick to your own session contract, did you honor what you set out to do by self-coaching?

  7. Next Session: Schedule the next session, give a quick synopsis of the action plan, discuss what the expectations for the session may be and wish them well.

This structure covers all your bases and is a step-by-step linear take on the coaching session.

The Nonlinear Client

Inside the mind of a nonlinear client

There are several moments in GO LEARN where you may discover your client is non-linear.

Number 2. Own may be a big indicator. Your client may have chosen to work on several other things outside of the plan. They may have started to take their action steps but saw value or priority in doing something else entirely. This "lack of focus" may be an indicator your client is non-linear.

You could be tempted to write your client off as forgetful or flakey or not committed. But they are likely non-linear. Many non-linear people put a lot of focus on the potential and lose focus on time and priority.

This may be an indication of something to explore later. Which leads perfectly to the next area your clients insidious non-linear nature may be found out. Number 4. Explore.

You may find your client meanders during your session, or that they appear to be talking about something completely unrelated to the agreed upon session contract. You may be tempted to tell your client they aren't staying on task. But before you do, pump the breaks, and instead try asking a question.

Here's where many coaches get it wrong.

They assume that every nonlinear client does not have a steady train of thought. Some may not, but most just need a little bit more time and exploration to get to the point. New coaches will try to rigidly reign in the conversation and tie it to the session contract, strictly adhering to a linear model.

If there is one bit of advice we could give to coaches, it is to practice patience.

Being overly rigid in your structure can be off-putting to nonlinear thinkers and make them believe that you don't care or are not really listening to them.

There is no rush when it comes to coaching. Maybe instead of jamming the whole GO LEARN structure into an hour long session, your client needs a full hour at each step. Flex towards your client's thinking pattern, don't try to fight it.

And if you are concerned that the conversation is getting too off topic, gently ask them how what they are saying is related to the goal and assume that there is a method to their way of thinking, it just may not be obvious to you.

Who is Your Market and What is Their Need?

So who are your ideal clients?

When we consider our niche, we often think in terms of demographics, their pain points, where they can be found, and how we can market to them.

What we don't often consider is where they fall on the spectrum of linear to nonlinear and what they want/need. This will often inform how a coach structures their marketing, sessions, packages, and courses so it best fits their ideal client.

We have 4 possible combinations to think about:

  • The nonlinear who needs/want to become linear.

These are clients who feel like they have no control and who desire structure and control in their lives. They may say they are scatterbrained, unfocused, or flighty. They don't like to commit and may need some serious help setting up accountability measures.

  • The nonlinear who wish to stay nonlinear.

To them there is no issue with they way they think and that's true! These clients are usually creative in their professions and life but need time to explore different avenues and thoughts. For coaches, think of coaching as less of a "process" and more of an environment a nonlinear can freely explore in.

  • The linear who needs/wants to become nonlinear.

These are people who have existed in rigid or hierarchal structures and want to let loose. They may find that they need a spiritual/emotional release and that they have been stifled for too long. They've been doing things the same way for too long and they've finally hit their block. It may even be an organization who wants to radically change the way they approach company culture.

  • The linear who wish to stay linear.

The most obvious examples here are the organizations and institutions who sponsor their members/employees and pay to have them coached. These sponsors want a return on investment and have very specific goals they want accomplished. Courses, group coaching, 12-step programs; the more easily defined and organized the better.

With all this in mind, who is your ideal client and do they tend to think linear or nonlinear? The answer may be exactly what you need to start your business.


Thank you,

Lisa Finck, Brooke Adair Walters, Jerome LeDuff Jr, and Anthony Lopez!

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1 Comment

I agree with your views. And tunnel rush is an example of the problem you are discussing.

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