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ICF Core Coaching Competencies and how I incorporate them into my coaching practice

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

I've recently graduated from the BeCoach Academy Professional Coaching Diploma Programme and qualified as a Professional Coach. A lot of work went into it: Live training weekends, webinars, prep-reading, learning journal entries, many many hours of coaching, supervised coaching sessions etc. etc.

Another important part of the graduation package was the Graduation Essay. The purpose of this essay is to discuss my understanding of the Core Coaching Competencies as defined by the International Coaching Federations and to explore how I adopted these Core Coaching Competencies in my coaching practice.

And I thought I would share this essay with you. It will give you insights into what coaching is all about, what the competencies mean to me and how I put them into practice. I am taking these Core Coaching Competencies as my guidance and integrate them in the way I coach:

1. Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards

As a coach, I agree to practice the ICF Professional Core Competencies and pledge accountability to the ICF Code of Ethics in all coaching situations. That means that I understand and exhibit in my own behaviours the ICF Code of Ethics. One of the most important aspects is to clearly communicate the nature of coaching and the distinctions between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy and other support professions and to refer clients to another support professional as needed.

2. Establishing the Coaching Agreement

Establishing the Coaching Agreement is crucial not only at the beginning of a coaching relationship but also for every coaching session. Before I start working with a new client, I am running an intake session, which serves several purposes:

  • Making sure the client has an understanding of what coaching is and what it isn’t, what is being offered, and what the client’s and coach’s responsibilities are.

  • Setting up guidelines and specific parameters of the coaching relationship (e.g. logistics, fees, scheduling).

  • Getting to know the client better and to find out if there is an effective match between my coaching method/focus and the needs of the prospective client.

  • Identifying what the client would like to achieve through coaching. Every session goal can be aligned with this bigger goal.

  • Asking the client for permission to challenge them and, together with them, defining how they would like to be challenged.

Every coaching session should start with an agreement too. This agreement is about the context of the sessions (what the client brought to the session) and the SMART goal (defining what we want to work towards in the session). I’ve learnt to stay in the goal-setting part longer. Just last week, I spent 30 mins on defining the goal and then there was still enough time to work towards that goal. Without having a clear goal, we could have spent 50 minutes talking about how to reach it and wouldn’t have come that far. If the goal of a session is not clear you might have had a nice chat but the client doesn’t necessarily leave with something that brings them closer to where they want to be. Also, during a session, I like to check the progression towards the goal at least once (“How are we progressing towards your goal?”). If the goal is clear, it’s easier to track.

3. Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

“Trust and Intimacy” is established through various means and grows stronger throughout the coaching relationship:

  • Coaching presence & Active Listening: Only when I am focusing my whole attention on my client, can they feel that I care and that I am showing up for them. The same is true for the active listening part. Feeling listened to and being met with empathy creates trust.

  • Making them feel relaxed: Coaching Presence and Active Listening will already help with that. If a client has too much on their mind, I invite them to clear their mind first before starting the session. It goes without saying but sometimes it’s worth repeating that the sessions are a safe space and totally confidential.

  • Judgement-Free: Feeling judged by a coach would immediately jeopardize the trust and intimacy that has been created. For me, staying curious (One trick, I came across: Pretending that I don’t know anything at all about the client or their situation helps) is key here.

I noticed that the stronger ”Trust and Intimacy” is between myself and a client, the more impactful the sessions are. When it’s strong, clients are comfortable and allow themselves to be vulnerable, sharing their real issues and concerns, e.g. they give me permission to dig deeper and to go into sensitive areas.

4. Coaching Presence

As a coach, I need to be present in order to do a good job. Only when I am fully present I can listen actively, mirror, ask powerful questions, tap into my intuition, and notice energy shifts within the clients. Especially at the start of my coaching journey, I learnt that being present is the key to asking powerful questions at the right time (“Dancing in the moment”). If I am present and tuned in, I know that I can ask the right questions/do the right thing, at the right time.

In order to be more present, I’m always trying to have at least a 15-min gap before each session. In this 15-min gap, I am making sure that I’ve got everything I need (e.g. paper, pen, water) and go through the notes from the last session. That helps me to tell my brain that it is time for coaching and to mentally prepare for the client. Furthermore, having some downtime before a session allows me to mentally park other things that might occupy my thoughts.

5. Active Listening

There are three levels of listening:

  • Level 1- Internal Listening: When we engage in internal listening, we are focusing on our own inner voice. This means we are only considering our thoughts, feelings, opinions, and conclusions.

  • Level 2 - Focused Listening: Focused listening involves keeping an intense focus on the client. Here I am working a lot with summarising, paraphrasing, and mirroring back what the client said (e.g. What I heard you say is…). This ensures clarity and understanding, raises awareness and helps clients to see things from a different perspective. This becomes apparent when the client says e.g. “When you say it like this”. I know I am listening on level 2 when I am not worrying about my next question or moving along the GROW-model.

  • Level 3 - Environmental Listening: This is level 2 + intuition. This type of listening involves not only taking in the client’s words, but also paying attention to their tone of voice, facial expression, emotions, values, and what the client isn’t saying. This is where real awareness and learning can be created with questions/statements like “You said that you are happy with this (situation) but your body language tells a different story. What might it be?”

Since we are all human beings it can happen that we drift to level 1 every now and then. It is important to be aware of when this is happening and just move back to level 2 or 3 as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, SILENCE is an important part of listening too. Allowing silence and embracing silence can be a powerful tool. Once I've asked a question and there is a moment of silence, I wait and give it a moment rather than double-checking if my question was understood. Usually, when my clients do not understand a question, they will tell me. But if there is initial silence after a question, that's an indication that this question was powerful, triggering a deeper thinking process.

6. Powerful Questioning

Especially at the beginning of my coaching journey, I learnt that being present and listening on level 2 and 3 is the key to asking powerful questions at the right time. It’s not a list of “great” questions that you memorise, which allows you to ask powerful questions. If I am present and tuned in, I know that I can ask the right questions/do the right thing, at the right time. That’s what I would call, “trusting the process”.

How do I know I just asked a powerful question? There are some indicators:

  • The client actually says, “that was a good/hard question”

  • Silence. If the client needs to think deeply first before giving an answer, I know some awareness is being created

  • The client has an AHA-moment

  • The client just learnt something

Even though I said, I don’t have a list of questions that I rely on for every session, I do however keep lists of questions for different parts of a coaching conversation. And there are a few questions, I find myself asking on a regular basis (e.g. “If you’ve achieved this (goal) what does it allow you to do?”). Whenever I come across a really good question that is somewhat unusual (thus making it powerful), I add these questions to a Google Doc. And then I would try some of these questions with some clients. I notice which questions are powerful and some of these then go into my “repertoire”. And then there is the all-time favourite “What else?”

Some words on how to ask questions:

  • Open-ended questions (What, How, Who, When)

  • Free of judgement (Avoiding “Why”. These questions can very frequently make someone defensive. There’s almost always an implied scepticism in a why question)

  • ONE question at a time

7. Direct Communication

This is all about being clear and articulate. I keep challenging myself to keep it short, whether that’s a question or giving direct feedback. If a question or statement is too complicated or long-winded, the client might get confused.

Sometimes it can be very powerful to just use one word. Instead of paraphrasing everything the client just said, I sometimes pick just one word that stood out and repeat only that word.

Furthermore, it is important to use the client’s language. Here is an example: The client says “I have a big presentation in two weeks, and I want to make sure I’m ready.” I then would ask something like this: “What would you want to have by the end of our session that tells you that you are ready?” Instead of “ready” I could have used “prepared” because for me it might have the same meaning. However, “ready” and “prepared” may have different meanings for the client. And it can take the coaching conversation in a different direction.

Another great thing to use is metaphors. Among other things, metaphors can help to illustrate a point, activate the thinking process, and simplify a complex idea. For instance, a client may mention “a light at the end of the tunnel”. When I spot a metaphor used by a client, I can work with it and coach around this mental picture. I can ask questions about the light (e.g how far away it is and where the light comes from) and about the tunnel (e.g. the structure of the tunnel, how it feels and looks, where they are in relation to the tunnel/light). If a client does not come up with a metaphor, I can try to provide one. For instance, if the client is a runner, I can invite them to compare their current situation with running (e.g. sprint vs. marathon).

8. Creating Awareness

This is possibly the most important part of coaching and can be achieved by combining all the above coaching competencies. In my own practice, I find that the following tools/questions are most powerful:

  • Asking about key learnings at the end of a session (Bonus questions: Where else is this useful?)

  • “What is really important here?” Asking the client to distinguish between trivial and significant issues

  • Mirroring/Feedback: When a client is feeling stuck or lacks a broader perspective, giving back to them what I just heard, helps them to see things more clearly

  • Challenge the client: I had to learn this one first. I was worried that if I am challenging that I might be judging or the client doesn’t like me anymore. I had to reframe this for myself: If I don’t challenge my client they might stay stuck in a behaviour, perception, thought or feeling that doesn’t serve them. For example, when a client is saying that they are stuck and doesn’t see a way out, I can gently challenge that perception by a question like: “Suppose you got what you wanted, what would be different?” The question assumes that something can be changed which is a challenge to the client’s perception that things are unchangeable. In this context, I also like to use Byron Katie’s 4-Questions framework (“Is it true?”)

  • Learning about how values and beliefs are shaping our behaviour and thought patterns and how to elicit them, helped me to create more awareness for my clients.

9. Designing Actions

In a typical coaching session, I spend time exploring the goal (WHAT) and the motivation behind it (WHY). Designing Actions is all about the HOW to get there. I help my clients to come up with a number of alternative ideas and options. Using “What else?” is always a good question in this context, in order to stretch my clients to come up with yet another idea. Sometimes, when a client is feeling stuck and thinks they cannot come up with an idea, I like to ask: “What could the first step of the first step look like”. Breaking actions down, into small parts, can help with feeling overwhelmed by a task. Maybe that first micro-step can even be done right now, in the session.

The last three competencies are the ones that I am naturally strong at, which, in the beginning of my coaching training, led me to move to the options phase of the GROW model too quickly. However, I learnt that if we spent 30 minutes discussing the goal, how it should look like and why it is important, then spending 30 min on designing actions and planning is more than enough because the goal is clear, SMART, and connected to the vision.

At the end of each coaching session, I like to leave my clients with a task. This can be the client applying what has been discussed and learned during sessions immediately afterwards in their work or life context (e.g. having that difficult conversation). These tasks can be challenging for the client, forcing them out of their comfort zone. However, if the commitment to carrying out that task is strong enough, then they can do it and will grow even further. And the more that particular task supports the client’s agenda, the bigger the commitment will be. However, there are many other types of tasks that can be created, e.g. take time to reflect more on something that has been discussed.

10. Planning & Goal Setting

In its nature coaching is forward-looking and goal-oriented. Hence planning and goal setting is an integral part of every coaching relationship. At the beginning of a coaching relationship, it is important to define, with the client, where the focus should be and where they want to be at the end (after the agreed amount of sessions). Once this vision is clear, that gives both the coach and the client a sense of direction. The second step is then to identify the first journey goal and subsequent goals (stepping stones). This is a coaching plan/agreement. The further I am with a client in the process, the less time we usually spend on exploring the vision and the vivid picture of the “final” state. Instead at the beginning of the session, we would maybe discuss what’s been better since the last session, what the client did and what difference it made. This is a great time to celebrate successes, no matter how big or small. That is the case if the topic of the session is related to the previous session and the coaching agreement in place. However, in coaching, the client sets the agenda. And if they bring a completely new (and maybe urgent) topic to the session, that is fine too. I do not insist on coaching around the initial topic. If it is a new topic that is not related or far from the old topic, I would treat this session almost like a first session. Kerstin Dierolf from Solutions Academy illustrates this process very well in one of her blog posts.

But no matter what the goal of the coaching relationship or the coaching session is, it always has to be a SMART goal. As stated earlier, if the goal of a session is not clear you might have had a nice chat but the client doesn’t necessarily leave with something (almost tangible) that brings them closer to where they want to be. Any goal in the context of coaching should be a SMART goal.

11. Managing Progress & Accountability

This is very much related to Designing Actions as well as to Planning & Goal Setting. First, once there are a couple of actions identified, it is important to help the client to actually take action. And it’s not about doing everything that was discussed when brainstorming actions. It is important to find the one that set the client up for success. This is where I remind myself of the 7Rs of the Will/Way forward stage of the GROW model (Ranking, Relevance, Rating, Recoding, Roadblock, Review). As a coach, I can clearly request the client to take actions that will move the client toward their stated goals (e.g. from the list of options, what are you going to do? When exactly are you going to do it?). Depending on what it is, I don’t shy away from asking the clients to schedule the tasks in their diary. And in the next session, I will definitely follow up on whether or not the action has been taken. However, if in the next session, it becomes clear the action hasn’t been taken, I won’t judge or get mad. My job, as a coach, is to promote the client’s self-discipline and to hold the client accountable for what they say they are going to do. Holding someone accountable and taking responsibility are two different things. The responsibility to take action is always with the client. Of course, I want my clients to take actions that will move them towards their goals. One way of supporting without taking responsibility is to ask questions like this: “What could get in the way of you taking the actions you want to take? And what do you do if this happens?”

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