ICF Core Competency Area B: Co-Creating the Relationship

Posted On: August 6, 2020

Written by: Jennifer Kumar (Managing Director, head Coach of Authentic Journeys) 


As we continue our exploration of the ICF core competencies, I will explore Area B: Co-Creating the Relationship. 

See/read insight on new ICF Competencies:
Cultivates Trust and Safety: ICF Core Competency 4 Part 1/Part 2
Maintains Presence: ICF Core Competency 5

Without a relationship, there is no coaching. For coaching to truly exist, it must be an open dialogue between the coach and client. It must not be transactional. Surface level conversations are not what we are striving for in coaching. We are looking to dig deep and get to the root of why something is the way it is, and how we c
an work together to help you overcome that particular circumstance to live the life you define as your best life.


Setting a foundation for what is to come is not only built in our initial interactions, but throughout the engagement. This is not only true for coaching, but, of course it is true for human relationships in general.

How we Follow the ICF Competency 3: Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

“Nobody’s gonna care about what you gotta say, until they know you care for them.” Jedidiah Alex ‘Jedi’, Master Certified Coach  

No client will sign on to coaching with any coach they don’t trust. While trust is initiated in the discovery session, it is tested and built over each session as well. Trust is not only important for the client to have in the coach and the coach to have in the client and themselves.

The client’s trust of the coach

The client needs to trust that the coach is not only competent or experienced but can handle coaching conversations to help them achieve the outcomes they are investing their time and money in. If the client doesn’t see any results, or perceive they will get the results or value they are looking for, either they will not sign up with the coach, or they could sign up, but then drop out. Though the ICF competencies do not mention this directly, I also believe that for the client to be successful in coaching the client needs to also trust in themselves to be open to the process and vulnerable. Without this trust in themselves, they may not appreciate coaching because it is a deeper, more emotional way of confronting concerns (even, seemingly not-so-emotional issues on the surface like making small talk across cultural borders, delivering a compelling presentation to a new client or driving client meetings when the manager is out are explored).

The coach’s trust of the client (and themselves)

The coach has to trust that the client has the answers within themselves. The coach understands that the client may not always want to talk about everything, so it’s important for the coach to ask for permission to enter new or sensitive areas of conversation. Conversely, once in deeper areas, there may be times the coach needs to use ‘direct communication’ to offer ideas or suggestions. While a coach focuses more on ‘powerful questioning’ to move the conversation ahead, there may be times when ‘direct communication’ is needed. In such cases, before offering some types of direct communication, the coach, again, should ask for permission to suggest any ideas. And, it’s always a good reminder that in coaching, the way forward is in the hands of the client. The coach is not the person making decisions for the client. The coach helps to empower the client to make decisions.

This is why it’s so important the coach also trust in themselves as a coach that they are competent in the coaching approach and process.

A note about building trust across cultures 

To add another valid point to this competency, Chip McFarlane mentions that trust is shaped by a person’s culture (I’d add a mix of personality and culture). As I am a cross-cultural coach and, as a US citizen who has lived as an expat in India for about 10 years, I am familiar with this construct. When living in India, I also worked as a coach (in addition to earning my Master’s Degree in Social Work from Madras Christian College). One aspect of trust that varied (in my opinion) in the culture of India where I lived was how an individual would build trust (and confidentiality) with you. In coach training (and even in social work therapy training) we were taught that, especially when adults want to engage for 1 to 1 services they will come in on their own to build that trust and relationship with you. It would be strange for that adult to bring in another adult with them (who probably wouldn’t get involved in that engagement). While this is true (for the most part) in the US, in India, this was typically not true, especially with private clients. Out of those who paid me out of pocket for 1 to 1 coaching, about 80% would come to the discovery session with someone, either a trusted colleague, family member or spouse (which may or may not be a sponsor). Often, since I did not grow up in that culture, it confused me. I wasn’t sure if both of the individuals wanted to get involved in coaching engagement (20% of the time, that was true), or they had a bystander with them for other reasons. In some cases, the person who accompanied them was a true bystander, who did not talk during the session, but seemed to be there to ‘feel me out’ or understand what this coaching process was all about. In some other cases, the bystander participated in the conversation. This participation could be as little as introducing themselves and asking a few questions (while the person who wanted coaching talked more than their trusted companion) to the bystander taking on the full talking role (this happened more in cases where the bystander had an apparent ‘better command’ over the English language than the person to be coached) of handling the intake session. This was always confusing to me, and sometimes still is, unless I have a previous relationship with either member in the discovery session. And, knowing Indian culture, this is part and parcel of Indian culture (I know from personal experience, myself married into an Indian family, there were times my Indian family members may take over for me in a conversation because of perceived or real linguistic or cultural barriers, even when the lingua franca was English – which goes to show Indian English is NOT American English). One may say this is another way personal space varies from culture to culture. Having someone talk on your part like this in an individualistic culture like in the US would be an offense not only to the person in question, but a sign of domination (or in rare, extreme circumstances, abuse) that a coach, therapist or doctor may not appreciate (unless the client in question was unable to participate properly because of a intellectual disability). However, my feeling in India is that it is an honor if someone knows you better than you know yourself. And, in fact, if someone else knows you better than you know yourself, it may be the ideal case. This doesn’t hold true for everyone, of course, but some [Indian clients] have told me this. This means the individual in question puts a lot of trust in their bystander to help them make or make the decision if it is ‘safe’ to work with me as a coach. If the prospective client’s bystander agrees, the client-to-be has what I perceived as blind faith that it would be safe to work with me. To expand on this, in some cases, the bystander would attend some sessions with the coachee, and some would want to attend every session. In many such cases, it was not culturally appropriate (in my estimation) to inform the bystander they could not attend. However, as the coaching engagement would then include an additional person, we may have to re-discuss the fee structure. In which case, typically, the bystander would politely exit from the engagement. It is also mentioned that in about 1/3 of these situations, the bystander was also a sponsor, which complicated the situation a little bit.

How this Competency Is Demonstrated at ACC, PCC, and MCC Levels

ACC level coaches may be apt to attend more to the agenda. While they will be curious and show concern and build rapport, they don’t dig deeper. They focus more on the doing than the being (the What over The Who). This means that the coach may not ask about deep feelings, ideas or concepts (being). Also, that the coach may not link the doing to the being. Coaches at the ACC level may do more talking than at other levels, but should not talk more than the client. 
PCC coaches tend to listen more. PCC coaches are apt to turn the conversation back to client to ask about their experience; not just about the details of the what of the experience, but the who of the experience. How did the coach see themselves as the co creator of what happened? The PCC coach not only sticks to the agenda, but asks questions along the arch of the current conversation to check in. For example, “So, (name of client), are we making progress on the (goal) we identified at the beginning of our conversation?” and also checking in with measurement markers, “So, (client name), when we started this conversation 15 minutes ago you felt you were at a 5 out of 10 as far as where you were with this goal. Now that we have talked about it for awhile, and some new insights are being formed, are we on track to getting up to your stated feeling of 7 out of 10?”  Based on the feedback, the coach will be able to direct the conversation to help the client get the most out of the conversation. 
MCC coaches do way more listening than talking. Coach talk time should be minimal, used for acknowledging the work being done, checking in, using powerful questions to guide the process, and keeping the coachee on track. In coaching with an MCC coach, the coachee is leading, the coach lets go of attachment to the process (so to speak) and their coach is just there in the flow aiding the coachee’s learning and development. 

Interestingly, as ICF continually updates their competencies, for the 2021 rollout the nomenclature of Competency 4 will be slightly updated to “Cultivates Trust and Safety” from “Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client.” This may be due to the fact that some identify the word ‘intimacy’ as being ‘too intimate’ when talking about a coach and client relationship. Some may feel more comfortable using the word ‘intimate’ when talking about their spouse or partner than someone they are having a ‘professional relationship’ with.

How we Follow the ICF Competency 4: Coaching Presence

Check out our insight on the 2021 Core Competency #5: Maintains Presence

According to the ICF, Coaching Presence is the:

Ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident. (source page)

As Chip McFarlane from the IECL notes, there are three elements to Coaching Presence:

  1. Comfort with the structure
  2. Awareness of self and others
  3. Signature presence 

Of the three points, I will address only point number 1 (comfort with the structure). Feel free to refer to the video for insight into the other two points.

Comfort with the structure of coaching is not only imperative with the coach in how they, he or she handles themselves during the coaching session, but it is imperative that the coach has communicated the structure of coaching with the client.

The Coach’s Comfort with the Coaching Structure
When we talk about the coach’s comfort with the coaching structure, we are talking about how well the coach manages the coaching philosophy or approach in a coaching conversation without worrying if they are following the process or not.


Levels of ICF Coach Certification

Notes on diagram:


The ‘newer’ the coach is to coaching or a new coaching methodology, the coach may fumble through the new process, trying to make sure that each ‘step’ in that methodology is ‘checked off.’ I know. I have been there, myself. I started my coaching journey back in 2009 with coach training. Before 2009, I was a professional social worker who did therapy and coaching with clients for about 10 years. Interestingly, I was already ‘coaching’ in some conversations as a social worker, but did not know it. When I started ICF coach training in 2009, and started practicing more ‘pure coaching’ techniques, in one way I felt so at ease (I’ve already been doing this), but at the same time, felt like a ‘fish out of water…’ (why are these strategies so formalized?).

My coach training mentor used to comment to me,

“Jennifer, when I watch you coach, you are already coaching. But, you are so worried about the process of coaching, and doing it ‘right’ that you lose your presence with the client.”


In every single way, she was right. I had 10 years’ experience being present with clients. But, I was too hung up on the new process I was learning to understand I already knew it! And, in 2019, the same thing happened when I learned another new coaching approach (InterActional Coaching). As I fumbled learning what was required in THAT process, I lost touch not only with the client, but myself. But, as I became more confident that I ‘knew what I was doing’ and ‘let go’ of the fact that others may be ‘watching me’ or ‘analyzing my coaching’ (peer coaching/feedback), I was fine. It’s amazing how sometimes our mind tricks us into thinking we don’t know something that we already know! (Ironically, it’s the very same thing I coach my clients around in language and cultural fluency.)

The Client’s Comfort with the Structure

This is actually not really discussed outright in the current coaching competencies. I am adding this because this is an important discussion I have with all clients in our discovery session. Because coaching doesn’t have a syllabus or a course outline, many wonder how we keep ‘on track’ or ‘accountable to outcomes’ (KPIs, if working with a company). We do this through the structure of the session and making sure we spend time in different sessions talking about what is important to the client (and in some cases, the sponsor when coaching with a team or a company).

The overarching structure of a coaching program and individual calls is pretty much the same. The image below tries to show this in more of a graphical presentation.

The arch of an entire coaching engagement (at Authentic Journeys, a 5, 10, 15 or 20 hour program). A session here is noted as a one hour duration.

Structuring of a coaching engagement

**Depending on how we organize our coaching engagement and how long it is, we may have one or two “retrospective” calls. Especially, when coaching a professional sponsored by his or her company, this is an important part of the process. In some cases, the manager or other stakeholders is involved in this call. In some cases, there will be a separate call with the manager or stakeholders. In all cases, we use goal setting and tracking sheets with competency markers to ensure we are making progress on the KPIs.

Typically for individual clients who attend only 5 or 10 hour programs, the “wrap up” is wrapped into a final coaching call. An entire hour as a wrap up call is not typically needed unless a sponsor is involved.

The arch of ONE coaching call. A session here is noted as a one hour duration.

Structuring of a single coaching call


Ways to Fail This Competency Area
Of the dos and don’ts to ensure this competency is demonstrated properly, the no-nos are:

  1. Coach drives the conversation (talking way more than the coachee). 
  2. Coach asks too many questions, stacking questions, or multiple questions without leaving a space to answer.
  3. Coach tells someone what they think or feel or gives advice/tips without asking permission. 
  4. Coach enters sensitive areas of the discussion without asking for permission.   
  5. Coach may say any of the following: “what I see you doing is…”  “you are clearly upset….”  The coach, under no circumstance, should identify or label a client’s feelings or thoughts through statements or questions (Are you feeling X?). If labeling a thought or feeling is a challenge, coaches should lean on the client’s figurative or metaphorical language. 
  6. The coach should not offer ideas or solutions in statement or question format (“Would you consider doing….?” or “I was in this situation before and did X. Would this work for you?”) 

A coach should not use leading statements or questions to put thoughts into the client’s head or words into the client’s mouth. Bottom line.
As we explored this competency area, how does it apply to you as a coach or a client? If you are a coach, have you thought of any new perspectives after reading this? If you are considering to be a client does this make you interested in coaching? If you have been coached, how does this resonate with your coaching experience? If you’re interested to discuss the competencies or schedule a coaching session, get in touch with me.


Jennifer Kumar, author, and ICF PCC credentialed coach created the Coach 2 Coach Mastermind.


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