ICF Core Competencies: Maintaining Coaching Presence


In this blog post, we inspect competency 5: Maintains Presence. ICF defines this competency as “Is fully conscious and present with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible, grounded and confident.” The first two markers that show the coach is competent in maintaining coaching presence are:

  • Remains focused, observant, empathetic, and responsive to the client
  • Demonstrates curiosity during the coaching process

Coaching presence starts with being “present” with the client. And that’s an important step in master coaches ace. To do this, the coach has to have this coaching ability to bring themselves into the coaching space, leaving everything else behind, and be fully attentive to the client and their development. It is only when we are fully present with the client that we can hear the whole of what the client is communicating. We hear their words, what’s behind their words, what they say with their facial expressions, their vocal patterns, and body language. We hear what they say with their hand movements, their breathing, and their eye cues. Are they thinking? Are they feeling? Are they remembering? What are they processing? With powerful coaching presence, the coaching relationship is taken to the whole new level.

When a masterful coach is fully present with the client, they can step in and be in the moment with the client where we can allow ourselves to establish the empathetic connection to what must happen for the client. We are curious about what the client can discover and uncover. Not for our benefit, but for theirs. We can also take a step back and look at the client’s world from an external vantage point that allows us to see patterns, inconsistencies, distortions, deletions, generalizations, and limiting beliefs that seem to get in the client’s way of moving forward and finding solution. Being observant and responsive to the client not only requires that we listen and notice, but that we bring those things that we observe into focus for the client to decide what they wish to do with them. Being responsive in the coaching conversation also means that we can’t be stuck in our own ideas or conclusions about what the client is communicating. We have to be flexible enough to see and hear when how we are working with them is resonating and moving them forward or not. Being curious is a powerful coaching skill that means that we aren’t listening to what the client says and internalizing it, analyzing it, and telling the client what we are realizing and discovering through their words. Masterful coaching exhibits enough presence to hear clients words and bring that curiosity to the client to analyze their own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and ideas to see what they can discover. Being curious means pulling the information out of the client for them to speak out loud. So, when they start discussing it, they peel back the layers of their understanding and reveal something that was always there and yet remained undiscovered. In short, coaching presence is being there with the client, for the clients learning and growth.

The second two markers that show the coach is competent in maintaining coaching presence are:

  • Manages one’s emotions to stay present with the client
  • Demonstrates confidence in working with strong client emotions during the coaching process

Contrary to popular belief, there is crying in coaching sessions. There is also a wide range of other emotions that show up, like fear, anger, frustration, joy, anticipation, hurt, excitement, etc. Professional coaching focuses on the whole person, not just the parts that are rational and logical. Learning to stay present with the client and allow them the space to process their emotions is critical if we are going to go beneath the surface and get to the root of faulty thinking. As coaches, it is important for us to provide a safe and supportive space for our clients to process what they are thinking and feeling, so they can move to the next stages. If we are not comfortable and confident with the client when powerful emotion comes up, we will sidestep, or try to move their emotions into a place that’s more comfortable to us. What the client needs when they start crying is to have space to experience the emotion, not a box of tissues. Eventually they will process through the emotion and will be ready for a tissue. However, to hand them one at the first sign of tears sends the message, “I’m not comfortable with your tears, dry them up.” When clients are angry or frustrated about something happening, they don’t need us to calm them down. They need us to give them space to vent their frustrations, so they can experience them and then partner with them, asking questions and making observations that enable them to process those feelings and gain from them. In short, when working with client emotions, we need to be fully in command of our own emotions. The key factor here is to understand what emotions we are uncomfortable with and build a tolerance for witnessing these emotions from a neutral yet empathetic position where we can create a safe place for the client. That’s the path to establishing deeper connection and building stronger coach-client relationship.

This said, remember that coaching is not therapy. There is a difference between incidental emotion and deep wounds from the past that need healing if the client is to move forward. Deep wounds, brokenness, ongoing depression, etc might need to be referred to a different helping profession. As a matter of ethics, coaches are responsible for making proper referrals rather than attempting to heal deep wounds they are not properly equipped to handle.

The interesting thing about coaching is that as a coach, you don’t need to know everything the client knows, and that’s the essence of coaching. In a typical coaching session we don’t need all the details, we don’t need all of our curiosities answered, we don’t need to fully understand the client’s domain and context, and we don’t need to know every aspect of the client’s challenge in order to help them move forward. If we are holding the client as creative, resourceful, and whole then we can trust that the client understands the details, so we don’t have to. We bring the framework and process that assists the client in doing the work of resolving their own challenges, questions, concerns, desires, and actions. Since we are not doing the work, we don’t need full context. We do, however, need to listen on a deeper level to what the client is saying and work with what they present to help them become more aware. Part of the ability to help the client build awareness is giving them the space to do so. Silence in coaching is one of the three critical and powerful skills: listening on a deeper level, silence, questioning. Silence isn’t about just not talking. It’s about knowing when to talk and when to remain silent for the client’s benefit. One way to tell that it is time to remain silent and create a moment for the time to process and learn is when the client’s eyes are looking upward, sideways, or downward. This means that they are thinking, remembering, or processing and need the space to do so. When they are ready, they will look back at you. Another way to tell your client needs silence is when you ask a question and they don’t answer.

This is not the time to re-ask the question, give an explanation, or ask a different question. This is not the time of showing off the brilliance of your coaching skills. The key coaching ability here is to be present with the client and be silent. When the client doesn’t answer, we have to trust that they are creative, resourceful, and whole and are capable of telling us what they need. If they don’t understand the question or it doesn’t resonate, they will tell you. Otherwise, wait in silence for what happens next. When the client is talking, then they stop and look away, they are not finished. Don’t speak. Let them process. When they are ready, they will either start talking again or they will look at you. Don’t be in a hurry. Mastery of coaching is to slow down and make the entire coaching experience for the client to flow at a slower pace. It is more powerful to the client that you don’t ask questions. A last place where the coach needs to leave space for the client is in between their responses and your questions. Don’t jump right on top of the client’s answer to ask the next question. This usually shows that the coach was not listening. If you have a question to pile right on top of the client’s last word, you were thinking and not listening. Instead, listen fully to what the client says. When they are finished, take a moment and perhaps a breath, think about the right question to ask, and then ask it. Don’t be afraid to allow space and silence – that’s where your superior coaching presence shows. You and the client both need processing time to be most effective.

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