11 ICF Core Competencies of Coaching (2021) – Easy Explained

8 min read

You’re about to learn what the ICF core competencies actually mean for a life coach and their clients.

The International Coach Federation is globally regarded as setting the strictest standards for its certified coaches. 

But what are these standards in layman’s terms? 

Read on to find out…

What Is The ICF Definition Of Coaching?

The ICF’s definition of coaching is an important place to start.

On its website, it defines coaching as: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

What Are The 11 ICF Core Competencies?

The ICF website also lists the 11 core competencies that coaches will be evaluated on throughout their certification process and beyond…

These competencies play a huge role in maintaining the ICF’s reputation as the #1 international coaching organisation. 

So, let’s discover what they are – and what they mean for the relationship between coaches and clients. 

#1 Meeting Ethical Guidelines And Professional Standards

A coach will be assessed on their ability to stick to the ICF Code of Ethics and apply it appropriately to all coaching scenarios. This code is based on the four ICF Core Values (Integrity, Excellence, Collaboration and Respect) and the actions that flow from them. 

A key skill needed to display this core competency is: knowing the difference between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy and other support professions. 

If they do not refer a client to another form of support when necessary, or if they engage in another form of support themselves, the coach will be deemed as failing to display this competency. 

#2 Establishing The Coaching Agreement

Before a client agrees to pay for coaching, an ICF-certified coach must ensure the clients understands the boundaries of the coaching relationship (e.g fees, logistics, scheduling, what coaching is and what it is not).

They must also understand what a client is hoping to get from the coaching relationship, communicate whether this is possible and strive to deliver according to these agreed expectations. These expectations should be outlined and agreed upon before the start of every coaching session. 

If there is a mismatch between a client’s expectations and what a coach can deliver, this must be communicated.  

A great coach will teach around the topics chosen by the client, while also exploring if there are any other topics that will be of benefit. 

However, if a coach decides for themselves what topics should be coached, ignoring the client’s requests completely, they will be deemed as failing to display this competency. 

ICF Core Competencies
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#3 Establishing Trust And Intimacy With The Client 

A coach will be assessed on their ability to create a safe and supportive coaching environment for their client.

In order to display this competency, a coach must: 

  • establish clear expectations for an ongoing open and honest relationship; 
  • hold the client in “unconditional positive regard”;
  • show genuine concern for the client’s welfare and future;
  • demonstrate personal integrity and sincerity at all times; 
  • demonstrate respect and trust for a client’s perceptions and opinions; 
  • provide ongoing support and praise for new behaviours and actions; 
  • ask permission before exploring coaching in potentially sensitive new areas. 

The ICF guidelines make it clear that a coach must focus their interest on the client’s view of a situation, rather than their own. 

Many beginner coaches fail to do this because they are preoccupied with presenting themselves as a “good coach” and showing off their knowledge in a particular area. 

Coaches who fall into this trap are at a severe risk of being deemed as failing to display this competency.

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#4 Coaching Presence

Presence is key to establishing a strong coaching relationship. As such, a coach is assessed on their ability to remain fully present during their sessions. 

Coaches are encouraged to: 

  • be flexible with their agendas;
  • trusts their own intuition while coaching; 
  • be open to not knowing and taking risks;
  • using humour to lighten the mood when necessary;
  • avoid being overwhelmed by client’s emotions. 

The biggest hurdle to coaching presence is being overly concerned with one’s own coaching ability. If a coach is paying too much attention to their own performance, what to say next, wondering how much value their client is getting etc, this takes their focus away from the present moment. 

In order to display this competency, a coach must understand that value is inherent in coaching presence. In this case, there is no need to consciously create value.  

#5 Active Listening 

Active listening is a skill that an ICF-certified coach should master. 

This involves the ability to understand what a client is trying to communicate, not only through their words, but their tone of voice and body language. The coach is also able to obtain information from what a client is not saying

Active listening also involves summarising – and perhaps paraphrasing – what a client has said in order to ensure clarity and understanding. Coaches are also encouraged to build on a client’s ideas and suggestions to fully understand the essence of what they are trying to communicate. 

In order to display this competency, a coach must also consistently encourage a client to fully express themselves without fear of judgement. 

Active listening absolutely requires coaching presence. It also requires a coach to respond to their client based on what they are communicating, not the coach’s own agenda. 

#6 Powerful Questioning 

A coach will be assessed on their ability to ask questions which lead to new insights and move the client towards their goals. 

In almost all circumstances, these questions will:

  • reflect a coach’s presence and active listening;
  • encourage the client to investigate and discover new insights about themselves;  
  • encourage the client to look forwards towards the future, rather than dwell on the present or the past.

In order to ask powerful questions, a coach must not be afraid of making themselves or their client uncomfortable. 

There are standardised formulas within life coach training models for powerful questioning, but a great coach will be able to move beyond this model when necessary, while still applying the basic principles listed above. 

Questions which the coach already knows the answer to do not meet the criteria of powerful questioning. Neither do questions which aren’t based on a client’s goals or communications. 

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#7 Direct Communication

A coach is assessed on their ability to communicate in a manner which has the greatest positive impact on the client.

They are encouraged to:

  • be clear and succinct in their communications;
  • re-word their communication if the client is uncertain what they mean;
  • ensure the client is aware of the meeting’s objectives; 
  • use respectful and appropriate language at all times;
  • refrain from “dressing up” their communications with unnecessary vocabulary.

A great coach will use their knowledge of language to illustrate a point in a way that best suits their client. This might involve the use of relatable metaphors or analogies. 

A bad coach will be terrible at getting to the point, and will often waste time discussing topics that are irrelevant to the client’s development. In this case, a coach is likely to be deemed as failing to display this competency.   

#8 Creating Awareness

A coach will be assessed on their ability to create awareness within their client. A great coach will help a client become more aware of their current thoughts and behaviours, as well as alternative actions, values and beliefs that may serve them better in the future. 

In order to become a master at creating awareness within clients, a coach must be able to: 

  • engage in active listening to gain information beyond the words spoken by the client;
  • ask powerful questions to gain greater clarity and invoke greater self-awareness;
  • use direct communication at all times;  
  • help clients to discover helpful new solutions, values and beliefs for themselves, rather than forcing these upon them; 
  • allow clients to understand the relation between their experiences, thoughts, emotions and actions; 
  • encourage the client to identify their major strengths and major areas for learning and growth, as well as what is most important to address during coaching;
  • ask the client to distinguish between significant and trivial issues;
  • ask the client to distinguish between situational and recurring behaviours.

These final two bullets allow a coach and their client to focus on the issues that really matter, thus allowing them to progress quicker.  

ICF Competencies
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#9 Designing Actions

The coach will be assessed on their ability to work with the client to find opportunities for ongoing learning outside of coaching sessions. 

When designing actions, the coach is encouraged to lead the clients towards ongoing learning that will drive them towards their goals, rather than assign it themselves.   

These actions should: 

  • enable the client to demonstrate, practice, and deepen new learning;
  • help the client to further explore concerns and goals that they outlined themselves;
  • encourage the client to further explore ideas, solutions and actions that will lead them towards their goals; 
  • promote active experimentation and self-discovery; 
  • allow the client to apply what has been discussed and learned during coaching sessions;
  • encourage the client to challenge the existing beliefs and assumptions about the world around them;  
  • help the client to notice and celebrate successes and capabilities for future growth;
  • encourage the client to stretch and challenge themselves, albeit at a comfortable pace. 

The actions agreed upon may not achieve all of these goals, but they will often touch upon many of them. 

If a coach insists upon assigning ‘homework’ without the client’s buy-in, or leads a client towards unhelpful or unclear actions, they may be deemed as failing to display this competency. 

#10 Planning And Goal Setting

A coach will be assessed on their ability to work with a client to establish and maintain an effective coaching plan. 

The coach is encouraged to work alongside the client during the goal setting process, rather than assigning tasks for them. 

A great coach will help a client set effective goals for themselves, based on what they’ve learned about the client and their overall desires throughout the coaching process.

The goals set should: 

  • be set clearly and clarified using direct communication;
  • address a client’s concerns and desired areas for learning and development; 
  • be SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic with target dates);
  • be adjusted over time as warranted by lessons throughout coaching or changes in the client’s situation; 
  • have a clear purpose that moves a client towards their desired outcomes.
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#11 Managing Progress And Accountability

A great coach will encourage the client to define their own methods of holding themselves accountable, then play a supporting role in these methods. 

When a coach moves to call out a client for not staying accountable to their promises, this communication should be supportive in its nature. A coach should never chastise their client for their failures. 

A great coach can be expected to: 

  • clarify the agreed actions with the client;
  • ask the client about their progress with the actions they committed to during previous sessions;
  • acknowledge the client for their progression (or lack of progression) since the previous coaching session(s);
  • effectively prepare, organize and evaluate the information obtained during coaching sessions with the client;
  • keep the client on track by holding their attention on the coaching plan, outcomes, agreed-upon courses of action, and topics for future session(s);
  • remain open to adjusting the coaching plan based on shifts in direction during coaching sessions;
  • allow the client to develop their own ability to make decisions, address key concerns and improve themselves, while lending a helping hand if needed; 
  • positively confront a client that does not take agreed-upon actions,
Core Competencies ICF
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What Are The Most Essential Coaching Competencies In The Coach/Client Relationship?

None of the ICF Core Coaching Competencies are officially labelled as more important than the others.

You may find that it is more important to display mastery of specific coaching competencies with individual clients.

However, that is based upon their individual needs rather than certain competencies being more important. 

ICF Core Coaching Competencies Rating Levels

There are three levels of ICF certification you can apply for. 

These are (in order of authority):  

  • Associate Certified Coach (ACC); 
  • Professional Certified Coach (PCC); 
  • Master Certified Coach (MCC). 

For each credential level, a coach must display a greater mastery of the coaching core competencies. These levels of mastery for each of the ICF coaching competencies are outlined in a Level Method Chart PDF on the ICF website.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the ICF core coaching competencies.  

Any more questions about the ICF Core Coaching Competencies? 

I hope you appreciated this layman’s guide to the ICF competencies.

The International Coach Federation core competencies are hugely important to all life coaches and their clients. 

They should define any coaching agreement, coaching expectations and coaching relationship at all times. 

As such, I’d be happy to answer any further questions you have about these coaching core competencies. 

If you have any queries, leave them in the comments.

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