ATD Blog

What, Exactly, Is Coaching? The Core Competencies

Monday, March 15, 2021

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Companies are now developing a “coaching culture,” and the leaders are using a “coaching style of management” to enhance their effectiveness and leadership skills. On a personal level, the skills one acquires in the role of coach helps with relationships at home, in the community, and when serving as a volunteer.


The ICF recognizes 11 core coaching competencies, which are divided into the following four categories.

Setting the foundation:

1) ethical guidelines

2) coaching agreement

Co-creating the relationship:

3) trust and intimacy

4) coaching presence

Communicating effectively:

5) active listening

6) powerful questioning


7) direct communication

Facilitating learning and results:

8) creating awareness

9) designing actions

10) planning and goal setting

11) accountability.

Here’s a quick rundown of the competencies: Coaching starts with knowing the ethical guidelines that surround a coaching relationship; specifically the ICF code of ethics. The coach then establishes a coaching agreement with his client that clarifies each other’s roles, relationship, ethics, and process. Establishing trust and intimacy requires that the coach creates a safe space in which the client can speak openly. Having a “coaching presence” requires focusing completely on the client. Effective communication includes listening, asking powerful questions, and using clear, direct language. The coach empowers the client by creating awareness through self-exploration, facilitating planning and goal setting, and serving as an accountability partner, giving the client potential to maximize their lives.

Coaching niche areas number in the thousands. Generally speaking, coaching focuses within one of four broad categories.

  • Career coaching serves individuals looking for a job, redefining their careers, or advancing their careers. 
  • Life coaching supports exploration and action in areas meaningful to the individual, including relationships, family, legacy, life purpose, spirituality, life management, and major transitions.
  • Business coaches often work with individual owners or managers of small to mid-sized businesses.

These categories serve as a general way of describing coaching. Each type of coaching can and often does overlap with the other types. A coach’s background, experience, and previous education provide the foundation for her coaching niche area or areas.

Whatever the type of coaching being provided, the question arises as to whether the coaching sessions will cover areas other than the specific purpose for which the coach is engaged. For example, some believe that in professional coaching sessions, only matters relating to the coachee’s job should be discussed. In many cases, this is because the employer is paying for the coaching. Another example is when an individual hires a coach to provide assistance with job-hunting. In this scenario, the coachee may believe that coaching should address only that goal.   

A different perspective is that if the coaching sessions are limited to one area or one goal, then the outcome is also limited. The Harvard Business Review states that 76 percent of the time when an executive coach is engaged, personal issues are also addressed. 

A good approach to any coaching relationship is to begin with a session that explores what the individual wants in all areas of their life. In the second session, the pair may discuss how the coachee will create the thinking and habits she wants to support her progress and success. Then, from the third session on, the focus is on the coachee’s job or the primary reason for the coaching. This balanced approach results in a thorough assessment of factors that may be influencing the coachee’s success in both her personal and professional lives. It also helps develop a strong rapport between the client and the coach. The coach ultimately helps the client by unlocking the person's potential.

One can use coaching skills in a mentoring relationship, but coaching and mentoring are not the same thing. For more on the differences between coaching, mentoring, and therapy, visit the What is Executive Coaching page.

Read more of Cathy's blogs on coaching.

Download this job-aid on using coaching for your own career growth.

This blog post was first published in November 2013 and since been updated with new resources and information.

About the Author

Cathy Liska is the founder and CEO of the Center for Coaching Certification and the Center for Coaching Solutions. As the Guide from the Side, she is recognized among the best internationally in training, speaking, coaching, mediation, and consulting. Cathy has presented, trained, and facilitated thousands of events, workshops, certification courses, and organizational retreats, freely sharing from her 20 years of experience in business ownership and management. Cathy serves as a Certified Master Coach and certifies others to coach in her ICF-approved program. Cathy’s personal mission statement is “People.” Cathy is known for her passion in sharing the insight, experience, positive attitude, and information that empower others to achieve the results they desire;

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Thank you for posting this - it is very helpful. Lots of information.
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The rundown of the competencies was very useful.
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