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Heart Coach Institute

Heart Coach Institute Director of Education

Gaye Kuelsen, PCC • January 10, 2022 • 10 Minute Read

How to avoid the pitfalls during a coaching conversation...

With the release, last year, of the ICF Updated Core Competencies Model, some additional supporting documents have been published by the ICF.  You may be familiar with the PCC Markers, which have been in existence for some time, though now have been updated to better align with the updated model.  In addition, the Minimum Skills requirements for MCC and ACC have been updated.  These documents provide the indicators that assessors are looking for when reviewing a recorded coaching session for credential applications.

In this edition we will focus on an interesting aspect of the ACC Minimum Skills Requirements, which outlines what behaviours will result in a coach not being granted their ACC Credential.  For Competencies 3 – 8, the final paragraph describes the behaviours that “will not receive a passing score”. Let’s look at each in turn, and I’ll provide some strategies which will help you avoid these pitfalls during your coaching conversations.

3. Establishes and Maintains Agreements

An applicant will not receive a passing score for Establishes and Maintains Agreements on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach chooses the topic for the client or if the coach does not coach around the topic the client has chosen.

A common scenario is when a client comes with several topics.  In the eagerness to get started, a coach may unintentionally guide the client to the topic for the session.  If the coach’s guiding is deemed too persuasive, this may be construed as the coach, choosing the topic instead of the client making the choice.  When a client has several topics, ask if the client can identify a connection between the topics, or does one topic need to be addressed before the other/s.  This will enable you as the coach to quickly get to the client to one topic to focus on during the session.

A simple method to keep to the client’s topic, is to remain highly curious.  When we are in a state of curiosity, it suspends judgment and assumption.  As a coach, when you want to know more and more, and by going deeper, exploring with the client, this will keep you on their topic.  When being curious, there is no time or space for you to be making your own judgements or assumptions about the direction of the conversation.  Being curious also enables you to maintain your presence and focus solely on your client.

4. Cultivates Trust and Safety

A coach will not receive a passing score for Cultivates Trust and Safety in the ACC performance evaluation if the coach demonstrates significant interest in the coach’s own view of the situation rather than the client’s view of the situation; if the coach does not seek information from the client about the client’s thinking around the situation, if the coach is unsupportive or disrespectful to the client; or if the coach’s attention seems to be on their  own performance or demonstration of knowledge about the topic rather than on the client.

Be aware if prior to coaching, you held a role in which you were paid or expected to solve the problems or have the answers.  Falling into this familiar habit may lead into you giving advice or opinions.  The first step away is having an awareness of the expectations and functions of your previous roles.  When you are aware of a habit, then you have a choice to do differently in future. 

An effective strategy is to be highly curious and ask questions to continue to learn more about the client’s situation and explore it deeper with them.  A sense of curiosity naturally results in the coach seeking information and understanding of the client’s thinking.

Being unsupportive or disrespectful in your role as a coach may be unintentional.  Through the global world of coaching, we need to be culturally responsive and respectful with all clients.  Again, self-awareness is crucial.  So, ask yourself if you can identify any type of bias you may have towards a client.  Think back on past sessions for instances when you were triggered in some way.  Speaking to a mentor may help uncover the bias and help find a way forward for you.

Often as a new coach and being eager to ‘give value’ for your client, you may get hampered by your own performance anxiety.  To reduce the intensity of the feeling of anxiety, is to acknowledge that it is there and identify how it manifests physically and emotionally for you.  Also, have an effective pre-session routine or ritual to prepare yourself for your session.  As you may have experienced, when you feel calm, you usually feel more confident.  

5. Maintains Presence

The ICF notes that Cultivates Trust and Safety and Maintains Presence are quite related competencies. Therefore, a coach will not receive a passing score for Maintains Presence on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach demonstrates significant interest in the coach’s own view of the situation rather than exploring the client’s view of the situation, does not seek information from the client about the client’s thinking around the situation or is unresponsive to that information,  the coach consistently directs the conversation, or the attention seems to be on the coach’s own performance or demonstration of knowledge about the topic.

The shaded text above is very similar to that stated for Competency 4, so refer to the above for the strategies to mitigate these pitfalls.

We have all been in the situation when discussing a topic that we are very passionate about.  Sometimes in our eagerness to share our knowledge, or to give value, we are preoccupied formulating our own response in our minds.  During this time, we are not paying close attention to our client.  These are instances when we can miss key or critical information from our client which may be ignored or overlooked.  

The same strategy will guarantee you remain responsive to your client and ensures the client consistently directs the coaching conversation. Firstly, slow down the conversation, and keep in mind three words – Listen, Process, Respond.  How is this done?  Being relaxed and calm is to be in the optimal state for active listening…then pause.  During this pause, take a moment for yourself to process the client’s thoughts and ideas they have just shared.  Then respond or ask your next question.  All the while, maintaining intense curiosity.

6. Listens Actively

A coach will not receive a passing score for Listens Actively on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach does not demonstrate listening that is focused on and responding to what the client communicates or the coach’s responses are not related to what the client is trying to achieve. The coach will not receive a passing grade on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach appears to be listening for the place where the coach can demonstrate their knowledge about the topic or tell the client what to do about the topic.

How do you actively listen? What do you ‘do’, and do you ‘be’? Well, let me give you one suggestion!  An important element of active listening is that you are just doing one thing at a time and that is simply listening with your focus totally on the client, and free of other distractions.  While listening, you’re not trying to think of your next question or what you’re going to say next in response to the client.  As a coach, you manage the fine balance of responding to what the client has said with either paraphrasing or recapping, or by acknowledging them, and asking questions.

This is one instance where a coaching conversation is different to a general discussion.  Usually when someone tells you a story or shares an idea, that prompts thoughts and ideas of your own which we may share and contribute to the conversation.  Our sharing is often focused on us, however in a coaching conversation, any thoughts or ideas that we do share need to be focused on, and in service to the client.  In a way that contributes to the client’s topic to enable and support them to progress and move forward and have insights and learning from the discussion.

7. Evokes Awareness

A coach will not receive a passing score for Evokes Awareness on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach focuses consistently on instructing the client or sharing the coach’s own knowledge, ideas or beliefs; if the majority of the coach’s questions are leading or contain pre-determined answers by the coach; or if the coach’s questions and explorations attend to an agenda or issues not set by the client, but set by the coach.

The golden rule of coaching is that the client sets the agenda or chooses the topic for the coaching conversation.

Through your questions you can support the client to evoke their awareness of what they want to achieve from the coaching conversation. It is important to note that there is a difference between the topic for the coaching conversation and the outcome of the coaching conversation.  Certainly, both are linked, though there is a difference.  As an example, a client may want to talk about their relationship with their manager as it’s very challenging and frustrating for them.  By asking the client what they want to achieve from the coaching conversation they may state that they want to feel calm when thinking about or when interacting with the manager.  

This is where remaining curious and being aware of our own triggers and judgements and assumptions about what the client should do in relation to the manager is very helpful.  By remaining curious, we will continue to ask questions to deeply explore the client’s experience so they develop their own awareness.  The client determines how they want to move forward in the relationship.  We may be tempted to add our opinion, or our clients may even ask us what they should do. This is where staying in the coaching space and continuously asking curious questions for the client to think more deeply, and, for them to ascertain their own awareness.

This is where if we get too caught up in wanting to help or rescue our client by offering advice or our questions are leading the client to an outcome, we feel is relevant, could certainly result in not passing the assessment. Evoking awareness takes time and a gentle approach, and “do not use a cannon to kill a mosquito”.

8. Facilitates Client Growth

A coach will not receive a passing score for Facilitates Client Growth on the ACC performance evaluation if the coach insists the client carry out specific actions prescribed by the coach, the coach suggests actions or steps to the client that do not have a clear relationship to the client’s stated agenda, the coach does not invite the client to identify or explore how the client’s learning can be applied to future actions or activities that support the client’s agenda,  or if the coach does not support the client to close the session.

For the detailed note-takers amongst us, this is where to avoid the temptation of summarising the client’s actions on their behalf.  It is a much more effective process to invite the client to summarise the actions that they have identified as this may be a reality check, or enable the client to gain a different perspective for themselves. Actions enable the client to put their knowledge and insights into specific steps that can move them forward.  Knowledge is the gathering of information, whereas wisdom is putting it into action.  

Enabling the client maintain full choice of the direction of the coaching conversation applies right to the very end.  This is where having a few questions or statements to close off the session or by inviting the client to close the session keeps you both in the coaching process until the very end.  Some questions I ask are – Is this a good place to pause our conversation today? or What do you need to feel compete?  Another approach I find interesting is asking the client – What would be your final words to conclude our coaching our session today?

Then when you have completed the formal part of the coaching conversation, you can go into some of the logistical matters of either asking for feedback or setting the time for your next session with the client.

As you may have noticed, that the main strategy for most of these situations, or pitfalls is curiosity.  Yes, it is the same strategy, with the advantage for you that is it just one approach for you to remember and implement into your coaching practice.  This simple and consistence approach will help you to avoid most or many of these pitfalls during a coaching conversation.  With consistent practice you will be well on your way towards attaining your credential and becoming a great coach in the process!

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments about the ACC Indicators, as I’d love to receive them.  

Sharing these mentoring moments with you,


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