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“What makes for a good coaching relationship?”

This blog is intended for coaches and trainee coaches looking to deepen their capability and confidence in coaching.


James Flaherty, the founder of Integral Coaching, writes in his book “Coaching, Evoking excellence in Others” that relationship is the first and most important operating principle in coaching. The ICF core competencies include a whole domain on co-creating the relationship. At Bamboo Being, we believe the relationship is the ground from which growth happens not only for client but for the coach.


Is there a difference between ICF competencies in co-creating relationships and what we seek to do as integral developmental coaches?

ICF core competencies might be likened to driver competencies when licensing drivers: they have been developed in the context of assessing coaches to work competently with clients.

ICF assessors don't interview your coaching clients about your relationships. They instead try to see whether you are establishing and maintaining agreements, cultivating trust and safety and maintaining presence via 'markers' in a 60 minute recording and an online test (plus assume these behaviours have been observed in your ICF approved coach training).

So there's a distinction between ICF assessment-ready coaching and deepening as a coach ie, you may pass your driving licence, but still need good practices to drive well. Let's look at both...


The ICF’s idea of a good coaching relationship is a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

In Integral Coaching we draw on the work of German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas who defines right relationship as mutual respect, mutual trust but also mutual freedom of expression. For the ICF, what is important is the client’s freedom of expression. Coaches are asked to ‘demonstrate openness and transparency as a way to display vulnerability and build trust with the client’. We may challenge the client as a way to evoke awareness or insight but if we share observations, insights and feelings, we should do so without attachment and only to create new learning for the client.

That the ICF is mainly focused on supporting the client’s freedom of expression may be understandable when many coaches struggle with suppressing more than expressing their thoughts, feelings etc. Hence rubrics like W.A.I.T. (”Why Am I Talking?”).

So why in Integral Coaching do we aim for ‘mutual freedom of expression’ as well as trust and respect? Maybe because we’re less focused on the dance steps and more on how we dance with the clients. We’re aiming at attuning to the client so they feel genuinely ‘met’ as they are, without judgment, but that allows them to grow and that feels authentic. We want to create, in other words, an atmosphere of sincere care for our client and take their best interests to heart. Arguably this is a much higher bar than displaying coach professionalism or competence.


What may get in the way of that sort of relationship is, ironically, too much focus on being a ‘competent’ coach rather than a genuinely curious and compassionate human being in a conversation.

Here are some archetypes/stances that we can fall into, with examples from my own journey:

Performer: focusing on mastering and using techniques

I’ve found this especially true when I’m still integrating something: it’s clunky and can take away from attuning to the person in front of me. A coach used clean language techniques on me at a coach workshop recently. Applied formulaically it was really irritating to have everything I said repeated back at me.

If I know something may feel like an exercise, I would now make some space for it with a quick “is it okay if we try something that may help?”

Facipulator: expressing ourselves in ways designed to “build trust and rapport”

I’ve fallen into this to establish ‘identity credentials’ rather than out of sincerity

Validation-seeker: focusing on our need to feel needed of value

An answer given at a coach conference to the question ”how do you know if the coaching has gone well?” was “the coachee wants more”. I winced because whilst I knew it was the wrong answer I recognised the feeling.

Assessor: focusing on the ‘developmental needs’ of a client

As we outgrow our own patterns, we may judge others who don’t share our priorities


  • From the world of education, the work of Parker Palmer, his book “A Hidden Wholeness” has a lot to say on creating circles of trust

  • From Organisational Development, the work of John Heron and Peter Reason on co-operative inquiry

  • From Psychotherapy, the work of Carl Rogers on the role of unconditional positive regard and client-centred therapy


Rather than mastering ‘techniques’, we can practise embodying the qualities of openness and transparency and positive regard and curiosity rather than judging not just in coaching relationships but more generally

We can pay attention to how we speak about our clients to other coaches, in supervision, in our own thoughts and case notes. We can catch ourselves if we judge a client for not engaging with the exercises or practices for example. Or acting in ways that bring suffering to others or themselves.

If we find ourselves asking “why do they think like that?”, we can shift gears into “why do they think like that?” In other words we practise moving into genuine curiosity about our client’s perspective and predicament.


  • Competent coaches co-create relationships which cultivate trust and respect

  • Competent coaches support their client’s expression of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, suggestions etc without colluding with the content of that expression

  • Integral Coaches focus on the relationship as the most important principle and ground of coaching

  • The qualities we bring to a coaching relationship are more than what we do and say in coaching sessions and are qualities of our way of being

As a final thought, in a world of trolling and cancel culture, could cultivating a field in which our clients are met with compassion and genuine curiosity be the biggest gift we can give them?

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