Coaching Client Identity

Especially in recent years, there’s been heightened focus on Identity. Yet Identity has been part of societies for every generation, in all cultures of the world. Whether it’s based in political, religious, racial, gender or age differences (to name a few), there’s more awareness of the impact of how we think and feel about ourselves, versus how others might think, feel and behave toward us.

The ICF updated core competencies (2019) include specific reference to Identity. As Professional Coaches, it’s our responsibility to continually educate ourselves on all aspects of being human, as we are in the “human development” business.

Fundamental to coaching is the understanding that every person we engage with has a history, as well as strengths, talents and qualities that make them uniquely them. While also having hopes, aspirations, concerns, fears and desires that might be uncomfortable to stretch beyond where they are now.

Identity is not static; it’s an evolutionary concept because as we age, there are new or different aspects of our identity that emerge.

For example, by the time we are 25 years of age, then 35 years of age, perhaps our beliefs are not the same as our parents, and new aspects of our Identity have emerged in us. Even so, we have aspects of our childhood that stay with us throughout our life; we are a multi-dimensional, ever changing expression of the form called, “human being.”

In this article, I’ll do my best to begin to unpack the topic of Identity, as there are many layers of meaning within the concept of Identity. I’m by no means an expert on this subject and even if I were, a curious learning mindset needs to be present if we are to continue to evolve our understanding as we encounter different people in different cultures and different contexts.


I’ll begin by naming ICF core competencies and their sub-points that include Identity in their statements. Then explore some of the meaning of those statements, with personal and professional examples.

ICF Core Competencies statements which include Identity and related concepts:

Competency #1: Demonstrates Ethical Practice

  • Sub-point 1.2: “Is sensitive to clients’ identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs.”

Competency #2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset

  • Sub-point 2.4: “Remains aware of and open to the influence of context and culture on self and others.”

Competency #4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Sub-point 4.1: “Seeks to understand the client within their context which may include their identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs.”
  • Sub-point 4.2: “Demonstrates respect for the client’s identity, perceptions, style and language and adapts one’s coaching to the client.”

Competency #6: Listens Actively

  • Sub-point 6.1: “Considers the client’s context, identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs to enhance understanding of what the client is communicating.”

Competency #7: Evokes Awareness

  • Sub-point 7.3: “Asks questions about the client, such as their way of thinking, values, needs, wants and beliefs.”


ICF Credentialing information that assesses coach ability to work with client Identity

A Professional Coach is one who has engaged in professional coaching education. To verify professionalism of coaching skills, ICF offers accreditation of coaches at the beginning (ACC), intermediate (PCC) and mastery (MCC) skill levels.

For each credential level, there are behaviors and skills of the coach which are measured. Here are behaviors which align with acknowledging, inquiring or exploring client identity;

ACC Behaviors (access ICF information here)

Competency #4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Sub-point 4.2: “Coach explores the client’s expressions of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, or suggestions.”

Competency #7: Evokes Awareness

  • Sub-point 7.3: “Coach inquires about or explores the client’s ideas, beliefs, thinking, emotions, and behaviors in relation to the desired outcome.”


PCC Behaviors (known as PCC Markers)

Competency #4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Sub-point 4.3: “Coach acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs or suggestions.”

Competency #7: Evokes Awareness

  • Sub-point 7.1: “Coach asks questions about the client, such as their current way of thinking, feeling, values, needs, wants, beliefs or behavior.”


MCC Behaviors (access ICF information here)

Competency #4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

  • Sub-point 4.2: “Coach exhibits genuine curiosity about the client as a whole person by inviting the client to share more about themself or their identity.”
  • Sub-point 4.3: “Coach provides space for the client to fully express themself, share feelings, beliefs, and perspectives, without judgment.”

Overall MCC Behavior Statements

  • #1. “Coach invites the client to explore the lens through which the client is observing their current situation.”


To summarize so far:

The collection of concepts used to explain Identity (according to the ICF) provides some clarity as to what to be aware of, inquire further about, and/or explore.

These concepts are; environment, experiences, values, beliefs, context, culture, perception, style, language, way of thinking, needs, wants, concerns, feelings, lens.

Every one of these concepts has a depth of exploration available, and I encourage you to do your own research on the meaning of each, so that you have more awareness about the differences and how to ask questions, or offer observations, to a coaching client.

Common things a coaching client might say that might be Identity based;

  • Experiencing a lack of confidence, especially in a different, or unfamiliar environments.
  • Judging self as an “imposter” which is commonly labeled “Imposter Syndrome.”
  • Experiencing anxiety based fear of being authentically yourself.
  • Being born into one culture or country, then moving to another culture or country and experiencing a conflict of Identity between the cultures/countries.
  • Being different than society expects of you. This can include fulfilling familial expectations of what their adult child should do, which might conflict with what the adult child wants to do.
  • Anytime a client experiences a difference between how they experience the “world,” and how others expect them to experience the “world.”


Exploring “Different” and “Judging”

We are all different, meaning not the same. Different does not mean better or worse. Different is often interpreted through each person’s beliefs and internal filters that narrow differences into categories that meet certain criteria for how we feel about those differences.

It’s interesting that for human evolution, and in the animal kingdom, to be healthy biologically speaking, requires enough genetic differences for the species to be healthy. Too much sameness creates unhealthy future generations. While eventually mutation is integrated into genetics, it’s a long process of integration. Different is important, yet often we judge different as wrong because it’s not the same as us.

We all judge other people. At it’s core, judging is likely a survival strategy to quickly determine who or what is a threat, and who or what isn’t. Someone with the intent to harm us, well, it’s very helpful for us to know how to act in response.

Judging is normal behavior when we think of it as “noticing” how someone else looks, speaks, or acts, and comparing to ourselves. This is something we do every day we are engaged with others.

However, going beyond noticing to then judging someone as “less than,” “worse than” or “better than” because they are different, could mean we are “identified” with being a certain type of person. We then judge the “identity” of the other person against our criteria for what is “good” or “right” according to our beliefs.

In summary; we are all different. We all judge. It’s what we do beyond that in terms of behaviors that determines if we are judging others as wrong, when they are simply different than we are.



Below are three personal examples, where I also offer possible questions or observations a coach might make. I use some of the words ICF has connected to Identity to form questions (these concepts are; environment, experiences, values, beliefs, context, culture, perception, style, language, way of thinking, needs, wants, concerns, feelings, lens.)

Identity: Example #1

I was born in Australia and lived there for decades into my adulthood, before marrying an American coach (yes, coaching has positively affected so many aspects of my life!) and moving to America in 2001. I didn’t have children. My husband had one son, so we needed to stay in America, at least initially. One identity challenge for me was going from having no children of my own, to now living in the same house as a 15 year old boy I really didn’t want to be stepmother to. That was not an identity I wanted, nor did he. His mother was still his mother, and I didn’t want to step into the role of mother. This identity conflict created a lot of challenges for both of us, and a lot of masterful navigation by my husband.

Curious questions a coach might ask about my Identity based on this information:

  • What do you value most about being a non-complying stepmother?
  • How has having no children of your own shaped your perceptions?
  • How has the identity conflict challenged your beliefs?


Identity: Example #2

As an Australian born person who immigrated to the US in 2001, I immediately noticed the differences in culture. One shocking part was that I literally had no legal identity according to the US government and laws. I wasn’t born here, therefore I didn’t have a Social Security number, nor a credit history that would prove my standing as a US citizen.

Given I was a property owner in Australia who was a tax-paying citizen of that country for decades, with my own legal identity, this was really hard to get used to. To the US authorities, it didn’t matter what assets or standing as a citizen I had in Australia. I might as well be a newborn baby in the US system~ It took strategizing with my husband, and years of implementation, to create a legal profile where I could independently have my own credit rating, own bank, my own credit cards, and own property independently in the US if I wanted to.

In recent years, I’ve found it sometimes challenging when someone relates to me as an Australian, as I haven’t lived in my country of origin for 22 years, so far. I’ve been an American citizen since 2009. I have no plans to ever return to live in Australia. I am neither fully Australian, nor fully American. I’m a hybrid of both.

An observation and intuition that might be offered;

“It seems that moving to America highlighted some important values for you that you might not have been aware of; is that true or not for you?”

Curious questions a coach might ask about my Identity based on this information:

  • What don’t you want to change about your identity as an Australian-born American?
  • How would you like people to relate to you?
  • What has being a hybrid revealed to you about yourself?


Identity: Example #3

One of my important physical and mental health practices is attending 90 minute Bikram Yoga classes, on average 3-4 times per week, for 15 years (so far). I live in Southern California, which has cultural sameness, as well as cultural diversity. For the past 10 years, I’ve practiced at a Studio that is American owned by a family of Asian heritage. The majority of clients (students) represent a diversity of Asian heritages, whether they are first or second generation or more American residents and citizens. People who look like me are in the minority in this Studio.

While we gather together to practice a form of hot yoga for our individual benefit, I imagine our individual experiences of the practice differ greatly. For some like me, it’s a place to practice with like-minded yogis in a well maintained Studio that is 15 minutes from home. For others, it could be they feel safe given the majority of students are from all ages, and diverse Asian heritages, perhaps like they are.

At times, of course being human 😊, I judge the ways of others in the Studio based on my beliefs. For example, no matter what the teacher is saying, some students don’t follow what the teacher is saying. Part of the practice is to surrender to the words of the teacher, and follow. I find this is an excellent mindfulness practice for myself. And yes, sometimes I judge those who don’t follow the teacher as not being present or even being deliberately disruptive. Ironically the moment I judge in my mind, I’m not practicing mindfulness in my yoga practice!

Curious questions a coach might ask about my Identity based on this information;

  • What is your experience of safety in this environment?
  • What has been disruptive for you in your life experience?
  • What is important to you about practicing mindfulness?


In Closing….

Working with the Identity of our coaching client requires deep listening, curiosity, compassion, and a desire to understand. We all are experiencing multiple Identities at any given time. Perhaps a good place to begin to understand Identity is to engage in self-reflection.

Here are some example questions to consider (in no particular order) again using some of the words ICF has connected to Identity (environment, experiences, values, beliefs, context, culture, perception, style, language, way of thinking, needs, wants, concerns, feelings, lens.)

  • Important values I aim to live by…
  • What I value most….
  • How my early environment has formed who I am today…
  • I believe that….
  • I believe I’m someone who…
  • Ways I am different to my family are…
  • Ways I am the same as my family are…
  • What causes me anxiety is…
  • What I believe about my emotions…
  • An experience that has had a huge impact on me…
  • The culture I most identify with is…
  • What I need is…
  • What I want is…
  • The most common lens through which I filter my daily experiences….
  • What’s most often misunderstood about me…
  • My strongest self-perception is…

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC


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