Coaching emotions and feelings

Have you noticed that your emotions, and the emotions of others, are “raw” in 2020? I imagine you’d think that is a silly question. Yes, of course! That emotions are raw is no surprise as we are globally in circumstances that we’ve never encountered before.

The question is, as a coaching professional, how are you responding to and supporting your clients to process their emotional landscape?

There’s a global pandemic, with people staying in their home “bubble” and not having easy access to emotional outlets. This has meant more people are feeling their emotions; some are feeling helpless, hopeless, while others are renewing their relationship with themselves. And some are suffering from domestic violence as many people don’t have ways to healthily express their emotions.

Then there is the overdue examination of racism by white people, and what finally feels like a strong movement toward anti-racism in the United States, although still many white people who are not “woke” as my husband would say.

I finally have some hope (an emotion) that this movement will lead to actual changes in racist policies that disproportionately impact BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color).

And horrifically, we are witnessing people literally being murdered by police, and caught on camera doing so, which has brought emotions of anger, horror, disgust, fury, and outrage. We’ve seen people being murdered before, such as in genocide, and war conditions, and people with guns who fire indiscriminately. Yet this is a whole new level of examination, when people are already emotionally raw with the loss of income, loss of life and loss of going about life as usual.


“I have all the emotions that everyone else has; it just appears that I don’t.” Steve Wright


If you’re not feeling a range of emotions, then why aren’t you? Or are you just practiced at hiding how you feel?

Even writing the above, I could feel my sadness, anger and outrage.

At the same time, I feel some hope, that there is real change that is possible.

There’s a level of intimacy in conversations that involves the depth of emotions we are feeling.

How are you doing as a coach, hearing the rawness of your client current emotions?

Emotional range is normal in every one of us.

Emotions can motivate us to action, that benefits ourselves and others.

Emotions can demotivate us to take no action, or actions that harm ourself, and others.


Core Competencies, Emotions and Feelings

The ICF Updated Core Competency Model has many references to emotions and feelings, which means emotions are normal in humans (I know, that should be something I have to write, but it seems I do).

Here are the Competencies and their sub-points that relate to coaching behaviors and coaching skills in relation to emotions and feelings, including empathy:

Core Competency #1: Demonstrates Ethical Practice.

1.2. Is sensitive to clients’ identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs. (while emotions and feelings are not specifically named here, client experiences will likely involve emotions and feelings)

Here is ICF Code of Ethics to review

Core Competency #2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset

2.6. Develops and maintains the ability to regulate one’s emotions.


Core Competency #4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

4.4. Shows support, empathy and concern for the client.

4.5. Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions.


Core Competency #5: Maintains Presence

5.1 Remains focused, observant, empathetic and responsive to the client.

5.3. Manages one’s emotions to stay present with the client.

5.4. Demonstrates confidence in working with strong client emotions during the coaching process.


Core Competency #6: Listens Actively

6.4. Notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviors.

6.6. Notices trends in the client’s behaviors and emotions across sessions to discern themes and patterns.


Core Competency #7: Evokes Awareness

7.8. Helps the client identify factors that influence current and future patterns of behavior, thinking or emotion.


From Emotion to Behavior

Every emotion provides information about us, and most often informs our behavior. For example, if you feel happy, your behavior is different than when you feel sad. Anger can be used to energize toward action in positive ways, or not so positive ways.

If emotions are normal, then why are some coaches afraid to coach the emotional content of their client?

Why are some coach training programs still teaching to stay away from client emotional content?

Coaching client emotional content – both the light and the shadow – is one of my Ten Characteristics of MCC skill level. Yet some coaches, and coach training programs don’t even think emotions are part of coaching at all! Please read the above ICF Core Competencies to understand the importance of emotions and feelings in the coaching process. 

Granted, when I was first trained as a coach in 1998, the mention of “shadow” emotions such as sadness, (normal) depression, panic and anger were off limits to ask more about of a coaching client. But it was okay to ask about “light” emotions such as happy, joyful, contentment, love, and satisfaction. We’ve come along way as a profession, in our understanding of normal human behavior.

We’ve come a long way since then in understanding that coaching a human being means you embrace and coach their emotional content as well.

Here are two documents produced by ICF to support further understanding:

ICF Whitepaper: Referring a Client to Therapy Guidelines

ICF One Sheet: Referring a Client to Therapy



I’ve noticed that asking about emotions usually goes to a deeper place for a coaching client, than asking about a feeling. Not always, of course. I do my best not to think in absolutes terms in coaching skills, as it depends on the way each individual client expresses themselves.

Feelings may be different because feeling could be a sensation in the body.

Some people are able to access emotions through their soma (body). Questions like, “Where do you feel that in your body?” or “What sensation are you aware of as you say that?” can connect a client to more “information” about themselves.

It’s especially useful to ask client about their body motions when there is some discernable shift in their body/facial movements, rather than just asking where a client feels something in their body as that may be the coach preference, rather than being responsive to what the client is “offering” in their body/facial language.

Some people access their wisdom more fully through connecting to their body sensations, and others do not. Many will access their emotions through visual language or metaphor. For example, if a client says they are stuck, what are they metaphorically “stuck” in? What emotion is related to “stuck” for them?


Other people access their wisdom through examination of their feelings.

All people have emotions, yet not all people are aware of what emotion, or feeling, they are experiencing in this moment.


Emotions and Therapy

Coaches I mentor often are afraid (which is an emotional response) that as soon as they ask about emotions, they are going into the realm of therapy.

Firstly, it’s great that a coach has awareness about possible therapy or other professional help, because ethically we are responsible as a coach for supporting a client to identify what is a coaching issue and what is not. I’ve provided two ICF documents through links above in this article. 

Yet many coaches jump so quickly to “I can’t talk to you about…” that it’s more the coach fear (an emotion) of doing the wrong thing, or perhaps not knowing how to respond to a client, that is the issue.

As coaches who abide by the ICF Code of Ethics, we are asking questions to determine if our client might benefit from other professional support for something specific.

Therapy topics examples include (but is not limited to):

  • A client at the effect of physical, mental, or emotional abuse in the present. Or that is unresolved from the past, whether that’s last year, or in childhood or teenage years.
  • A client at the effect of discrimination that is causing physical, mental or emotional distress, whether that is at home, in the workplace, or other environment.
  • A client who is “reliving” past experiences by cycling back to past situations that have left a negative impact on them that they haven’t been able to assimilate as part of their life experience, yet.


Is this a therapy issue or normal human behavior?

Just because a client mentions their distant or recent past, and their emotions about a situation, doesn’t mean it’s a therapeutic issue. Instead, the coach asks questions to determine what might be in the realm of coaching around their issue, and what might not. Again, a reminder that I’ve provided some ICF documents on referring a client to therapy, earlier in this article.

For example, if a client mentions their previous marriage ended because of abuse from domestic violence, and now you are coaching them on their leadership style and the client mentions an abusive boss that reminds them of their spouse. That doesn’t mean it’s off limits to coach the client on their leadership style and communication approach (and their whole human self).

It’s up to the coach to ask more questions:

  • Firstly, the coach would speak from a place of compassion or empathy.
  • Then the coach engages in some fact finding by asking questions.
  • Coach then partners with their coaching client to determine how their past experiences may be useful, or where there might still be more closure for the client to undertake.

Using the above points, the conversation might sound like:

I’m sorry you suffered from violence in your previous marriage. And that your current boss is triggering feelings for you that I imagine you don’t want ever want to revisit.

If I could ask you a few questions to determine what might be a coaching topic and what might be a therapy topic, so I can best serve you as a coach.

Sample questions:

How long ago was your marital situation resolved for you?

What professional support did you engage with to help you?

How would you describe your emotions now, about your past?

What still feels unresolved for you about your past, if anything?

How do you feel about exploring the connection between your past experience, and your current work experience?


The coach listens for how the client responds, which includes the words they use, tone of voice, energy level, emotions present, and any other feelings/sensations that might be present in their body and facial movements (if you are seeing on video or in-person).

The coach reflects back and speaks their observations about the client way of expressing themselves. For example; “As you were speaking, I notice you scrunched up your face in what seemed like a pained look. What was your experience though?”

Once coach has engaged in some “fact finding” then the coach can partner with their client as to what might need other professional help. If the client has such help, or feels they’ve done a lot of the work and this is a remnant emotional reaction that is part of being human, then coach and client can define the boundaries of coaching.


For example, the coach might say; “It seems you’ve done a lot of personal discovery and healing work to bring peace to your past, although full resolution doesn’t appear to be present for you yet. At the same time, it seems you have a good understanding of your emotional triggers, that have occurred with your boss, and that you are able to discern between your past situation, and this present situation. As such, it seems we can work on how to respond most effectively to your current boss, who you’re saying isn’t physically, mentally or emotionally harming you. Please do correct me if I misunderstood anything.”

As part of the coaching, actions from the session might organically be spoken by the client, around more inquiry, exploration, self-care or other professional support. But the coaching process will bring to the surface anything more the client might need or want.


Two things most often occur when I have such conversations with a client;

  1. As soon as I say I’d like to ask fact-finding questions to determine what might other professional support they might be best served by instead of coaching (around this topic), the client will often let me know of the therapy or other professional support they have engaged with, or are engaging with. That’s great and makes it easy to define the boundaries of coaching and what they can ask their other professional person about versus the coach.
  1. Clients become educated on what coaching is, and how their past isn’t the enemy; it’s their insights and learning from their past experiences that can be valuable to inform them of what to do today, and tomorrow. There’s power to be found in our emotions, and past experiences; and how that information can be used today.


In closing…

As coaches, it’s our responsibility to be studying emotions, including our own emotion landscape. Perhaps to befriend all emotions; the light and the so-called shadow emotions.

If your coach trainers are not comfortable having conversations about normal range of emotions in a client, ask them why not. Point them to the extensive field of Emotional Intelligence that is now embedded within coaching competencies. Also, the research by Professor Brene Brown on Vulnerability and Courage, to normalize many emotions that are present, yet not easily embraced.

To be human is to feel. How are you feeling after reading this article?

What emotions are most present for you now?



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4 thoughts on “Coaching emotions and feelings

  1. What a rich, deep article, Carly. Thank you for not shying away from this subject and shedding light on it with such generosity of spirit and insight. Your call to befriend all emotions, including shadow emotions, is beautiful and important for coaches and all human beings.

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