To reflect or observe, is that a question?

reflect or observeLearning how to assess using the ICF PCC Markers has been a very enlightening experience. Enlightening meaning sometimes the lights go on, and sometimes it feels like a dark tunnel with only a dim light in sight!

I’m having to re-learn how coaching skills are evidenced as behaviors in the language of the PCC Markers. The learning has definitely improved my coaching with my clients, as well as my effectiveness as a mentor coach.

There are so many distinctions we (Karen Boskemper and myself) keep getting by using the markers in our individual and The Mentor Coaching Group sessions, as well as being newly minted ICF PCC Marker Assessors.

In this article, I present distinctions between reflecting back skills and observational skills for your further inquiry.

Reflecting Back

This skill can be likened to looking at your client in a mirror, and literally reflecting back what you are ‘seeing.’

A coach using reflecting skills will often preface what they are about to say with, “What I hear you saying is…..” or “Let me reflect back some of the things you just said…..” You take the client’s words and feed them back to the client, preferably in an abbreviated version to help the client hear the essence of what they said, versus parroting back almost verbatim what the client said.

Reflecting back is an Active Listening skill and can be really valuable for the client to hear words they have spoken. You’ll be surprised how many times when reflecting back client words the client says, “That’s really great!” thinking the coach has come up with something new, when it’s the client’s own words! This helps to validate the client’s own wisdom, that they may not realize they’ve said.

The overuse of reflecting back can be limiting, as you are only working with what is being said, and missing what isn’t being said, or is implied through energy or emotion.

Offering Observations

Unlike reflecting back, offering observations requires the coach to weave together bits of ‘data’ the coach is noticing throughout the session, or from session to session. The coach offers their observations, or noticing, to the client for consideration. Observations may be factual, or may be intuitive.

For example, a coach might say, “When you were speaking earlier, your energy sounded heavy. As you speak about this now, I notice that something has shifted in your energy.” Or “I notice your excitement about working with X team, yet I don’t hear the same excitement when you talk about working with Y team.”  

Offering observations is more of a Direct Communication skill because you are offering comments, intuitions, thoughts or feelings that might allow the client to perceive himself in his situation from different vantage points. The coach delivers such observations in a direct, succinct manner, then practices being silent, allowing the client to consider.

Offer without attachment to being right

Because observations are born from what the coach is noticing, observations may be based in the coach’s beliefs, biases, or assumptions. We pay attention to what we do, and yet another coach may pay attention to different things based on their beliefs, biases and assumptions.

It’s always good practice to deliver observations in a tone-neutral voice so it doesn’t sound as if what the coach says is the absolute truth. You want to deliver in a manner that allows the client to say “no” or to disagree with you, and instead share what is true for them.

By sharing your observations, the client may get to a deeper truth or another perspective that might bring different awareness to them. Therefore it’s good for the coach not to be attached to saying the ‘right’ thing but instead to offering what is there to be shared for them, without attachment, and allowing the client to respond however they want. This embodies the idea of partnering with your client, which means allowing the client to choose their response to what the coach offers.

In closing….

I invite you to play with reflecting back, and offering observations. They are different skills, and both can add value to your client.

A coaching session where the coach only asks question after question, can sound (or feel) like an interrogation. When you are listening for different bits of data and offering those to the client for consideration, you are adding another layer of value to your client.

Are you preparing for your first or next ICF Credential?

Do you want to “Sharpen the Saw” as a Coaching Professional?

Group/Individual Mentoring Programs dates for early 2016 have now been released!

You can learn more here


Carly Anderson and Karen Boskemper offer an awesome mentor coaching group and individual program that has many exclusive offerings for our participants. Both have been trained by the ICF to assess using the new PCC Markers.

One of those offerings is an extensive library of MCC, PCC and ACC coaching sessions for our participants to listen to, evaluate, debrief, and learn from, along with The Target Approach to demystifying the ICF core competencies. These are incredibly valuable learning tools, and will accelerate your understanding of competency distinctions.

Here’s where you’ll find more about The Mentor Coaching Group