Types of trust in a coaching relationship

Note: This article has been updated in 2023.

When we engage in coach training, we often hear the idea that our client has all the answers within them and our role is to help them get in touch with those answers.

While I agree with this in principle, from my experience, it’s not always true that the client has all the answers within them, at least at this moment.

Our client definitely has a lot of self-knowledge and information about themselves. And our first priority is to ask questions that connect our client to that self-knowledge. Once we do that, it might be that the client has their ‘answer’ to how they might proceed. Or they might not have found the answer that feels right for them yet, and need more time to reflect, or to collect more input.

The ICF Core Competency of “Cultivates Trust and Safety” is defined as, “Partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely. Maintains a relationship of mutual respect and trust.”

Three types of Trust

Here are three types of trust in a coaching relationship:

  1. Trusting my client, that they know themselves better than anyone else does. Although they may not be aware of how much they know about themselves.
  1. Trusting my coaching skills, and my ability to use the appropriate skill at the appropriate time. This includes (but is not limited to) knowing when to stay silent for longer, asking open-ended discovery oriented questions that support the client to access their self-knowledge and consider themselves from different perspectives. As well as offering comments, sensing, or intuition, for the client to consider the relevance for themselves. The client always has the right to reject anything the coach offers (which leads to the third type of trust…).
  1. Trusting in the coaching process. This includes knowing how to structure a coaching engagement, and how to clarify a client-driven agenda for each coaching session. As an ongoing relationship over a number of sessions, the coach knows there is a cumulative impact of coaching. There is built-in support and accountability when the client comes back for the next coaching session. Coach stays in Coaching Mindset throughout the session because they know and trust the power of coaching skills.

Using the ICF Core Competency definition, as well as these three types of trust, here’s a look at how each most often are demonstrated ACC, PCC and MCC credential skill level.

For demonstration of ACC skill level:

The emphasis is on creating a confidential environment for the client to freely speak.

There is often low trust in the client’s ability to resolve their problem for themselves. Therefore, the coach may be more focused on problem-solving the presenting issue and getting the client to a result. This is often referred to as coaching the “What” or content the client brings.

Rather than using and trusting in their coaching skills, the coach often feels they need to help the client, and may lean in to suggesting, teaching, telling or advising.

The coach is often more focused on their own performance, than trusting in the coaching process.


For demonstration of PCC skill level:

The emphasis is on creating a confidential environment that is safe and supportive for the client to freely speak. There is more ‘connected relationship’ noticeable, where the coach is more curious about who this person is, not just what they want to accomplish.

The coach has more trust in their ability to use their coaching skills, although may not trust their first question, or first comment. Instead, they’ll add further questions or comments, which can confuse the client as to what is most important to respond to.

While a problem-solving mindset may still be present, the coach is more curious and comfortable using coaching skills to draw out client self-knowledge. This means going deeper into the mindset of their client – how they think, feel, act, react. We often call this the “Who” content of our client.

There may still be some performance present in the coach, yet there is more trust in the coaching process.


For demonstration of MCC skill level:

The emphasis is on creating a confidential environment, where the coach is connected to their client as a fellow human being first and foremost. The coach completely trusts their client, their own coaching skills, and the coaching process.

Ease is often present as the coach works at the client pace, in the client learning style, allowing the client the space and time to reflect, think, process, feel and integrate.

The coach’s presence is relaxed, and grounded, as they have let go of the need to perform; they know there is nothing for them to prove. They trust their coaching skills – their ability to ask deeper, customized questions, to offer observations and comments. There is a flow to the conversation, where the coach stays connected and curious about Who their client is.

Oftentimes there is humility and gratitude present in the coach, for the honor and privilege of working with a fellow human being, going to their next level of success, as defined by them.

The coach trusts the coaching process, knowing that it is truly a process. There is no problem-solving present because the coach knows there is nothing to resolve. The coach mindsets a belief that their client is already successful in many aspects of their life. Every ‘problem’ is just an opportunity to build confidence in their client’s ability to be more authentic.


In closing….

As coaches, we are given the amazing opportunity to support people to become more authentically who they are. Every client wants results; coaching provides a unique opportunity to use skills that allow the client to feel self-empowered, because when the client has awareness as a result of the coaching process, the client most often feels more motivated to act on what they’ve discovered themselves.

Every coaching session is an opportunity to create a safe, supportive environment for our client to share freely. As ongoing coach development, we can reflect on how confident we feel in practicing these three types of trust, and continue to develop our capabilities to be even more competent as a coach.

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC


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