ICF Core Competencies 4: Cultivates Trust and Safety

active listening coaching conversations icf core competencies psychological safety relationship of mutual respect and trust trust and safety Jan 15, 2024

Pic from Alex Shute

The ICF defines this 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”

Trust and safety are hugely important components of great coaching conversations and coaching relationships. This trust and safety and the quality of the coaching relationship has been shown to be fundamental in creating the desired outcomes for the thinker. We can build trust and safety into our coaching conversations and how we show up as facilitators and coaches.

Safety has long been recognised as a need us humans have, not just to remain safe but in order to grow. Psychological safety in coaching conversations refers to the degree to which the thinker feels safe and comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the coach. This should happen without fear of judgment, criticism, or negative consequences. As a facilitator of the conversation it is worth spending time thinking about this, and how you can create this kind of environment with thinking partners. We want to avoid judgment, criticism and blame, which can bring about shame.  As coaches we always hold the thinker in unconditional positive regard. 

Psychological safety is an essential element of great coaching conversations. It enables the thinker to fully engage in the process and feel safe enough to explore their thoughts and behaviours in an environment of trust and non-judgement. A psychologically safe space enables this trust, connection, and growth. 

As Coaches we can build trust with our thinking partners by being reliable, honest, and transparent. We can establish clear agreements, as discussed in the last article. Establishing clear boundaries is essential. This means setting expectations for communication, meeting times, and confidentiality, and following through on these expectations consistently. Good communication helps create a sense of safety and predictability, supporting thinkers to feel secure.  

Confidentiality is a key component of creating a safe and supportive environment. As coaches we needed to respect the thinker's privacy and confidentiality. We must assure clients personal information and stories will be kept confidential. This means not sharing any identifying information or stories with others, except in very specific situations, such as when required by law or ethical standards.

As coaches we must demonstrate respect for the thinker’s “identity, perceptions, style and language” and adapt to it as we facilitate.  This can mean many things, our communication between sessions, our speed of speech, our body language, how we ask questions. To be thinker led in how we interact. 

The ICF states that we should also “acknowledge and respect the client’s (thinkers) unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process”. In my experience coaches can be a little wary of doing this for fear of leading or colluding with the thinker. However, we can still do this in a way that supports the thinker and is non-attached. It might sound like “I hear you say that’s important” “I want to acknowledge the work you have done today, what have you learned about yourself?”

Part of building trust and safety is to “show support, empathy and concern for the client”. It’s important to recognise that empathy and compassion might look different for different coaches, and will be dependent on many things, including cultural norms, personalities, neuroytypes, gender etc. We are not all the same and we don’t all coach the same. 

Active listening and being really present with your thinking partner will support trust and safety. These are the fundamental skills of coaching. Yet sometimes when we learn other models and coaching tools, we can forget how crucial these fundamentals skills are to the coaching relationship. Be truly present with the thinker and actively listen throughout and this will support them to feel the trust and safety that is so important in coaching conversations. 

Building trust and safety into our conversations might also be environmental. Thinking about where conversations are taking place for example. Does the location need to be secular? Will it have appropriate access? Is it private enough? Will it support the thinker to do their best thinking? 

If in doubt about any of the above, you can ask them at any time. “How can we make this a great safe space / conversation for you to do your best thinking?” “What do you need from me or this conversation to feel secure enough to do your best thinking?” Or however you might want to ask. 

Lastly, I leave you with a question. Think about a time you have felt trust and safety in a conversation, that allowed you to explore freely.  What helped you feel that trust?