Coaching Techniques

Updated ICF Core Competencies: What Coaches Need to Know

In 2021, the ICF introduced new Core Coaching Competencies. Why does this matter, and how can these standards help enhance your coaching practice?

Let’s face it: the public perception of life coaching can be a mixed bag. There’s a lot of good work being done out there… alongside some shady characters doing business as “coaches”.

As an unregulated industry, it’s up to you to decide how you want to show up in this space. Thankfully, there are some tools and guidelines available to help us do this work ethically and well!

In this article, we'll cover the recently updated ICF Core Coaching Competencies. Let's dig into what they mean for you, and how they can enhance your coaching practice!

Who Decides What Coaching “Is”?

At Lumia Coaching, we know that when you coach from a clear set of guiding principles, you are much more likely to make a positive and lasting impact on your clients. This is where the International Coaching Federation (ICF) comes into play, and why we choose to affiliate our coach training programs with the ICF.

The ICF is the largest accrediting organization for coaches globally. Their aim is to bring professionalism and accountability to the field of life coaching. One of the main ways the ICF does this is by developing standards that will help the coaching industry become universally recognizable to practitioners and consumers worldwide.

In other words, the ICF helps us define and quantify ethical practice for coaches. This in turn helps the general public know what they can expect when they hire a coach. 

Imagine hiring a lawyer, or an eye doctor, and having no real idea what to expect. And yet, that’s exactly what is happening for consumers looking to work with a coach. Instead of “coaching”, what many people may be getting instead is advice, counseling, consulting... or something else entirely. 

The ICF’s Core Competencies help to clear that confusion, and represent the gold standard of coaching. They not only show us how to coach better, they also help to build public trust in the coaching profession itself. And while you don’t need to be certified by the ICF to practice as a coach, it’s worthwhile to become familiar with these concepts.

No matter your path, we encourage you to explore the Core Competencies as part of your professional development. Try them on, and see how they fit!

ICF Core Competencies Overview

Expanded and updated in 2021, the ICF Coaching Core Competency Model consists of four sections that together contain a total of eight standards. While these standards appear simple on the surface, there’s a great deal to unpack within each section! (That’s why we include 3 months of hyper-focused ICF core competency training in Lumia's Signature coach training program.) 

In brief, they are:

A) Foundation

  • Demonstrates Ethical Practice
  • Embodies a Coaching Mindset

B) Co-Creating the Relationship

  • Establishes and Maintains Agreements
  • Cultivates Trust and Safety
  • Maintains Presence

C) Communicating Effectively

  • Listens Actively
  • Evokes Awareness

D) Cultivating Learning and Growth

  • Facilitates Client Growth

Let's take a look at what each section entails, along with resources for further exploration of the topics contained within it.


This section of the Core Competencies is all about how we show up as coaches. It explores the values and mindset that you bring to this work, as well as how to embody professionalism and respect for your clients... and yourself!

Standard 1. Demonstrates Ethical Practice

ICF DEFINITION: Understands and consistently applies coaching ethics and standards of coaching.

As a coach, you'll want to be familiar with the ICF's Code of Ethics. It provides valuable definitions and principles upon which the Core Competencies are built.

According to this standard, demonstrating an ethical practice consists of a number of components. They include qualities such as personal integrity, and honoring your client’s identity, values and worldview.

Ethical coaching also means differentiating between professions (most notably between therapy, consulting, mentoring and coaching), and staying within your scope of practice. For a better understanding of what this means, check out our 2-part podcast series: What Coaching Is, And What It’s Not.

Standard 2. Embodies a Coaching Mindset

ICF DEFINITION: Develops and maintains a mindset that is open, curious, flexible and client-centered.

Powerful coaching requires a mindset that is non-judgemental, curious, flexible and client-centered. From this headspace, you can best assist your client in exploring what they truly want, and strategizing to set goals and design experiments that will help them get there.

A coaching mindset also means we understand that the client is responsible for their own behavior and actions. As coaches, we facilitate the process. It’s not our function to come up with the solutions. 

This standard also invites us to take a honest look at how we’re showing up. It requires taking care of ourselves, setting boundaries, practicing emotional self-regulation, and making a commitment to our ongoing personal reflection and growth. 

Want to learn more? 

Tune in as Lumia co-founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux discuss these concepts on The Everything Life Coaching Podcast episode The ICF Core Competency Series #1: Ethical Guidelines and Establishing the Coaching Agreement.

Co-Creating the Relationship

In any relationship, it’s important to get off on the right foot. And that’s essentially what this section of the ICF Core Competencies is all about! 

The following three standards help to set the stage for a productive working relationship with your clients. They also offer clues for how you can get on the same page, answering questions like:

  • What IS coaching, anyway?
  • What outcomes can we expect from this relationship?
  • Can I trust you?
  • Is this a good fit?

Standard 3. Establishes and Maintains Agreements

ICF DEFINITION: Partners with the client and relevant stakeholders to create clear agreements about the coaching relationship, process, plans and goals. Establishes agreements for the overall coaching engagement as well as those for each coaching session.

With this standard, the ICF encourages you to clarify the terms of engagement with your clients at the very outset of the relationship. This includes explaining your scope of practice as a coach, articulating the client’s hoped-for outcomes from coaching, and establishing the terms of the contract or agreement.

While having a contract may feel like a formality at first, it’s an essential aspect of the coaching process. The coaching agreement provides clarity, manages expectations for all parties, and is protective for you as a coach. 

For a more detailed discussion on the value of coaching agreements and how to set them up, check out our resource guide Legal 101 for Life Coaches.

Standard 4. Cultivates Trust and Safety

ICF DEFINITION: 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.

Coaching is a partnership, and the point of this partnership is to maximize personal and professional potential. In order for this to happen, your clients must feel they can honestly bring their whole self - warts and all - to the coaching space.

Psychological safety is what allows others to feel emotionally connected to you. So much of the success of a coaching relationship rests upon your ability to help a client feel accepted and at ease. This in turn fosters a greater willingness for them to be vulnerable and open to change.

A warm, positive relationship between coach and client is essential for positive growth. According to the ICF, cultivating such a relationship involves:

  • Demonstrating respect for client’s perceptions, learning style and personal being
  • Providing ongoing support for and championing new behaviors and actions, including those involving risk-taking and fear of failure
  • Asking permission to coach your client in sensitive, new areas

Standard 5. Maintains Presence

ICF DEFINITION: Is fully conscious and present with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible, grounded and confident.

The quality of your attention is important. In fact, we might even say that it's everything. When a client senses your coaching presence, trust is felt, allowing for an opening towards freedom of expression.

A mindfulness practice can help develop your coaching presence. But it doesn't stop with clearing your head! Presence also involves listening to your intuition, and “going with your gut”.

Coaching presence is:

  • Listening at the 200% level
  • Making the client feel that there is no one and nothing more important
  • Demonstrating empathy and deep listening 
  • Connecting with the client using all of your senses 

Ready to learn more? 

Listen in as John and Noelle discuss this section on the podcast: The ICF Core Competency Series #2: Co-Creating the Relationship.

Communicating Effectively

Communication is a coach's stock-in-trade. But it isn't just about how well you listen and speak. In this context, communication has everything to do with the quality of your listening. Effective communication is a full body experience, and one that leads naturally into asking questions and introducing exercises that will help your client grow.

The dynamic back and forth exchange of a good coaching conversation is what gives your clients the insights and self-awareness necessary to achieve breakthroughs!

Standard 6. Listens Actively

ICF DEFINITION: Focuses on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated in the context of the client systems and to support client self-expression.

When you listen actively, you give the client space to step into their truth. You’re really dialed into the conversation, flowing with where the client needs it to go. This requires setting aside your own agenda and any preconceived ideas about the client, their situation, or where the session “ought to go”.

When you listen with curiosity and non-judgement, that looks like:

  • Hearing a client’s concerns, goals, values and beliefs
  • Encouraging, accepting, exploring, and reinforcing the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, beliefs, etc.
  • Distinguishing between words, tone of voice, and body language

So how do you cultivate active listening, and catch yourself when your mind turns toward directing or judging? (And it will - you’re human after all!) Try using your body as a radar. What do you physically experience when you are judging? Often when there’s judgment, there’s constriction or a little bit of anxiety. 

Standard 7. Evokes Awareness

ICF DEFINITION: Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy.

Creating awareness sits alongside designing actions, planning, and fostering progress and accountability. It can be seen as the first domino needed in order to co-create learning and results with the client. 

When we create awareness in session it helps clients to discover for themselves the new thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, moods, etc. that strengthen their ability to achieve what is important to them. Any change that arises from coaching does so as a result of new levels of awareness.

This standard also points to the “how” of good coaching, and represents the bulk of what gets taught and practiced in coach training programs. The techniques you use are all intended to help the client cultivate awareness. What this means is that you’re using your coaching skills to support the client in accessing their own internal wisdom.

Some of the skills and tools we use in this area include:

  • Powerful questioning
  • Silence
  • Coaching frameworks
  • Reflecting
  • Reframing
  • Paraphrasing
  • Noticing patterns and limiting beliefs

Hungry for more? 

Listen in as John and Noelle discuss this section on the podcast: The ICF Core Competency Series #3: Communicating Effectively.

Cultivating Learning and Growth

This is where the rubber meets the road! This competency explores how we support our clients in moving from insight to action. It's where goals, plans, and accountability all come into play.

In many coaching relationships, the client is working with you for a limited period of time. Ideally, they come away having achieved their stated outcomes, and are equipped with the insights and tools to maintain their own momentum going forward. 

Standard 8. Facilitates Client Growth

ICF DEFINITION: Partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action. Promotes client autonomy in the coaching process.

As a coach, your primary goal is to support growth, and you do it in a multitude of ways. It happens whenever you help your client integrate a new insight into their worldview and behavior. It occurs as you support them in setting goals and designing action steps. It also takes place as you help your client stay accountable to their intentions for coaching. 

Some of the skills and techniques that fall within this competency include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Exploring alternatives
  • Experimentation
  • Working through roadblocks
  • Challenging assumptions

There are other, less obvious ways that you help facilitate client growth as well. These include celebrating their wins, providing resources, checking in on their progress between sessions, and even making a referral out if you determine that what your client now needs exceeds the scope of your role as a coach.

Facilitating growth also means reaching a satisfying point of completion for the coaching engagement.

Want even more? 

Listen in as John and Noelle discuss the final Core Competency in the last podcast in this series: The ICF Core Competency Series #4: Facilitating Learning and Results.

Ready to Become A Coach?

One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.

Lumia Coaching: Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.

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