In last month’s article, we looked at ‘Maintains Coaching Presence’, one of the eight ICF Core Competencies in the updated model that comes into effect later in 2021. We specifically explored the relationship between this and Competency 4 Cultivates Trust and Safety, the place, purpose and value of presence in coaching, and some of the psychological thinking that underpins this important element of coaching skill.

In Part 2, we look at some of the barriers to presence and how we can develop and convey this important quality to our clients in our work with them.

What gets in the way of being or staying present with our clients?

Barriers to coaching presence can take on many forms and be triggered in different ways. Here are a few examples

  • Distractions – these could be practical such as your environment, physical such as a headache or feeling tired, hungry or psychological such as the nature and quality of your own thoughts and feelings.
  • Judgements – human beings are wired to make judgements, and this is part of how we process and navigate the vast volume of data, inputs and stimuli that we are faced with all day. The question is what is the nature of our judgements and how do they influence our connection and presence with our client?
  • Biases (conscious/unconscious) – similar to our judgements, what biases do we have and how do they show up in our work with our clients?
  • Confirmation bias (leading) – with confirmation bias, we are at risk of asking leading questions which is an indication that we may not be truly present with and for our clients and their agenda
  • Ego attention – our own ego can show up in many different and varied ways, one of which could be that we feel the need to share our own knowledge or experience or that we start to “know” what the client needs or what is best for them.
  • Over-empathising – empathy is such an important and valuable coaching quality, however if over-used or over engaged-with can lead us to immerse ourselves into the client’s work in an unhelpful way.
  • Lack of self-awareness – Not knowing ourselves, our strengths, and our triggers could mean that we may not even realise or be aware that we are not fully present with our clients, thereby potentially highlighting a blind spot in how we work.
  • Discomfort with (certain) emotions – our own response to and relationship with certain emotions will have a bearing on how we `are present with our clients if and when they express those emotions.
  • Our need to know, to be valued/valuable, to solve/fix, to “help” – our own needs can show up in different ways and, if our energy, attention and intention becomes (consciously or unconsciously) directed toward meeting those needs, we will inevitably be less present and available for our client and their agenda.
  • Performance anxietythe nature of some of our own needs can trigger performance anxiety for coaches. This can be exemplified when we notice ourselves thinking or saying things such as:
    • “I didn’t do anything”
    • “I’m just not sure how I added value, really”
    • “I’m struggling to help my clients get to their goal”
    • “How can just listening help them? Surely, I need to give them something, otherwise what value am I being to them… and they are paying me for that!”

Reflective opportunity:

  • Which of these potential barriers to coaching presence resonate with you?
  • What else can impact your ability to be fully present with your clients?
  • As you review your list, do you notice any patterns or themes?
  • Knowing yourself as you do, what do you need to address or take care of in order to maximise your coaching presence?

Developing and conveying presence with our clients

There are several aspects to coaching presence that we might focus on and nurture and here I’d like to explore four different areas:


The concept of partnering is a fundamental quality of a good coach-client relationship. This is initially and very clearly positioned in the ICF definition of coaching: “Coaching a is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”. The principles of coaching presence include us:

  • Showing respect and equality
  • Nurturing trust and safety
  • Empowering our clients
  • Helping to hold our clients accountable for the work in the coaching process
  • Honouring and encouraging autonomous and developmental thinking and positive change for our clients

It is also woven into the coaching competencies and can be evidenced in several ways including:

Co-designing focus and direction:

  • “Where would you like to start?”
  • “How would you like to approach this?”
  • “Where would you like to go next?”

Staying client-centred:

  • “What my intuition says is… However, I may be wrong; what do you think about…?”
  • “What is your reaction to what I just offered? Please feel free to disagree with it.”

Playing back possibilities:

  • “You have outlined options A, B and C; what do you want to do?”
  • “I’m hearing that you want to take a six- month break and you are also intrigued by this new project. What would be most fulfilling for you at this time?”

Reflective opportunity: how might you demonstrate more partnership with your clients?

Coach the Person:

Another way to convey our presence is to coach the person that brings the topic as well as the topic itself. For example:

Eliciting client’s learning and experience:

  • “What do you notice as you describe that situation?”
  • “What does that tell you?”
  • “What are you learning as you hear yourself describe that experience?” 

Coaching the whole person:

  • “How might this goal/action align with the values you shared earlier?”
  • “What are the beliefs and values that you will honour when you take that step?”
  • “I’m sensing some disappointment and I’d like to check… How is this for you?”
  • “I can see your emotion and I know this is important for you. Would you like to explore this further?”

Reflective opportunity: what is your development opportunity so that you can more effectively work with the person as well as the topic?


The topic of emotions and how we are with the range of different emotions has already been noted when exploring potential barriers to coaching presence. Working with emotions is a core part of the coaching process and an important skills for us to develop. This is very clearly signposted in several parts of the ICF Competencies:

  • “Develops and maintains the ability to regulate one’s emotions” (competency 2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset)
  • “Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions” (competency 4: Cultivates Trust and Safety)
  • “Manages one’s emotions to stay present with the client” (competency 5: Maintains Presence)
  • “Demonstrates confidence in working with strong client emotions” (competency 5: Maintains Presence)
  • “Notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviours” (competency 6: Listens Actively)

A key part of our role therefore is to hold a space for full client expression which has, at its foundation, the belief that our clients are creative resourceful and whole. Emotion (e.g., tears) does not necessarily equate to un-resourcefulness. This links closely the work of Carl Rogers and Humanistic Psychology, which we explored in Part 1 of this blog series. Rogers said: ““I regret it when I suppress my feelings too long and they burst forth in ways that are distorted or attacking or hurtful”. This is further underpinned by the work of Eric Berne, 1962 and latterly Franklin Ernst, 1971 with the concept of the OK-OK relationship and our “Life Positions” or outlook on life. Through developing the capacity to work with client emotions we role model a permission and an attitude which convey that these emotions are ok and in this way we can empower our clients.

Reflective opportunity:

  • Which emotions do you have easy access to?
  • Which emotions do you not have easy access to?
  • What is the work that you might do on and for yourself in order to extend your capacity to work with a full range of client emotions?


The fourth area I’d like to touch on is that of silence. The competency of Maintains Presence notes that the coach: Creates or allows for silence, pause or reflection and silence is also one of the tools noted in the definition of competency 7 Evokes Awareness. We sometimes refer to the coaching “space”, having the space and time to think is perhaps the greatest gift coaching can offer and this means that silence is an integral part of the coaching process. In her work, Nancy Kline captures this beautifully when saying: “What makes me think that what I am about to say is more important than what you are about to think?” and “The most powerful coaching exercise of all is generative attention and its uncorrupted silence”.

When we offer and hold a safe, supportive coaching space for our clients, we allow time to “stand still”. When we embrace a less is more approach, we allow and encourage our clients’ own resourcefulness and their “self-righting reflex” to emerge.

Some years ago, I studied Transcendental Meditation and my teacher explained the process of allowing myself to fully and deeply settle so that my own wisdom could surface. They explained that, when we first settle into stillness and silence and access a meditative state, it’s like a ‘spring clean’ of our thoughts and feelings to refresh and replenish ourselves. They then shared that, as we go even deeper into our stillness and silence, we let the wise sleeping elephants arise”

Silence is golden… by inviting silence into your coaching practice, you also invite your clients’ wise elephants to arise and emerge with new thought, new ideas, new possibilities…

Reflective opportunity:

  • What is your relationship with silence?
  • How can you further develop your capacity for silence in coaching in service of your client’s learning and forward movement?


Sinclair, T. & Passmore, J. (2020) Becoming a Coach, Pavilion (UK) and Springer (International)
International Coaching Federation (ICF), ICF Core Competency Model and ICF Code of Ethics
Rogers, C. R.  (1980) A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Kline, N. (1999), Time to Think and (2015) More Time to Think. London: Cassell Publishers

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair, MCC is co-founder and CEO of Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair. She co-authored Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (2020) and hosts the Coaching in Conversation podcast. In 2020, she founded Coaching with Conscience to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching.

Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community and has served in both local and global boards and workgroups for the International Coaching Federation. She was awarded an ICF Coaching Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023, named one of the Leading Global Coaches of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards (2019, 2021), and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award (2021). She is also a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100Coaches and a trained coaching supervisor, mentor coach and ICF assessor.

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