Certification ICF Coaching Markers

ICF Coaching Markers
The ICF recently changed the way that it scores coach evaluations in an effort to both simplify the process as well as create a more consistent standard of coaching. Included in the performance evaluation are one set of disqualifying markers and eight groupings of markers that need to be present. In each of the markers below, I change the statement of a marker into a yes/no question to mimic the observed/not observed and give some commentary and suggested questions to include in your coaching. 

Qualifying ICF Coaching Markers 

Before we focus on qualifying markers for coaches in training, it’s important to be aware of the few disqualifying markers that the ICF is looking out for.

1.Does the coach breach any ethics? 

This one should be pretty easy for you to avoid in a coaching session. If perhaps you let it slip that you are secretly recording this session and going to make a copy of the transcript public, then you might not pass. It’s worth reading up on the ethics the ICF has in place, mostly for your benefit as a coach. The ethics of confidentiality and avoiding conflict of interest are designed to protect you as a professional as well as protect your client’s privacy.

2. Does the coach clearly practice the role of a coach rather than a consultant or therapist?

Although a coach might do a smidgin of teaching or offer advice, doing so is clearly not the primary purpose and is clearly secondary to the coach being an explorer of the client’s perspective. The ICF is big on the coach being an empty vessel merely exploring the client’s world, provoking insights from curiosity not advice.

8 Qualifying Markers

  • Setting the Agenda

Does the coach help identify and reconfirm what the client wants to focus on in the coaching session? 

Although coaching shies away from formulas in a way that NLP or perhaps a consultant might embrace, setting the agenda might be as close as it gets to a formulaic call and response between coach and client. First comes the call. “Just to be clear, I understand the agenda for this call to be (fill in the blank)? Second comes the response, “Yes. That’s it.” As a coach, you cannot simply assume the agenda is implied or clearly understood without that simple, clear, yes/no, question, where the client says “yes’ without any other qualifiers. If your client hesitates, adds, subtracts, or launches into a different direction, you need to go for setting a clear agenda again.

Does the coach help the client create a session agenda that is measurable?

When the client says something like,” I just want to explore my relationship” or something that seems hard to measure, change your perspective. Measurability is a big deal when it comes to passing the coaching standards. Helping create an agenda that’s measurable helps the client see the value of coaching and provides more accountability and structure to a coaching call. Measurability could be as easy as coming up with a new perspective on work or a project. It could be coming away with two action steps to take the next week around health and exercise. You could be coming up with a new study plan or talking to specific professor or instructor. But whatever the measure is, it’s helpful to involve some number or some other specific tool such as a new perspective or new value. Something that you can write down on a piece of paper and that says “this is what we got out of the coaching session.”

Does the coach explore why this agenda is important to the client or what impact this agenda will have on the clients life?

Asking a question or two about the importance of the agenda to provide exploration and depth to the session. Suggested questions could be along the lines of “what impact would accomplishing this or focusing on this have on other areas of your life?”

Does the coach help the client define what needs to be addressed or resolved in his or her life in order to achieve what the client wants out of the coaching session?

In other words, I think this question is asking does the coach then take the clients lead and look at what is next to address after the agenda rather than assuming that the coach knows the path to solution for the client. The way forward would be asking a client after the agenda is set, “what area do you think we need to address first in order to accomplish this session agenda?”

Does the coach continue the conversation in the direction of the clients desire?

This marker checks whether or not the coach follows the lead of the client in the beginning stages of the exploration of the clients agenda for the session.

  • Creating Trust and Intimacy

This core competency is based on whether or not the coach connects with the client on a deep level. This involves exploring feelings and offering support to a client based on the coaching relationship and creating intimacy within this relationship.

Does the coach acknowledge and respect the clients work in the coaching process?

This marker checks whether a coach respects the effort the client has put in to meet the challenges that the situation presents. It also asks whether a coach empowers the client by asking questions that are based on a trusted acknowledgment that the client has the answers to the problem and that the client knows the best possible solution. It is an acknowledgment that the client does the majority of the work in a coaching session and a coach’s job is merely to facilitate a deeper understanding and insight from the client.

Does the coach express support for the client?

This marker asks the simple question does the coach champion and cheer on the client. Acknowledgment and championing are extremely powerful. Cheering on a client, acknowledging the work that the client has already put into a situation and expressing your support for the action steps that the client has taken are what the ICF wants to see here.

Does the coach encourage the client to fully express him or herself?

Sometimes the coach picks up on an emotion that the client has. This marker checks whether or not a coach follows up on that initial curiosity with questions exploring that emotion. It could be as simple as, “I sense there’s a lot of emotion here. What are you feeling?” The important point here is to be mindful of what your client is feeling to encourage your client to fully express that emotion.

  • Coaching Presence

Coaching presence is a core competency that aims to check whether or not a coach has divested himself or herself of the expert role and has put him or herself fully into the clients world. The key to this competency is allowing yourself to have childlike curiosity of what it is like to be your client and to be finely tuned in to the shifts in energy and and subtleties your client speech, pausing, and body language.

Does the coach respond to the clients big agenda for his or her life as well as the immediate session agenda?

This marker checks whether the coach holds the larger vision of the client or stops the client from exploring what he or she wants on a larger scale in his or her life. Let’s say the session agenda is to come up with additional action steps to get to the gym. The larger agenda that addresses the whole person is whether or not the client can follow through on accountabilities, especially when those accountabilities bring up something that might be painful or make the client feel shame. The larger agenda is helping support the client to take positive action steps even in the face of negative self talk. The smaller agenda is getting the client to become very clear on those action steps and designing accountability to follow through. This marker is asking whether or not you have the sensitivity and the awareness to address both that larger agenda as well as the smaller, immediate and explicit agenda at hand.

Is the coach observant, empathetic, and responsive?

This is a relatively straightforward question and can be demonstrated by asking questions about the little subtleties of your clients speech, pausing, or body language. For example if the client chuckles after saying something or has an automatic exclamation, you as a coach ask your client, “what was the chuckle for?”. The question is not a challenge to the client, but rather an invitation for your client to explore further. The energy of you as a coach is pure, child-like curiosity and not that of a sleuth trying to get clues together to figure something out or catch your client doing something that they should not be doing. It is merely an exploration and a curiosity to discover the minute subtleties of your clients communication.

Does the coach notice and explore energy shifts from the client?

This marker is slightly more specific than the one proceeding it that essentially asks the same things. With this marker, instead of looking at something explicit that your client says, you are noticing a word or a pause, This marker is asking whether or not you are attuned to the different energy level of your client. It’s asking whether or not you can follow along with and be sensitive to the ups and the downs in the energetic field of the coaching call and in the room itself.

Does the coach exhibit curiosity with the intention to gain more learning?

This marker is looking at whether or not coaches are asking questions about information a client already knows, such as “how many children do you have?” or “how may siblings do you have?” or “what is your work schedule?” Is the coach asking questions out of curiosity or to help the client learn more insights that the client might not have previously explored. The difference in these kind of questions helps the coach build a strong foundation of coaching presence because the coach assumes no expert role. The coach is merely asking questions for the sake of the client and for the sake of the client gaining information. The coach doesn’t need to gather that much information from the client, but merely tries to help client gain new insights.

Does the coach partner with a client to help the client choose how to spend the coaching session?

When I was going through my coach training  and my mentor coaching I would always ask my client permission to go over an exercise because I thought that is what the ICF wanted. My mentor coach got annoyed at some point while listening to my coaching and asked me why I do this every time and challenged me to not do this. I chuckled and I told him I usually don’t do this but I’ve started to because I thought this was what the ICF wants to see and I want to demonstrate that I can fully partner with my client. The point I’m trying to make is that you as a coach don’t have to directly ask the client permission to do every exercise This marker is looking at the energy of partnership. It asks the question of whether not not you are you allowing the client to choose the directions that the coaching session takes. Will you go in the direction that your client needs and always check in with your client on how you are doing with following the original agenda set at the beginning of the coaching session?

Does the coach fight the client to either take or not take a coach’s input and fully embrace whatever response the client gives?

The coach will inevitably make a suggestion of a direction that the coaching session should go in, share intuitive thought or make a bold guess. The client may come back with a response of “yes, that applies to me” or “no, not at all.” Is a coach attached to this or her own input or do they release that input and follow the client directly? This marker is looking for how well you as a coach can release attachment to your contributions and follow 100% the input and direction client.

Does the coach partner with the client by repeating back the different options, possibilities and directions that a client can go and take the session back to the client to choose?

This marker checks whether or not a coach accurately reflects the different options back to the client and allows the client to choose which option to take within the session. It requires both the skill of reflection as well as not being attached to your opinion as a coach.

Does the coach allow the client to articulate what he or she is learning from the coaching session?

This marker checks the degree to which a coach trusts the client to generate his or her own learning. The coach trusts the client to such a degree that the coach becomes the learner and the client becomes teacher. It is asking you as a coach to become so curious that your curiosity provokes insight from the client that allows the client to formulate his or her own learning.

  • Active Listening

Active listening is the bedrock of life coaching. Listening from a life coaching perspective involves listening for the sake of the other person. It is not simply gathering the information your client is talking about but actively applying empathy and curiosity towards your client. It is trying to completely get into your client’s world and listen with childlike wonderment and curiosity.

Does the coach use questions unique to the client and the client’s situation?

The ICF wants to avoid formulaic or automatic questions in a script. Coaching is fluid and your ability to connect with your client on a human to human basis is integral to the power of coaching. I have some standby questions that I like to often ask such as:

  • What are you learning about yourself?

  • What are you learning about the situation?

  • What is most important to you right now?

  • What skill or characteristic do you most need?

I could go on with my favorite go-to questions, but the vast majority of the questions I ask are unique to the client and use a word or two from what the client just said.

Does the coach ask the client about the client’s use of language? 

The ICF is looking for you to ask your client something about word choice or usage. For example, “You just mentioned the word “should” in that sentence.” would make the assessor, perhaps also a member of the anti-should-club-of-expert coaches supremely happy. You as a coach could follow that observation with a short, crisp, powerful question to bring the assessor to higher heights of coaching joy. “What stopped you from fully embracing the action?”

The idea here is to listen to your client so closely that specific words, and the emotion behind the words, begin to jump out to you as a coach. By asking permission to examine or look at such a specific instance, you also let your client know how closely you are listening. When you catch specific emotions and thought-patterns so automatic that your client didn’t notice them before, your client receives tremendous value.

Does the coach ask about a client’s emotions? 

It is interesting to me that the ICF does not often use the word feelings when describing these markers. Maybe the word emotions seems more formal and respectable. Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of the “How are you feeling?” or “What would that feel like?” question. I feel that the word feeling is overused. However, the ICF wants you ask about your client’s feelings. You could use the word emotion to make sure you get a check mark in this column. For example, “What emotion do you have?” or “What emotion would that give you?” would suffice.

Just to be clear, a few feeling or emotion questions are great. I am just not a fan of the feeling/emotion question being a coach’s go-to question.

Does the coach ask about a client’s tone of voice, talking speed, or inflection in a curious, not disrespectful, way? 

The benchmark here is pretty clear. The ICF points to the skill of increasing your listening to such a high degree that even sighs or long pauses catch your attention. By allowing your curiosity to explore such minute, and perhaps fleeting moments or such subtle changes in pace or rhythm of a client’s speech, you can demonstrate a high degree of active listening.

Does the coach ask about the client’s behaviors? 

I also tend to find the word behaviors slightly humorous when used in a coaching setting. It might just be me, but it feels like the word behavior has a negative connotation to it. “Behave.” Or ‘I won’t tolerate this behavior.” Or how about “This behavior is …” (I imagine that most of you filled in the blank with unacceptable.) At any rate, behavior, is the word that often pops up with this skill marker. My sense is that you as a coach explore the negative actions that your client is taking or those that might be holding your client back. “How is this behavior stopping you?” might be a great example of a question that would demonstrate this competency. To be on the safe side, I would use the word behavior rather than simply action.

Does the coach ask about how the client perceives his or her world? 

Perspective plays such a powerful role in the decisions we make and the actions we take, yet most of the time perspectives go unexplored. We each have certain default perspectives and reactions to situations that help us make sense of the world. Active listening is exploring your client’s perspectives, and not simply assuming that you as a coach share the same perspective as your client. It is also not about judging your client’s perspective or trying to get your client to adopt a new or different perspective. Your job as a coach is simply to explore and become curious about the ways in which your client perceives the world.

Does the coach pause? 

This is perhaps my favorite marker. The irony of coaching is that the less you talk, the more value your client gets. I once counted the number of words I asked versus the number of words my client used. It was close to 20:1 in favor of my client. I maybe spoke for less than 5% of the time. It was one of my most beautiful sessions. My favorite part of coaching is this seamless sequence of events that seem to take an eternity: My client finishes a thought. I get really into a pause. I sense my client is comfortable, still thinking. The last few words my client said still echo in my mind. I still hold onto the pause. The next question begins to formulate in my mind. I hold the pause for one more second just to be sure, and then my client starts to talk again on another similar thread. I get extra excited if my client’s new thought seems to answer the question I had in my mind.

Pausing is the best.

  • Powerful Questions

Curiosity is the primary skill of coaching. Along with empathetic, finely attuned listening, asking questions is your principle tool as a coach. It is the one that allows you to create value for your client. The ICF promotes the term Powerful Questions as the name of this competency. I like the term, but I think it places too much pressure on beginning coaches to craft really big muscular questions that go deep and create huge lightbulb moments every other minute. Rather, I prefer to think of effective coaching questions as being open with an invitation to explore new territory. I like the term simple, curious questions.

Does the coach ask questions about the client?

In the Learn-Be-Do model of coaching, being is perhaps the most challenging aspect of a client to ask questions about. Here. the ICF is pointing to help the client better understand his or her characteristics and ways of being. Assessors are looking for evidence of you using curiosity to ask about what values, perspectives, assumptions, and big dreams the client has. This is a curiosity about where the client is right now.

Does the coach ask the client questions beyond where the client is now to explore new territory?

This question is pinpointing the coaching skill of using curiosity with intuition and creativity. This involves asking questions that might help get clients to thinking about new ways of viewing themselves and their characteristics. For example, a coach might use a metaphor, followed by a question around a certain strength, to help the client gain a new perspective about him or herself: “If this strength were a super power, what would be the other characteristic in yourself that you would need to make it really be effective?” This might be an example of a question that points the client in a direction to explore new ideas about him or herself.

Does the coach ask questions to help the client explore new territory in terms of looking at the situation?

Much like the marker above, this marker looks at  whether or not the coach helps the client think in different ways about the situation based on the current circumstances at hand. The coach’s job is to evoke insight from the client and help clients see things with fresh, new eyes. You can combine curiosity with simple questions and look at different ways to approach present circumstances. For example, let’s say a client is wrapped up in thinking about having problem, but you ask the question, “What’s the gift of this situation?” This could shift your client’s thinking about the problem and even sparks a bit of excitement. Such a little shift can make a big difference in the effectiveness (and motivation) to follow through on actions.

Does the coach ask client centered questions about what the client wants?

So simple yet so profound, asking questions about what a client really wants is the foundation of coaching. At times, the challenge’s present problems loom so large that hope is hard to find. This marker is checking on your ability to ask the client about future outcomes and goals and how well you explore those goals to create more clarity as well as insight. Having a strong vision towards the future helps clients see through the problems and encourages motivation.

Does the coach ask simple, clear questions, slowly, one at a time?

The ICF is looking for you to match the pace of your client in your questions. It Is also looking for your comfort level with asking only one, short question, and that is it. I remember when I was first learning to coach, and I felt the need to keep on talking and to keep on explaining more about the question that I asked. Overcoming this habit is probably one of the biggest challenges of being a beginning coach.

Does the coach ask questions using the client words, learning style, and frame of reference?

This marker points back to coaching’s roots in neurolinguistic programming, where asking questions using either visual, audio, or kinesthetic words that match the clients speech was considered to be extremely important. It used to be essential to build rapport and be an effective practitioner. You can hit this marker by asking questions using the same verbs as your client and by picking up on different elements of your clients language and incorporating them into the questions you ask.

Does the coach asked questions that are not leading nor have built-in conclusions or suggestions in them?

I love this marker. Short simple sweet and easy to avoid if you are asking short Open ended questions.

6.Direct Communication

Although listening and questions form the bulk of the coaching tools that you use, being able to directly state what you see and give direct feedback to your client is also a necessary part of effective coaching.

Does the coach share thoughts, intuitions, and feelings that serve a client’s learning or action plan?

As a coach, you are allowed– even encouraged–to share good thoughts, ideas and emotions with your client, but to do so in a way that also encourages their forward movement or new understanding. The trick is to not be attached to those thoughts or intuitions as being right, but to share them freely with a sense of non-attachment. Then, follow-up the thought with a question.

Does the coach share the observations and intuitions without attachment?

Hear, the ICF has a specific marker that checks whether or not you are attached to that initial thought or intuition that you shared with your client. It is easy to get caught up in wanting to validate your opinion or idea, especially if you think it will be really useful for your client. However, to reach this marker, you have to let go of being right and allow your client to either except, modify, or change your ideas completely.

Does the coach use the client’s language to reflect the client’s way of speaking?

This marker points to the skill of paraphrase or reflection. It is repeating back a few words that your client just used or pointing out the fact that you keep hearing the same words being used in the same way from your client. I remember once, I was working with my coach and he stopped me and said, “John you always talk about how you just have to get through the next three months. You’ve been saying the next three months for the last two years. What is the use of thinking about your professional work in terms of three months?” He picked up on habitual language that I used and give me some very direct feedback that helped me think about the way I was using language. It is a perfect example of direct communication using the client’s words.

Does the coach use clear and concise language?

The ICF is looking to make sure that you are keeping your feedback short, crisp and clear, or in other words, that you are using direct communication.

Does the coach allow the client to do most of the talking?

I think the ideal coach to client word count would be somewhere between 80 to 90% client and 20 to 10% coach.

Does the coach not interrupt the client unless on purpose or the client’s telling a story that is too long?

Sometimes, bottom lining is useful. What the ICF is looking for here is your ability as a coach to keep quiet and listen to your client, except when you sense that your client is going on for too long and not exploring new territory.

7.Creating Awareness

The previous three markers looked at what specifically a life coach does, listen, ask questions, and communicate directly. These next two categories look at the impact those coaching actions seek to create. A coach seeks to increase awareness and forward action. Creating awareness involves helping a client gain a deeper understanding about him or herself or the situation at hand.

Does the coach ask the client what he or she is learning about the situation?

One of my favorite questions is almost word for word the question above. “What are you learning about the situation?” or “If the situation were trying to teach you something, what is it trying to teach you?” Asking questions about learning automatically puts the client into a growth mindset and helps him or her tap into more creativity and motivation to achieve challenging goals.

Does the coach ask questions about what the client is learning about him or herself?

I absolutely adore this marker. Another one of my go to questions is asking a client what he or she is learning about him or herself. It is incredibly powerful for a client to explore ways of being with the coach. Helping clients gain insight, learn about character strengths and weaknesses and explore habits of personality are all extremely valuable to clients. This is the territory where you as a coach have the opportunity to change a client’s life by asking the questions that provoke such deep insight that the client gains a completely new understanding of him or herself.

Does the coach share what the coach sees with the client in a way that seeks to clients further input or expiration?

This marker is a combination of direct communication and creating awareness.  It involves your ability as a coach to be bold in a way that helps your client think and in a way that creates more learning for him or her. Is not necessarily an action step as much as sharing observations with the client that are useful and sometimes very hard for people to see themselves. In other words, as a coach, you are acting as a mirror to help your clients see things so close to them that sometimes they are impossible for the client to see him or herself.

Does the coach ask the client questions about how to coach will apply the learning?

This marker blends creating awareness with designing actions. In many coaching calls, once the conditions of learning are met, the client has sufficient new insight and the direction of the action that needs to be taken becomes clear. My favorite coaching sessions are when I have spent so much time creating a new awareness for my client that the actions that need to be taken are immediately clear within the last five minutes or so. The learning has been put into place.

Does the coach’s communication have the potential to create new learning for the client?

I think this marker is a summation of all the other 17 previously talked about. My sense is that it is here to point to a coach’s ability to create awareness using all aspects of communication, including listening, questions, and direct communication. This marker seems to be a global check for whether or not you as a coach are focused and helping further your clients learning about the situation.

8.Designing actions, Goal Setting, and Accountability

On the other side of creating awareness is helping clients design actions and action plans to move forward effectively. This marker combines two of the ICF core competencies, goal setting and planning, which both happen within each session. This marker also includes managing progress and accountability, which although is addressed within a session, also stands and takes a larger view of how life coaching fits strategically into a clients life.

Does the coach ask a client what the client wants to accomplish in the session?

This is an easy marker to address. It is asking whether or not you as a coach set a clear agenda for what the client wants to accomplish in the coaching session.

Does the coach help the client create a new action plan or action steps or an inquiry the the client is going to consider between the end of the current session and the beginning of the next session?

This marker is asking whether or not you have designed an effective action plan with your client. This marker also checks whether or not that action plan is aligned with the larger goals for what your client was to accomplish in his or her life.

Does the coach invite the client to see resources as well as obstacles in designing the plan?

This marker is checking on whether or not you as a coach further explore, just a little bit, the resources that your client thinks he or she will need and the potential costs the client my experience while following through on the action plan. It is an attempt to create increased awareness about the action plan and about the forward momentum that your client can create in order to accomplish the goals. It also serves as a way for you to address the challenges that are probably going to arise ahead of time, so that when a client experiences those challenges they will already have thought about the action plan and are prepared to handle setbacks.

Does the coach help the client create effective accountability?

Keeping oneself accountable is one of the most challenging yet powerful activities that people can do to grow and reach goals. In this sense, accountability is the backbone of coaching, and is essential to be able to help a client design effective accountability to truly move the client forward. This is what provides so much value to clients. This marker checks your ability to also explore what extra pieces of motivation are going to work well for your client to move forward when things get difficult and parts of motivation are low. When a client learns to take on difficult actions consistently, and to follow through on commitments, he or she builds stamina, and a habit of doing hard things is developed. Stamina and an ability to push through is more important than any immediate goal, because if a client can develop those characteristics consistently apply them to his or her life and the challenges head, he or she will be effective and successful. Having a strong sense of accountability is extremely useful to the coaching process and this marker directly addresses it.

Does the coach partner with the client to close the session?

This marker addresses the coach’s ability to circle back to the original agenda and ask the client how well the coach and client did in addressing the session agenda. It also points to a coach’s ability to wrap up all of the insights, ideas, and action steps the client is going to take after the session and before the next.

Does the coach notice and reflect on the clients progress made?

This marker is looking for an acknowledgment that the client receives from the coach. As coaches, we are in such an honored position to explore our clients intimate thoughts and feelings and design meaningful actions. In such a privileged position, acknowledgments and encouragement can have a profound positive impact on your client. For me, one of my biggest joys is helping clients see the progress they have made in their lives. So often it is our friends who see the progress that we make in the face of our problems, because the problem seems so large. Yet, having the coach reflect back the progress that a client has made in the session or even since the start of the coaching relationship, can help the client generate more hope and optimism for further change to happen. So often, people get stuck feeling hopeless because they think the present circumstances are going to continue. However, when you help someone see that the present circumstances have changed for the better, you help that person adopts a more positive and effective perspective, as well as mindsets that can meet future challenges.

Concluding the Coaching Markers

The foundation of coaching is curiosity. One metaphor that has helped me tremendously in becoming an effective coach is looking at my role as a coach as a learner of my client. I want to partner with my client at such a great degree that my client essentially becomes my teacher and helps me understand my client's world. In my orientation as a learner, it is not necessarily simply learning what is present right now with my client, although that is a part of it. It is more about being curious about what is just under the surface or what is just about to happen in my client’s life. It is the curiosity of the potential of the future from my client’s perspective that provides the immense value of coaching.

In order to become an effective coach you have to become an effective learner. When you experience a moment where you feel as if you are over there on the other side of the session, where you are completely immersed in your client’s world, and you feel like a whole new world of possibility opens up, then you know that you are in the right space and being a powerful, affective coach. Our client’s lives are like a masterpiece painting, and when you going to the art museum and you see a painting, your immediate response is not to try to fix it or change it but simply to appreciate it. Our job as a coach is to treat our client’s life like that painting. Then, turn to the artist and ask the artist “What are you going to paint next, why, and by when. And along the way what do you hope to learn about yourself and the situation?”