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ICF Markers

To simplify the process and create a more consistent standard of coaching, the ICF recently changed the way they score coach evaluations. The performance evaluation includes one set of disqualifying markers and eight sets of qualifying markers that need to be present for a coach to become ICF credentialed. The markers are based on the ICF’s eight core competencies of coaching. Below, the markers have been changed into yes/no questions to mimic the evaluation, give some commentary, and suggest questions to include in your coaching. 

Before focusing on qualifying markers for coaches in training, it’s important to be aware of the few disqualifying markers that the ICF looks for.

Disqualifying Markers

1. Ethical Standards

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 making a copy of the transcript public, you might not pass. It’s worth reading up on the ICF’s ethical standards. The ethics of confidentiality and avoiding conflict of interest are designed to protect you as a professional and protect your client’s right to privacy.

2. Coaching vs. Therapy

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

Although a coach might do some teaching or offer advice, doing so is not a coach’s primary purpose. A coach should act as an explorer of the client’s perspective. The ICF is big on coaches being an empty vessel, merely exploring the client’s world, provoking insights through curiosity, not advice-giving.

8 Qualifying Markers

  1. Setting the Agenda

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

Although coaching shies away from specific methods–such as NLP or consulting–setting the agenda in a coaching session is fundamental to helping clients stay focused on their goals. First comes the call. The coach might say, “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 a clear yes or no. The client should say “yes’ without any other qualifiers. If your client hesitates, adds, subtracts, or launches into a different direction, you’ll need to work to reestablish a clear agenda.

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

This is especially necessary when a client wants to pursue something difficult to measure, like exploring their emotions around a particular relationship. Measurability is a big deal when it comes to passing the coaching standards. Creating a measurable agenda helps the client see the value of coaching and provides more accountability and structure to a coaching call. A measurable goal could take the form of coming up with a new perspective on work or a project. It could be coming away with two action steps to take during the week regarding health and exercise or creating a new study plan that involves talking to professors or instructors. Whatever the measure is, it’s helpful to use numerical factors or some other specific tool such as a new perspective or new form of evaluation. Something that you can write down on a piece of paper that says, “This is what we got out of the coaching session.”

Does the coach explore why this agenda is essential to the client or what impact this agenda will have on the client’s life?

Asking a question or two about the importance of the agenda helps 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 to achieve what the client wants from the coaching session?

Coaches should avoid advising their clients according to what they think is best. After an agenda is set, the way forward would be to ask the client, “What area do you think we need to address first to accomplish this session agenda?”

Does the coach continue the conversation in the direction of the client's desires?

This marker checks whether or not the coach follows the client’s lead in the beginning stages, exploring the client’s agenda for the session.

2. Creating Trust and Intimacy

This marker, also part of the ICF’s core competencies, 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 client’s work in the coaching process?

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

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. The ICF wants to see cheering on a client, acknowledging the work that the client has already put into a situation, and expressing support for the action steps that the client has taken.

Does the coach encourage the client to express themselves fully?

Coaches often pick up on the emotions clients are holding. This marker checks whether or not a coach follows up 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 is to be empathetic, mindful, and compassionate with your client’s feelings, encouraging them to express that emotion fully.

3. Coaching Presence

Coaching presence is a core competency that aims to check whether or not a coach has divested themselves of the expert role and has put themselves fully into the client’s world. The key to this competency is allowing yourself to have a childlike curiosity about what it’s like to be your client. Empathy for the shifts in energy and subtleties of your client’s speech, pausing, and body language allows the coach/client relationship to deepen and strengthen, reinforcing this marker and core competency.

Does the coach respond to the client’s big agenda for their life and the immediate session agenda?

This marker checks whether the coach holds the larger vision of the client or stops the client from exploring what they want on a larger scale in their life. Let’s say the session agenda is to develop additional action steps to get to the gym. The larger agenda addresses the whole person and 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 helps 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 asks whether or not you have the sensitivity and awareness to address both that larger agenda and 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 subtleties of your client’s speech, pauses, and body language. For example, if the client chuckles after saying something or has an automatic exclamation, a coach should ask their client, “What was the chuckle for?” The question is not a challenge to the client but rather an invitation to explore further. The coach’s energy should be pure, childlike curiosity and not that of an investigator trying to use clues to figure something out or catch your client doing something they shouldn’t be doing. You’re there to observe, empathize, and respond in a curious and exploratory manner, ultimately to serve your client. 

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

This marker is slightly more specific than the one preceding it. With this marker, instead of looking at something explicit that your client says, you notice a word or a pause, asking whether or not you are attuned to the different energy levels 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.

Does the coach exhibit curiosity to gain more learning?

This marker looks at whether or not coaches are asking questions about information a client already knows, such as “how many children do you have?” or “how many siblings do you have?” Does the coach ask questions out of curiosity or to help the client learn more insights that the client might not have previously explored? Asking questions that derive insights helps the coach express a strong coaching presence because the coach assumes no expert role. The coach doesn’t need to gather that much information from the client. A coach’s main priority is to help the client gain new insights.

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

This marker looks at the energy of partnership. It asks whether or not you are allowing the client to choose the directions that the coaching session takes. Will you go in the direction your client needs and always check in with your client on how you are doing, following the original agenda set at the beginning of the coaching session?

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

The coach will inevitably suggest a direction that the coaching session should go in, share intuitive thoughts, 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 their input, or do they release it and follow the client's interests? This marker looks for how well you can release attachment to your contributions and follow 100% of the client's input and direction.

Does the coach partner with the client by repeating the different options, possibilities, and directions a client can go? Does the coach allow the client to choose their direction? 

This marker checks whether or not a coach accurately reflects the different options 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 coaching opinion.

Does the coach allow the client to articulate what they are learning from the coaching session?

This marker checks the degree to which a coach trusts the client to generate their own learning. The coach trusts the client to such a degree that the coach becomes the learner, and the client becomes a better teacher. It asks you to become so curious that your curiosity provokes insight from the client that allows them to formulate their learning.

4. 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 toward your client. It is trying to get completely 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 I like to ask often, 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 need most?

It’s best practice to make the questions 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, saying, “You just mentioned the word ‘should’ in that sentence,” would make the assessor supremely happy. You could follow that observation with a short, crisp, powerful question to bring the assessor to higher heights of coaching joy, such as, “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. By asking permission to examine or look at such a specific instance, you also let your client know how closely you listen. 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? 

The ICF wants you to ask about your client’s feelings. However, they prefer for coaches to speak in terms of “emotions.”. Use the word “emotion” to make sure you get a checkmark in this column. For example, “What emotions are present now?” or “What emotions came up then?” would suffice.

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 straightforward. The ICF points to the skill of increasing your listening to such a high degree that even sighs or long pauses catch your attention. You can demonstrate a high degree of active listening by allowing your curiosity to explore such tiny and perhaps fleeting moments or subtle changes in the pace or rhythm of a client’s speech.

Does the coach ask about the client’s behaviors? 

As a coach, your role is to provide questions and reflections that help your client better understand their behavior, especially that which might be holding them back from achieving their goals. You could ask something like, “How is this behavior influencing your daily goals?” I would use the word behavior rather than action. The word “action” doesn’t always map onto the actual behavior of your clients. Staying in bed, for example, is a behavior but not much of an action.

Does the coach ask how the client perceives their world? 

Perspective plays such a powerful role in our choices and behavior, yet most of the time, perspectives go unexplored. We all 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 share the same perspective as your client. This is not about judging your client’s viewpoint or trying to get your client to adopt a new or different one. Your job is simply to explore and become curious about how your client perceives the world.

Does the coach pause? 

The irony of coaching is that the less you talk, the more value your client gets. The hallmark of the pause is when you sit and let the pause remain. The client finishes a thought, and you get into a pause. You sense your client is comfortable and still thinking. The last few words your client said still echo in your mind. You still pause. The next question begins to formulate in your mind. You hold the pause for one more second, and then your client starts a new thought that seems to answer the question you just had in your mind. Pauses can be transformative moments.

5. Powerful Questions

Curiosity is the primary skill of coaching. Along with empathetic, finely tuned listening, asking questions is your principal tool as a coach, and 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. Do not feel pressured to craft big, muscular questions that go deep and create huge lightbulb moments every other minute. Instead, effective coaching questions are open, with an invitation to explore new territory. Keep questions simple and curious.

Does the coach ask questions about the client?

In the Learn-Be-Do model of coaching, how your client is being is perhaps the most challenging aspect in asking questions. Here, the ICF wants to see a coach help their client better understand their characteristics and ways of being. Assessors are looking for evidence of you using curiosity to ask about a client’s values, perspectives, assumptions, goals, and big dreams. However, these questions should always loop back into the present.

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 clients think 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 superpower, what would be the other characteristic in yourself that you would need to make it really effective?” 

Does the coach ask questions that help the client explore new territory regarding the situation?

Much like the marker above, this marker looks at whether or not the coach helps the client think differently about the situation based on their current circumstances. 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 a 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 spark 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?

Asking questions about what a client really wants is the foundation of coaching. At times, the challenges seem so large that hope is hard to find. This marker checks on your ability to ask the client about future outcomes and goals and how well you explore those goals to create more clarity and insight. Having a strong vision toward the future helps clients see through 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, as well as your comfort level with asking only one short question. That’s it. A habit many new coaches have is the need to keep talking and over explain the question they just asked. Overcoming this habit is probably one of the biggest challenges of a new coach.

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

This marker points back to coaching’s roots in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where it was considered extremely important to ask questions using either visual, audio, or kinesthetic words that match the client’s speech. 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 client’s language and incorporating them into the questions you ask.

Does the coach ask questions that don’t have a hidden agenda or built-in conclusions/suggestions?

This marker is short and simple, but it’s the skill coaches often have to work on most. It’s easy to avoid when we practice simple, open-ended questions. Like, “What emotions came up then?”

6. Direct Communication

Although listening and questions form the bulk of the coaching tools you use, directly stating what you see and giving feedback to your client is also necessary for 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. You want to offer insights that help lead the client to an insight they can implement in their upcoming action plan.  

Does the coach share the observations and intuitions without attachment?

Here, the ICF has a specific marker that checks whether or not you are attached to that initial thought or intuition 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 accept, 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 paraphrasing or reflection. It is repeating back a few words that your client just used or pointing out that you keep hearing the same words used in the same way. Here’s an example from John Andrew Williams, CTEDU founder: “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 the habitual language that I used and gave me some very direct feedback that helped me think about how I was using language. It was 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?

The ideal coach-to-client word count would be between 80-90% client and 10-20% coach.

Does the coach only interrupt the client purposefully or when the client is telling a clearly unproductive story? 

Sometimes, bottom-lining is useful. The ICF is looking for your ability 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 of themselves or the situation at hand.

Does the coach ask the client what they are 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, more simply, “What is this situation trying to teach you?” Asking questions about learning puts the client into a growth mindset and helps them tap into more creativity and motivation to achieve challenging goals.

Does the coach ask questions about what the client is learning about themselves?

Another one of my go-to questions is asking a client what they are learning about themselves. 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 personality habits are all extremely valuable to them. This is the territory where you 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 themselves.

Does the coach share with the client what they see to seek the client’s input or further exploration?

This marker is a combination of direct communication and creating awareness.  It involves your ability to be bold in a way that helps your client think and creates more learning. It is not necessarily an action step as much as sharing observations with the client that is useful and sometimes very hard for people to see themselves. In other words, you are acting as a mirror to help your clients see things so close to them that sometimes they are impossible to notice without help.

Does the coach ask the client questions about how they 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. 

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

This marker acts as a summation of all the others. It points to a coach’s ability to create awareness using all aspects of communication, including listening, questions, and direct communication. This marker is a global check for whether or not you are focused and helping further your client’s learning.

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. This marker combines two ICF core competencies, goal setting and planning, which happen within each session. This marker also includes managing progress and accountability, which, although addressed within a session, takes a larger view of how life coaching fits strategically into a client’s life.

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

This is an easy marker, and it asks whether or not you 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, action steps, or an inquiry the client will consider between the end of the current session and the beginning of the next session?

This marker asks whether or not you have designed an effective action plan with your client. This marker also checks whether that action plan aligns with the larger goals your client wants to accomplish in their life.

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

This marker checks whether or not you further explore the resources your client thinks they will need and the potential costs the client may experience while following through on the action plan. It is an attempt to create increased awareness about the action plan and the forward momentum your client can create to accomplish their 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 are already 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 for being able to help a client design effective accountability to truly move them forward. This is what provides so much value to clients. This marker checks your ability to explore what extra pieces of motivation will work well for your client to move forward when things get difficult and motivation is low. When clients learn to take on difficult actions consistently and follow through on commitments, they build stamina and develop a habit of doing hard things. Having a strong sense of accountability is extremely useful to the coaching process.

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 will take after the session.

Does the coach notice and reflect on the client's progress?

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. 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 adopt a more positive and effective perspective and mindsets that can meet future challenges.

Concluding the Coaching Markers

The foundation of coaching is curiosity. A metaphor to consider for becoming an effective coach is to look at yourself as your client’s student. You want to partner with your client to such a great degree that your client essentially becomes your teacher and helps you understand their world. In your orientation as a learner, it is not necessarily simply learning what is present right now with your 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 your client’s life. The curiosity in the potential future from your client’s perspective provides immense value in coaching.

To become an effective coach, you have to become an effective learner. When you experience a moment where you feel 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, effective coach. Our clients’ lives are like a masterpiece painting, and when you go to the art museum and see a painting, your immediate response is not to try to fix it or change it but simply appreciate it. Our job is to treat our client’s life like that painting. Then, turn to the artist and ask them, “What are you going to paint next, why, and by when? Along the way, what do you hope to learn about yourself and the situation?”

1 The Gold Standard in Coaching | ICF - Core Competencies. (n.d.). International Coaching Federation. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from https://coachingfederation.org/core-competencies

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