The Coaching Relationship

“In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” – Carl Rogers

Extensive studies in psychotherapy have shown that the most important predictor of client outcome is the therapist-client relationship, as experienced by the client. Studies from the last couple of decades confirm that the Importance of the relationship applies to coaching as well.

Even though we put effort into learning the CFT skills and pathways, they merely serve as a scaffold for building and deepening the relationship. As Carl Rogers points to – the relationship is the field in which transformation becomes possible.\

The qualities of a helpful coach-client relationship

Unconditional positive regard. Through unconditional positive regard, we provide optimum conditions for growth where clients accept and take responsibility for themselves. By definition any helping relationship anticipates change. In the coaching relationship, that anticipation presents as Hope—an optimism that something positive will develop to bring about constructive change. Thus, unconditional positive regard means that the coach shows overall acceptance of the client by setting aside personal opinions and biases. The main factor in unconditional positive regard is the ability to isolate behaviors from the person who displays them.[1] No matter what the client says or does, we interpret it is an expression of an intention of something positive – and we nurture that intention.

Trustworthiness. When the client trusts the coach, deep explorations can happen. Trust is about honoring agreements, and if agreements need to be broken, we do it with awareness and gentleness. When the client has a felt sense that the coach is with her, the coaching relationship comes into alignment. We create intimacy so that whatever the client shares, we receive it as a precious gift.

Authenticity. We model radical self-acceptance by being authentic moment by moment. If we drift away for a few seconds, or if we don’t understand what the client says, or if we are touched or triggered, we let the client know. Holding the coach as a role model, the client is encouraged to self-reveal, which builds trust

Vulnerability. An especially important aspect of authenticity is to let the client experience our vulnerability. Whether we feel insecurity, shame, or fear of rejection, we self-manage and bring it in only if we believe sharing our emotions will serve the client. Rather than share long stories, we are more likely to connect if we share our feelings and our longing in the moment.

Five levels of contracts

1. Contract with the world and God – personal ethics.

The first level of contract is the personal commitment each coach holds – areas where we will not compromise. It might be about holding all human beings as equals, or about not harming the planet, or about working within the law. We can ask ourselves, “What work would I refuse, given my personal ethics? Or what would make me resign from a coaching contract?”

2. Contract with the client or organization – logistics and expectations.

The second level of contracting includes administrative aspects – time, place, duration, context, fees, evaluation methods and confidentiality – as well as the learning and development contract. When we coach the employees of an organization, the sponsor may have one agenda for the work, while the people being coached might have others. For example, the sponsor wants a newly promoted employee to enhance her people skills. She might not see any reason to work on that, and would prefer coaching on work-life balance. We hold the confidentiality of the coaching relationship, and encourage transparency and dialogue.

3. Contract for the course of coaching – desired outcomes.

The arc of the coaching relationship often starts with clarification of values clarification, vision and goals. We contract about using other processes or tools: 360 feedback, assessments and other forms of support. We determine the desired outcomes of the coaching process, and check in regularly on progress, and often recalibrate or change course.

4. Contract for the session – presenting agenda.

We also create a contract for each session, starting by finding the presenting and deeper agenda. We check to see if clients are getting what they want from the session. We complete processes thoroughly, such as checking back in with the constricted body parts, making agreements about embodying a new viewpoint, or summarizing action steps. To keep the client on track and on time, we can ask for the bottom line, recap, interrupt, or refer to the time.

5. Contract from moment to moment – what’s important now.

Using our intuition, we track the client’s aliveness in every moment. We name it when their energy shifts. If the client steps over something, we can bring them back to what matters most. One of the ways to help clients stay focused is to invite them to “park that for a moment” and come back to it later.

The art of coaching is to hold all five levels of contracts simultaneously, which builds trust.

Transference and countertransference

Sometimes clients unconsciously relate to the coach as a significant figure in their life, appealing for love, reliving an old drama or testing an abusive pattern. And sometimes coaches relate to the client as someone with whom we have unfinished businesses, such as someone dependent, needing protection, or providing approval. This way of using each other as representatives from our past is common and known as transference and countertransference.

From the Internal Family Systems work of Richard Schwartz, [2] we learn that all of us consist of a multitude of sub-personalities. One part or the internal community might be frozen in the past and relating to the coach as if he was her father, while another part wants to explore this dynamic. By getting curious about the part that is engaging in transference, we can support awareness of the nature and purpose of this part. Working with transference opens the client to embrace the part with loving acceptance, which gradually allows the part to be a constructive partner rather than a powerful terrorist. This way, the coaching relationship becomes a space for transformation.

Likewise, when we are not able to see our clients’ resourcefulness, we may be engaging in countertransference. The ongoing practice of supervision helps us deal with our own unfinished business and limiting beliefs without using our clients for this purpose.

[1] Wikipedia: Unconditional Positive Regard

[2] Schwartz, Richard C.: Internal Family Systems Theraoy, The Guilford Press 1995

Excerpt from Coaching for Transformation by Lasley, Kellogg, Michaels and Brown.

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