Coaching Behavioural Standards are Overemphasised

There is an overwhelming focus on coaches’ behaviours, both in training and subsequent continuous professional development (CPD). What is missing is attention to inter- and intra-psychic dynamics and phenomena. I know that might be a mouthful and that these words may not be familiar to everyone, and I will expand on this. The terms do however succinctly capture a greater scope of facts and knowledge.

Behaviours are manifestations of a person’s thinking and feeling. A developmental focus on behaviours can serve as a useful starting point in a coach’s learning but reaches its limits when it comes to responding effectively and safely to the dynamics that emerge between two or more people or between the practitioner and their circumstances. Behavioural frameworks alone, fall short of describing and resolving factors which impact the coaching relationship.


A meaningful distinction for coaching practitioners in their learning journey from beginning to end, is that between DOING and BEING. DOING is about action and behaviour, things which are directly observable, can be objectively demonstrated and used as evidence of something. As behaviours can be directly observed, they are a logical, and quick point of reference in assessment and training. Being is less easy to observe. By definition it cannot be observed even by the one experiencing it, as BEING happens when there is a lack of separation from the experience, there is no observer and nothing to be observed. They are both the same thing. “They are” language is itself restrictive in description. Coming back to inter- and intra-psychic dynamics and phenomena, BEING relates to the intangible, subjective, relational things that happen within individuals and between them. We cannot observe these because they are psychological in nature.

For example, when someone is feeling sad, an observer cannot see the feeling, though they might see the behaviour that comes with the feeling. This could be a facial expression or actions that person typically does when they have that feeling. Though generally these behaviours may be common amongst people (like tears when sad), they can be unique to individuals based on their personal conditioning. They may also have culturally dependent meanings. Behaviours are somewhat a superficial indication of what lies deeper.

Why and where is this an issue?

The use of behaviours as a reference point for coaching competence is a consequence of:

  • time being a limiting resource in commercial applications. Think of the time required to measure the competence of all individuals applying for certification and credentials.
  • simplicity of observation (observer skill and record-keeping). It is easier to observe behaviours and record them than it is to explore intra- and inter-psychic dynamics.
  • the empirical nature of the behaviours. They can be directly, and more objectively observed.
  • it being inherent to an evidence-based paradigm. This is a scientific approach.

The concept of behavioural standards/competencies used correctly is reasonable, and a good-enough methodology, but as in every system the path of least resistance will be sought. Exposed to the market, profit-making companies will exploit the inherent superficiality of behavioural standards. This might not be seen as right by some, but it is the norm in systems. An example of this would be a second-level-credential (e.g. PCC) behavioural assessment applied in training, at a point where the student does not even have the experience required for a first-level-credential (e.g. ACC) assessment. The student would then merely wait until they have accumulated the required experience for the second-level-credential, at which point they would automatically receive the credential.

Should this occur (and it does), it would potentially be evidence of the triviality of behavioural markers. I suggest potentially, because there may be a small number of practitioners that meet higher levels of performance early on in their development.

Professional bodies get around the triviality issue, by applying a hierarchy of performance requirements to a common set of behavioural categories. For instance, the behavioural markers will be same across all levels of credential, but the levels of performance will have different requirements. One needs to ask (and professional bodies should start to explicitly acknowledge), what enables, or has shifted in practitioners, whereby they can meet higher levels of performance, i.e. what is changing the behavioural performance level?


Skill- the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.

Definition of Skill by Merriam-Webster.

Imagine observing a coaching engagement; factors which are likely to impact the behaviours here are the coaching relationship’s history and influence on the practitioner, the overall and specific session topics, the practitioner’s and client’s mood, the impact of the wider environment on both parties (family/societal/organisational) etc. I question the reliability, relevance and accuracy of behaviour as an indicator of practitioners’ integration of their coaching modality or philosophy.

My intent is not to dismiss the use of a behavioural standards framework as part of training or assessment systems, I believe it has a rightful place. However, being aware of the limitations and intended purpose of behavioural standards allows a bigger picture to emerge.

I suggest within the coaching context, that skill as a function of knowledge, can be categorised into knowledge of field, and knowledge of self. The market for coach professional development implicitly overemphasises DOING/behaviours, through an overabundance of conferences, webinars, and training, focused on these. In professional coaching bodies, behavioural frameworks are traditionally exclusively about knowledge of field. I am deeply encouraged by the International Coaching Federation’s updated core competencies which include:

Competency A 2-

 “Embodies a Coaching Mindset

Definition: Develops and maintains a mindset that is open, curious, flexible and client-centered

  1. Acknowledges that clients are responsible for their own choices
  2. Engages in ongoing learning and development as a coach
  3. Develops an ongoing reflective practice to enhance one’s coaching
  4. Remains aware of and open to the influence of context and culture on self and others
  5. Uses awareness of self and one’s intuition to benefit clients
  6. Develops and maintains the ability to regulate one’s emotions
  7. Mentally and emotionally prepares for sessions
  8. Seeks help from outside sources when necessary”

How to do it

When practitioners reflect on their subjective experience of an engagement, or approach to their practice as a business, a door is opened to the intra- and inter-psychic phenomena and dynamics. So, what do these words mean?

Intra- within an individual

Inter- between individuals

Psychic- related to the mind, body, emotions or spirit

Phenomena- recognisable and definable facts, experiences and occurrences particular to a domain or field

Dynamics- the forces at play, the changes and interplay in a system and relationship

Looking at the language here, it can be intuitively understood that what goes on in this realm is “softer”, less tangible, and more subjective in nature. It is also clearer that there is an enormous amount of information available from within self and the system, being exchanged on this psychological level. There are some important points regarding the information in the coach/client/organisation system:

  • The practitioner needs to be aware of it as a first step, otherwise it is likely to be useless. This awareness can come from cognitive, emotional, somatic, metaphysical and even behavioural cues. When I talk of awareness, I don’t mean just an awareness that it exists, I mean an ability to be subjectively present to its existence, to experience it happening.
  • The awareness can be useful in the moment, in retrospect, or in hypothesis. Examples are in a coaching session, and in supervision respectively.
  • Being able to contextualise the information is useful. Having at least some familiarity, and at best expertise in a theoretical framework is critical. This also allows the information to be named, categorised and used in wider contexts. Examples of theoretical frameworks are transactional analysis and integral theory.
  • The practitioner must be able to place and understand their own role and contributions to the system.
  • The practitioner must have or develop the capacity to influence or transform their own unconscious contributions to the system.

One can see that the information is contextual. By this I do not only mean contextual to the system, which is evident by definition, but it is contextual to what goes on in each of the role players in the system and the interplay between them. Because each of these situations is unique, this information and what to do about it cannot be accessed, explored, and strategised on, in generic courses or open/peer discussions. The place for these focused discussions is with a trained practitioner, who has themselves developed their proficiency regarding the dynamics and phenomena of the field and self. This is coach supervision.

Let us put all this text into a simpler, more intuitive form.

I think of this triangle as an umbrella model for supervision, it can be used in any context. It illustrates supervision’s three functions, their inter-dependence, and the balance of attention on each aspect. The supervision triangle is not explicitly used in a supervision session, but can serve as a map for the topic in question, a reference for reflection, a catalyst of spontaneous exploration in the conversation. My experience is that it is a useful teaching tool in supervision training.

Relating to the theme of behaviour in this article, one can notice that while behaviour is an element explored in supervision, it is held in balance by exploration of feeling and thinking. It’s important to note that not only are behaviour, thinking and feeling explored in supervision, but they are generated. This might be less appropriate to the word “feeling”, and more applied to connection and empathy, which are aspects of that same corner of the triangle. One of the features of illustrating supervision’s functions in this triangular form, is that overemphasis on one corner will detract from the others. Although primarily this would be noted in work with an individual in supervision, and with the ongoing supervisor/coach relationship as context, I relate this here to the overemphasis on behaviour in the coaching industry. Where behavioural markers are weighted in coach training and ongoing development, there is an inherent neglect of the humanistic (relational) and co-creative (developmental) aspects of being a practitioner.

As a supervisor, my experience is that coaches are mostly well-equipped with a coaching framework or model, but a vacuum exists regarding frameworks to make sense of and respond appropriately to the nature of relationship between themselves and their clients, organisations, or their own practice.

The good thing is that it is never too late to learn new theoretical frameworks, though there is certainly an advantage to doing so as early as possible, leading to a smoother integration with one’s coaching framework. This is something which I include in individual supervision with coaches who do not have a theoretical reference yet, and I’ve only had positive feedback.

In Summary

Overwhelmingly coach training, ongoing development, and assessment have a behavioural focus, while the impact and nature of relational themes is not considered. This has a limiting influence on coaching efficacy, and leads to transactional engagement and outcomes.

A holistic approach to training and professional development includes exploration, understanding, and responsiveness to all aspects of human being (thinking, feeling, and behaviour).

Coach supervision with a trained supervisor, is the recommended resource for your ongoing professional development as a coaching practitioner.

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