Cultivates Trust and Safety – ICF Competency #4

An Assessors guide to the Trust and Safety” 4th competency

This is the 4th ICF competency out of 8. It is part of the “Co-Creating the Relationship” category of competencies.

As you understand each ICF core competency, you will see that we are moving into the territory of needing to demonstrate and prove your skills. These competencies are no longer implied.

For this competency, “Co-creating the relationship. Cultivates trust and safety.”

Most of these definitions need to be proved in your coaching with clear and sufficient evidence to be credentialed or assessed at professional and master levels.

ICF COMPETENCY 4 Trust and Safety

What’s the definition of “Cultivates Trust and Safety.”

“Partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely. Maintains a relationship of mutual respect and trust.” ICF International Coaching Federation

  1. Seeks to understand the client within their context, which may include their identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs.
  2. Demonstrates respect for the client’s identity, perceptions, style and language and adapts one’s coaching to the client.
  3. Acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process.
  4. Shows support, empathy, and concern for the client.
  5. Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions.
  6. Demonstrates openness and transparency to display vulnerability and build trust with the client.
infographic Cultivates Trust and Safety

Let’s unpack each of these, and I’m going to offer you suggested skills and insights to enhance this competency and support all 8.

So now we are leaning into paying attention to how the client is showing up with specific reference to their identity, experiences, values, beliefs, language and even their perceptions and style.

When we seek to understand our clients, how they communicate, and how they think, we build trust and rapport.

What’s your client’s perceptual model?

Are they visual in their perceptual model, or are they more auditory or feeling-based?

Do they speak in terms of, “yes, I see that”, “I hear you,” or “I feel you?”

Those are all clues indicating what kind of perceptual model our client is showing up with. And, of course, are we noticing and making a safe space for this?

Are we adapting? And are we including that?

That’s how we serve at the highest level.

Are we listening so deeply that we spot a talent, honour and insight and appreciate the client’s work by acknowledging and reflecting on that?

Are we actively showing support, empathy, and concern wherever necessary in the session (point 4)? For example, if the client shares something vulnerable about a difficult experience, we might say:

  • “That sounds very challenging; I’m sorry.”
  • Or “What would help you right now?”

We should also check to see that we are acknowledging and supporting our client’s expression, feelings, perception, concerns, beliefs and suggestions—and making space for that (point 5).

One of the ways we know that we might not be “Cultivating Trust and Safety” is if we have done more of the talking than our clients.

And finally, this one is implied, “Demonstrates openness and transparency as a way to display vulnerability and build trust with the client.”

You don’t always have to prove that in an obvious way. It is implied. But it would be a red flag if you contradicted this with contra evidence.

Skills and methods to strengthen the competencies

Which 3 Critical Skills support this competency?

Let’s look at some of the skills that support ICF Core Competency 4 Cultivates Trust and Safety, as well as all the others.

You may have heard me teach that there are 3 critical skill sets that, when woven together, make up the communication, listening and facilitation skills that take a natural coach to master coaching levels.

These are rapport (trust) building skills, questioning skills and coach position skills.

Each skill set is built up by learning various techniques and methods.

For example, several methods make us better at asking questions. There are a number of things we can do to improve our coach position and rapport building.

So to cultivate trust and rapport, ensure you’ve got your questioning skills, trust-building skills, and coach position skills in play.

Care don’t carry

Here’s a little clue that really will support this competency.

There’s a difference between caring and caring. There I go with alliteration again.

I know we want to show we care, but we don’t want to go so far that we’re caring for our clients. Make sense? We see them as equal. We’re honouring the partnership. We’re not going into caretaker or parent mode. It’s important to distinguish the two clearly.

Acknowledge your client

We create trust by noticing our client’s strengths, skills, and insights.

It’s helpful to acknowledge this, especially near the end of a session when you’re wrapping up. This can be the cherry on top of a beautiful session.

Use your client’s words.

We want to use our backtracking skills as rapport builders and improve our questioning skills. So backtracking is not backchatting; it’s using your client’s words.

Backtracking is different from summarizing and paraphrasing. It’s about identifying those words that have stood out, emphasized by the client, or are important because they’re part of the aha moment or the solution.

Also, use backtracking to clarify understanding clearly and cleanly.

For example, your client says, “If I finish this project, it will mean the world to me.” The coach might backtrack and ask, “What does finishing the project mean?”

Avoid the old-fashioned reflective listening habits where you start every sentence with, “If I understand you correctly” or “So if I hear you.”

Don’t make backtracking a mechanical habit.

Use silence, space and softening to cultivate trust

Include engaged, warm, focused, softening space and silence.

One of the gifts of coaching is simply holding space for clients. To do this, we need to keep quiet after we’ve asked a question, commented, or offered feedback. People need space and silence to do their best thinking.

Don’t we do our best thinking when we’re staring into space? When it’s quiet.

It’s hard to think with clutter.

I always tell my students, “Eye contact is important, but so is breaking eye contact.” I’m staring intensely into your eyeballs, asking you a question; it’s hard to think. I need to break eye contact for you to ponder and to open your attention to think more deeply.

Adding softening is also helpful – taking the edge off of how we ask questions.

Compare “What is the solution?” to “What could a few solutions possibly be?” The 2nd will open the space for safe brainstorming; the 1st may be too intense or intimidating.

  • If we harshly ask questions, clients will shut down and resist sharing.
  • But if we ask questions with softening, openness, genuine curiosity and interest, your clients will start feeling, “It’s okay. I can open up.”

They’ll go to places in the sharing with you that may surprise them. I always say that, in some ways, we’re walking our clients around a mountain. They start with, “I don’t know, I can’t see the river.” But if we are patient and use our skills, they suddenly say, “Oh, I know. Now I have clarity.”

They can see the river because they’ve shifted perceptions. They’ve moved to a different perceptual space.

Encourage your client to share

You also want to encourage your client that it’s safe to share.

You can either emphasize that the sessions are confidential and a safe space or imply it with your warm, professional tone.

To help with our warm, professional tone and create a safe space, we must remain in coach position. Build an equal to bridge.

Also we’re not minimizing, dismissing or skipping over anything vulnerable or significant that the client has shared.

Don’t be the person at the dinner table who casually dismisses it and asks them to pass the salt after someone’s just said something important.

We want to make use of these opportunities when a client is sharing their beliefs, ideas, and their values. Now even when creating a safe space, we are not counselling or offering therapy.

We’re not spiralling down into, “Tell me more about the pain and the story.”

So we’re making space for emotions, feelings, and even tough conversations. But we’re not intentionally digging into the past.

And when we give feedback as a coach, we offer it as an opinion, not a fact. It’s feedback, not fact. It could sound like, “I could be wrong; I’ve noticed … what are your thoughts?”

When applied, all these insights and tips will help you take this competency to the next level.