Direct Communication in Coaching: An Essential Core Competency

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Direct Communication in Coaching: An Essential Core Competency

Understanding ICF Core Competencies: Communicating Effectively – Direct Communication

By Karen L. Bruns

While asking powerful questions and curiosity are core skills in coaching, direct communication is very important for a successful coaching session.  Direct Communication, while not specifically named as a core competency itself, falls in the Communicating Effectively section of core competencies, squarely in competency #7: Evokes Awareness.  This article will address what it means to have direct communication as a coaching competency and why it is so important.  

What is Direct Communication

In the new competencies released in officially in 2019, but not integrated into  coaching programs until January of 2021, International Coach Federation (ICF) now defines competency #7 as Evokes Awareness. Formerly, competency 7 was Direct Communication. The definition for #7 as Evokes Awareness is, “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as, powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy.”  It’s easy to see that Direct Communication can still be found in this revised competency as it brings powerful questions into play, as well as silence, metaphors and analogies.  If we were to turn back time and revisit competency 7 when it was Direct Communication, we’d find that its definition was written, well, more direct in stating that Direct Communication is the “Ability to communicate effectively during coaching sessions and to use language that has the greatest positive impact on the client.”  The new wording is much more client-focused. The former definition seemed to have more focus on the coach even though it did end with the greatest positive impact on the client.

The refined competency did not lose the spirit of the former one; even with the inclusion of the word silence. Some would say though that powerful questions and direct communication are a bit of a dichotomy, and yet they really aren’t.  Many powerful questions have been quite direct indeed. In the newly worded coaching competency Evokes Awareness… simply put that is the result of a direct, powerful question, silence, metaphor and analogy.  Without carefully placed moments of silence in the coaching conversation, the awareness might not be as great. Without pulling on the thread of a metaphor the client introduced, without exploring an analogy and its meaning to the client, awareness could have been stifled.  The value in the updated competency is in how it looks when it shows up in the coaching session.  If we want to evoke awareness, we must allow the client to bring the topic, we don’t set the agenda for them, it is theirs to set. A coach can evoke awareness through the sharing of observations, offering feedback, reflections, using questions to explore how a client feels about both the current thinking and feelings, to new ways of thinking and feeling both about themselves and about the topic. 

We see direct communication come to life when we speak clearly and concisely, and when we allow the client to do most of the talking.  Our questions can help our clients see things from another perspective or entertain other possibilities. It is important for the client that the coach fosters self-awareness through the use of direct communication, even using the client’s own language.

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What Direct Communication is Not

Many new coaches are fearful of using direct communication, despite it being a coaching competency, because it seems to go against everything we learn in coaching not to do (give advice, judge, think for the client, put words in their mouth, or make assumptions), or they fear the client’s reaction to direct communication/it’s risky, will they think me too provocative? 

new awareness in client through direct communication

In the way experienced coaches see direct communication it is a positive thing. So let’s talk about what direct communication is not:

  • rude
  • forward
  • assuming
  • vague.

With the updated competency we could simply think of one statement, evoking awareness is not a bad thing.  Using language that helps the client find their answers adds tremendous value to the coaching conversation.

Please refer to our previous article if you are unsure about what coaching is and is not and how it differs from other service professions.

How to Develop Direct Communication through ICF Core Competency #7: Evokes Awareness

There is good news! No matter how far away you are from being skilled in direct communication and evoking awareness, you can always improve through practicing powerful questions, silence, metaphors and analogies.  Practice being direct without being directive.  Here are a few steps to help you in your journey to better coaching conversations.

  • Practice, practice, practice; even though it’s practice bringing real topics for discussion does two things for you and your fellow practice coach. It can help you to find a solution to your topic, help you to find clarity, makes the session real and the questions that come richer
  • Look for opportunities to welcome silence and get comfortable with it
  • Listen closely for metaphors, they are there, in fact, they occur more frequently than you might think. Rutvik H Desai, in his article, Are Metaphors Embodied? The Neural Evidence sites that H.R. Pollio “estimated that people use about 6 non-literal fixed expressions per minute of discourse, including 1.8 new metaphors and 4.08 conventionalized metaphors.”  Now this is of course an average, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. So your client might say something like, “I feel like I’m being kept in the dark.” As a coach, we 
  • Listen for opportunities to share an observation seeking permission and then have a great follow-up question that brings further awareness
  • If you feel like you are trying to soften the message instead of the delivery for fear of being too pressing or provocative, or even prying, you may have some of your own work to do, so spend some time with yourself to explore how you feel about direct communication, evoking awareness, and your thoughts on creating trust.

Examples of Direct Communication in Coaching

  1. How to contribute with reassurances, or validations. Example:
    • Client:  “I feel like I never get a break and I need one desperately.”  
    • Coach: “Taking a break is a healthy practice.” 
  1. You see a dramatic shift in the client’s energy. Example:
    • Coach:  “May I make an observation?  
    • Client:  “Yes.”
    • Coach: “ You were talking about [name the thing/person] and your energy was happy, and then you spoke about [name the thing/person] and your body became rigid, your facial expression changed, what’s happening for you?”

Some clients will know their energy shifts, while others may not recognize them, and yet, regardless, it’s important to bring up the shift for their awareness.  It is these direct communication exchanges with the client that can help to evoke awareness. What other ways can you engage in direct communication that evokes awareness in your clients?


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