Building Trust in a Coaching Relationship

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Building Trust in a Coaching Relationship

By Karen L Bruns

How do you build trust as a coach?

Coaches have a responsibility to build trust and create a safe environment where the coachee feels secure enough to share and be open and vulnerable. This article will address the techniques to build trust in a coaching relationship.

The Importance of Trust in Coaching

The International Coaching Federation has a whole competency devoted to Cultivating Trust and Safety; a whole competency! To cultivate trust is paramount in building the coaching relationship.

It is a core competency because it helps a coach develop an essential skill. Without trust in a coaching relationship, two things will happen:

  • It is fundamental to make the coaching process more effective
  • You will not grow as a coach in the way that you could if your clients trust you.

Let me explain. For the first reason listed, your client will not go as deep into their understanding of themselves as they could if there is trust present.  For the second reason listed — your growth as a coach — well, a magical thing happens when your client trusts you enough to do deeper self-work, to be willing to explore areas they may have been hesitant to before, and when this happens, you grow as a coach; you come to understand that yes, while the arc of coaching and the powerful questions are helpful, the canned questions don’t always fit when your client moves into deep territory. When the client moves into this new territory encased in trust, you as a coach begin to listen with your whole self. The questions come easier, they are thought-provoking and sometimes they surprise both you and your client.  

Other benefits are that the client begins to trust themselves, even come to see themselves as creative, whole and resourceful. 

ICF tells us that trust is earned. We can’t just jump into a new relationship and there be automatic trust; especially if there is historical evidence in one’s life that trusting leads to harm or lack of safety. Trust can take time, and has to be nurtured, fostered, built upon.

This means the coaching relationship has to be built. In our instant gratification society, we might like to open the package and there it is ready for us to install. This isn’t so with a coaching relationship. We probably all know someone that can easily connect to another person in their first meeting, and they can even feel like they have known someone forever, and this is of course helpful. But not everyone is like this, so that is where honing the skill of building trust is so crucially important as a coach.  But how do we build trust in coaching that?  Let’s find out.

Techniques to Build Trust in a Coaching Relationship

As I mentioned earlier in this article, trust in coaching builds over time, and yet, there is great news to help you get started sooner rather than later.  In fact, there are a number of ways (techniques) we can use to help us build a successful and productive trusting relationship with our coaching clients. This article will unpack each step separately below.

The very first thing we can do is to set aside our judgment, or bias as that can get us into all kinds of trouble, and if you picture judgment and bias in terms of a metaphor, you might find it to be a very large stone that blocks all progress and forward movement. Comically enough, it blocks forward movement in both the client and the coach. In one of my previous articles on Direct Communication, I wrote about how, as a coach, “you may have some of your own work to do,” and I invited you as a coach to “spend some time exploring your thoughts on creating trust.”  The techniques that follow can help a coach to create an environment of trust. After all, as a coach, you might be the first person your client has ever met who listens without judgment or prejudice. 

Demonstrate Curiosity and Ask Questions

In a previous article, Curiosity in Coaching: A Key Principle, I wrote about how we can all get stuck in the cultural mindset that it’s rude or nosey to be curious and ask questions. Being curious as a coach has us resting in not knowing and being open to whatever unfolds. In this article, we are encouraged to start in real life; to practice being a curious human by holding the mindset of an explorer’s assistant where everything is waiting to be discovered

Confidentiality and Integrity

We all have that friend, or know someone who has a really challenging time keeping a secret. It could be the relative that wants to tell you what they got you as a gift because they just can’t hold onto the information any longer, or a coworker who has something juicy to tell you.  Confidentiality is a very serious business in the coaching world. Without confidentiality, there is no trust. The initial coaching and stakeholder agreement should address confidentiality in a way that reassures your client you will hold their information. ICF competency 1.5, “Maintains confidentiality with client information per stakeholder agreements and pertinent laws” is just one facet of our ethical practice as coaches. Another is 1.1 “Demonstrates personal integrity and honesty in interactions with clients, sponsors, and relevant stakeholders.” Your integrity is who you are as a coach. 

Be Fully Present & Actively Listen

When a coach is wholly present, listening at the highest level, they not only hear the words, but they can feel the impact on their client as the words are spoken and sometimes that energy lingers to be explored. The present, listening coach can get intuitions that often are quite accurate. It is in essence to hear the very soul of the person; the voice that isn’t audible. This higher level of listening is called global listening and it focuses on what isn’t being said just as much. The article on The Three Levels of Listening offers a sound practice to get you into the right frame of mind and body for global listening. It’s all about removing distractions and practice. 

Use Mirroring

Mirroring is a powerful tool. It’s not about mimicking, no. It’s about being able to sense a power to the client’s words or actions as they speak. This power has the ability to take the client deeper into exploration and to realize or recognize patterns emerging or information that has been waiting to emerge. Let’s say your client tells you how much they love their job, but their demeanor and affect are flat or even pinched. The coach might question this by repeating ‘love your job’ making the same face and then asking the client what is under the surface of the face? Another example is the client who is trying to explain how they feel and they make a grunting noise. Repeating that noise and asking a question like, “Wow, that was a noise, where did that noise come from” can be the thing that causes the client to realize the noise communicated more than they knew. 

Don’t Be Judgemental

This is mentioned above, so how does one remove or wrangle into submission their judgy thoughts? This takes practice and the successful coach has judgment under wraps. If you’re struggling with judgment as a new coach I would invite you to think about what things could bring judgment into the session and like mentioned above, there may be some internal work for you. Even the most seasoned coaches may be tempted with judgment, but they have learned how to hold sacred space for their client and practice emotional intelligence in their coaching. Think about it, if you were the client and your coach allowed judgment to enter the space, how trusting would you feel to continue?  


We look at our clients as competent and whole, therefore capable of solving their own problems. Whatever happens in a coaching session, it is their responsibility to move it forward and we are in no form accountable for that. In practice this means that they will have to do the work and not depend on us to move on: none of their actions, including reminding them about what they decided to do and when, should involve us as main or background actors.

Show Empathy

Empathy; sometimes it may seem like a buzzword. Of course people should have empathy for what someone is going through. Sometimes empathy gets confused with sympathy. Brené Brown has a wonderful video about Empathy that is a must see. After you watch the video, take a moment to reflect about where you are in your ability to show empathy. Can you hold sacred space for and with your client as they explore their depths, their truths?

Establish Your Credibility

Establishing credibility, like trust, in a coaching relationship, isn’t just immediate. One way to show ourselves as credible is to embrace and live within the ICF Core Competencies of coaching. If we can develop ourselves as coaches with these competencies as our guiding light, we bring truth to our credibility and trust can be born. How well do you know these competencies?  What do they look like lived in your everyday life as a coach?  Take a competency a week and make it a part of your life and you’ll begin to see a difference in how you coach.

If you want to explore further how to build a coaching relationship, you can read more in our article.

If you want to improve the way you build trust in a coaching engagement, this is one of the core skills we teach in our advanced course Deepening Conversations. Don’t miss it!


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