Coaching Relationship: Definition and Key Ingredients

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Coaching Relationship: Definition and Key Ingredients

How to Establish a Successful Coaching Relationship

By Lucia Baldelli

Coaching is a relationship between two people in service of one of the two. Even though it is a paid service, both the client and the coach work in partnership to achieve the relationship agreed goals. It therefore requires trust and commitment from the parties involved. In this article I will introduce why it is very important to establish a coaching relationship for effective coaching and the key to building effective coaching relationships. 

What is a Coaching Relationship?

The coaching relationship is a dynamic and collaborative alliance between a coach and a client, aimed at facilitating personal or professional growth. Whether in the realms of career, relationships, or personal fulfilment, coaching has become a widely recognised and valued process for unlocking untapped potential and achieving desired outcomes.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as…. “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”.

The coaching relationship can thrive when trust is there, as we explored in our article on building trust in a coaching relationship. This creates a safe and non-judgmental space where clients can openly explore their aspirations, challenges, and fears. The coach serves as a dedicated partner, actively listening, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing constructive feedback. Through this process, clients gain clarity, identify their strengths, and develop strategies to overcome obstacles, ultimately leading to the realisation of their goals with motivation and commitment. 

coach building relationship with a new client and ready to shake hands

We explored what coaching is and isn’t in a previous article. Here is a quick reminder. 

What coaching is

Coaching involves a collaborative process between the coach and the client and here is how: 

  • It centres around the establishment of shared goals and objectives
  • It provides support and guidance to the client throughout their journey
  • The coaching relationship encourages the exploration and integration of different perspectives
  • It promotes self-reflection, self-discovery, and personal growth
  • It empowers clients to unlock their potential and overcome obstacles
  • It fosters accountability and helps clients stay focused on their desired outcomes
  • It emphasises the client’s autonomy and self-directed learning
  • It facilitates the development of strategies and action plans to achieve desired results

What Coaching Isn’t

Unlike other service professions, in coaching there is no input of the coach into the client’s stuff. 

  • Coaching is NOT mentoring or teaching – Coaching goes beyond the traditional mentor-mentee or teacher-student dynamics, as it emphasises a holistic approach to self-discovery, goal-setting, and achievement. 
  • Coaching is NOT therapy – Unlike therapy, which typically delves into deep-rooted psychological issues or past traumas, coaching focuses on the present and future. It operates under the assumption that individuals possess the answers within themselves and that the coach’s role is to help elicit and amplify those insights. 
  • Coaching is NOT supervision – Supervision is a structured relationship between a more experienced professional and a supervisee, aiming to ensure ethical practice, quality assurance, and professional development. The supervisor holds a position of authority and is responsible for guiding and monitoring the supervisee’s performance within their professional role.

Key Elements of a Successful Coaching Relationship

Let’s explore the elements of a successful coaching relationship, so that you can reflect on what you might need to shift in your practice.

Being equal

Coaching is a partnership because the coach and the clients are equal in the process. What does this mean? 

If we look at the coaching relationship through the lens of Transactional Analysis and the OK Corrall (formulated by Frank Ernst and later used by the authors of the book Emotional Intelligence Coaching to describe a successful coaching relationship), we can describe a healthy coaching relationship by saying that both the coach and the client having the perception to be ‘ok’ (top right quadrant in the picture). The coach looks at the client as not broken and trusts the client to come up with the best way forward. The coach is also confident about themself and the value that the process will bring to the client.  

Coach and client being equal during the coaching process is a prerequisite to effective partnership.  

Connecting to the person with empathy

Connecting to the person cultivates empathy. It enables the coach to see the world through the client’s eyes, to truly grasp their experiences, challenges, and emotions. This empathy helps the coach provide meaningful support, validation, and guidance as they can relate to the client’s situation on a deeper level.

Each client is unique and connecting to the person allows the coach to recognise and honour that individuality and better understand their strengths, preferences, and needs. Connecting to the person also ensures that the coach sees the client as a whole person, taking into account their values, beliefs, aspirations and not just their challenges. 


Coaching is a relationship-based process and trust is the foundation for building a strong and effective coaching relationship. Trust creates a safe and non-judgmental space for the client to be open and vulnerable. When clients trust their coach, they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and challenges without fear of being criticised or misunderstood. This openness allows for deeper exploration and self-discovery.

Trust encourages clients to take risks and step out of their comfort zones. It provides a sense of security that even if they stumble or face setbacks, their coach will be there to support and guide them. Trust enables clients to embrace new perspectives, try different approaches, and experiment with innovative ideas.

Commitment and accountability 

Commitment plays a crucial role in coaching for several reasons, already described in our recent article on designing actions in coaching:

  • Goal Achievement – When clients are committed to the coaching process, they are more likely to stay focused, motivated, and take consistent action towards their objectives. Commitment helps clients overcome obstacles and persevere through challenges that may arise along the way.
  • Accountability – Commitment establishes a sense of accountability between the coach and the client. Clients who are committed take responsibility for their actions and progress. They are willing to be held accountable by their coach, which promotes a greater sense of ownership and commitment to their own growth and development.
  • Motivation – Coaching is a journey that requires time, effort, and dedication. Commitment ensures that clients are willing to invest the necessary time and energy to work on themselves and implement the strategies discussed in coaching sessions. Without commitment, progress can be hindered, and the desired outcomes may not be achieved.
  • Sustainable Change – Coaching aims to facilitate sustainable change and growth. Commitment is essential for clients to embrace and integrate new behaviours, habits, and perspectives into their lives beyond the coaching sessions. It ensures that the insights and learnings gained during coaching are applied consistently, leading to long-lasting transformation.

Integrity and honesty

Coaching is guided by ethical standards – the ICF Code of Ethics is an example – that ensure the well-being and best interests of the client. Integrity ensures that coaches adhere to these standards and maintain the highest level of professional conduct. Coaches with integrity prioritise the client’s welfare, respect confidentiality, and maintain appropriate boundaries. 

Integrity in coaching involves being honest and genuine. Coaches with integrity are true to themselves and their values, bringing their true selves into the coaching relationship. This authenticity fosters a deeper connection and rapport with clients, as they can sense the coach’s authenticity.

Coachability and courage

Coaching often involves deep self-reflection and exploration. It requires clients to examine their beliefs, values, fears, and wants. This process can be challenging and may bring up uncomfortable emotions or confront long-held beliefs. Courage is needed to face these internal challenges and delve into areas that may feel uncomfortable.

Not every client has the courage to go so deep. Without courage the coaching relationship is cosy and does not take the client to what Blakey and Day defined as the Zone Of Uncomfortable Debate, a space where new awareness and transformation can happen.  

How to Build a Successful Coaching Relationship

To build a long-lasting coaching relationship, focus on establishing trust and rapport with the client from the beginning, fully understand their needs and co-create goals. Your coaching approach will be tailored to their unique circumstances. A strong coaching relationship will create a supportive environment for the client, enhancing their commitment, accountability, self-reflection, and ultimately leading to greater progress.

If you want to explore starting a coaching relationship with a coaching discovery call and the questions to ask, you can read our recent article.

Building a successful coaching relationship requires the coach to be capable of building trust, engaging in partnership and having the right presence in the coaching room. If you want to develop these skills with us, you can register to our Deepening Conversation course.


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