Trust is an essential component of the coach-client relationship. It is what encourages executives and CEOs to put into practice the things they have learned during their coaching sessions. Without trust, executive coaches limit their ability to help their clients succeed in reaching their goals. In this insight article, we hope to increase your understanding of why trust is important to the coach-client relationship. First, we outline two main identifying factors that you can use to examine the level of trust in your coaching sessions. Second, we examine why trust is important to the coach-client relationship by looking at the positive effects it has on coaching outcomes. Lastly, we review ways you can encourage the development of trust in your coaching practice.
“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” - Stephen R. Covey
The two factors of a trusting client-coach relationship
In client-coach relationships, there are two key identifying factors that indicate trust between the client and coach. First, when a business leader trusts an executive coach, he/she is more likely to disclose their honest thoughts and perspective. Second, the executive coach responds without judgment, further encouraging the growth of trust.
When trust is established, clients feel free to disclose their honest feelings. In a research study that analyzed the development of trust between executives and their coaches, researchers found that executives who were “... willing to disclose… reported higher levels of honesty and willingness to be more forthcoming with their coaches, which led to close and trusting relationships” (Alvey & Barclay, 2007). From their research, we can infer that the clients who disclose their honest perspectives and beliefs do so out of an understanding of established trust between themselves and the coach.
Secondly, after clients disclose their honest feelings and/or experiences, executive coaches do not respond with judgment (Alvey & Barclay, 2007). This means that executive coaches do not display disgust, disapproval, approval, or rejection towards a client’s disclosures. They continue to view the executive or CEO as a human being of worth and value regardless of their mistakes. Carl Rogers, a prominent psychologist states that when “clients are accepted as they are” therapists are supporting an “attitude that is most likely to lead to trust…” (Ackerman, 2021). It is important to note here that while therapists and executive coaches serve different purposes, the response that both a therapeutic client and executive coaching client have when they feel free to share their thoughts and feelings without judgment, is that of trust.
“Life without trust is a life in turmoil” - M. K. Soni
Why is trust important?
Research shows that trust significantly improves the relationship between executive coaches and their clients (Mohamed & Zouaoui, 2021). Below we outline some of the positive effects of trust that increase the effectiveness of the client-coach relationship.
Trust supports behavioral changes
The International Coaching Federation has a series of “skills and approaches” that they identify as necessary for successful coaching called the “ICF Core Competencies.” The third core competency that the ICF identifies is “Establishing trust and intimacy with the client.” They explain that this is vital to the executive coaching practice because it supports the development of “new behaviors and actions, including those involving risk-taking and fear of failure” (ICF, 2019). Clients who trust their coaches are more likely to adhere to the guidance offered by their coaches because they trust that their coaches offer valid, true, and trustworthy insights. Research by Zayim and Kondakci shows that “trust acts as a catalyst for supportive behaviors in times of change” (2014). When behavioral or organizational changes are encouraged by the executive coach, clients who trust their coaches are better able to adopt these beneficial changes.
Trust encourages personalized coaching
As stated previously, one of the main markers of a trust-built coach-client relationship is that clients feel more comfortable disclosing their honest beliefs and thoughts. This honesty is essential to the coaching relationship and the success of the coaching received. If an executive coach does not know the whole truth about their client’s perspective, thoughts, or beliefs, they are unable to adequately provide personalized and specific guidance to them. Beth Buelow, 2021 president-elect for ICF Michigan states that the executive coaching industry is in the “vulnerability business” where coaches ask clients “to trust [them] with their innermost thoughts, hopes, and fears” (Buelow, 2020). Clients who trust more, disclose more—ultimately teaching coaches about their situation and increasing the coach’s ability to offer personalized, specific, and constructive guidance (Alvey & Barclay, 2007).
“Trust is built with consistency.” - Lincoln Chafee
How to develop trust
As one of the Core Competencies outlined by the International Coaching Federation, establishing trust is key to the success of a coaching relationship. Trust is built intentionally, with perseverance and patience. The following are some key steps you can take in your coaching practice that support the growth of trust between yourself and your clients.
Have clear expectations about confidentiality
Before starting your coaching journey with a new client, it is vital that you create clear expectations regarding the confidentiality of the information disclosed in your coaching sessions. With the “clear intention to be trustworthy” defined in a confidentiality policy, clients are more likely to trust you (IOC, 2021). Identifying your confidentiality policy encourages clients in multiple ways.
First, it ensures them that you care about their business. Your defined confidentiality policy is in place to protect the potentially sensitive information released in your coaching sessions. This enables clients to release information that they wouldn’t want to be known by competing companies, because they understand that as their coach you care about helping their businesses succeed.
Secondly, it displays your professionalism and proficiency as an executive coach. By stating your confidentiality claims upfront, clients know that you understand the gravity of the challenges they are facing and that you coach with the foresight of these challenges.
Lastly, it eases clients’ personal anxieties about disclosing challenges in their own lives. Identifying with the client that they have the freedom to say whatever they need to say in a confidential and welcoming environment, gives them greater assurance that information won’t be unnecessarily shared with others.
Develop a stance of non-judgment
Coaching clients who are met with a reaction of non-judgment, are more likely to trust their executive coaches (Alvey & Barclay, 2007). This is very similar to the psychological principle of “unconditional positive regard.” Unconditional positive regard is when you view your client as though they could do nothing that would stop you from “seeing them as inherently human and inherently…” worthy of love and respect (Ackerman, 2021).
In executive coaching, this could look like: an Executive Coach being told by a client that they have decided to inappropriately and drastically reduce employee compensation to increase profit. In this example, it is important for the executive coach to remain in question and not in judgment. Doing so can encourage the client to further examine their reasoning for reducing wages and the ethical implications of it. It is important to note that being in a stance of non-judgment does not mean that you approve of every decision made by your clients. However, it does mean that you continue to uphold their value as a human being worthy of love and respect (Ackerman, 2021).
Research shows that when an executive “coach supportively [confirms] the client's developmental needs,” trust is further built in the client-coaching relationship (Alvey & Barclay, 2007). Coaches who affirm a client’s needs reinforce the understanding that they are intentionally listening to their clients, thus encouraging more trust from a client. These coach affirmations also further solidify the clients’ understanding that their executive coach genuinely supports their growth and development. Coaches can intentionally affirm their client’s needs by verbally expressing their agreeance with expressed needs. For example, if a client expresses that they need more time with their family a coach could respond with, “Time with family is an important thing. How might you rearrange your schedule to intentionally spend more time with them?”
Challenging client behaviors
When executive coaches meet their clients with honesty, expressing their genuine questions, thoughts, or perspectives, clients learn that their coaches are trustworthy sources of guidance. Research shows that coaches who challenge their clients’ leadership behaviors have more trusting relationships with their clients (Alvey & Barclay, 2007). As coaches genuinely question their clients, challenging their ideas and behaviors, they encourage their clients to reach greater heights of success, while also reinforcing trust.
“Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.” – Seth Godin
What it all means
Trust is an essential part of the coaching process. Marked by the willingness of open and honest communication as well as the non-judgemental response from executive coaches, trust reinforces behavioral change and more personalized coaching. In order to build trust, executive coaches should have clear confidentiality policies, develop a stance of non-judgment, and challenge their client’s behaviors. By building trust, coaches can increase the effectiveness of their coaching strategies and further support the development of the executives they coach.
“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust...” - Mike Krzyzewski
Ackerman, C. (2021, June 09). What is Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology? Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/unconditional-positive-regard/
Alvey, S., & Barclay, K. (2007). The characteristics of dyadic trust in executive coaching. Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(1), 18-27. doi:10.1002/jls.20004
Buelow, B. (2020, March 03). Coaching in an Age of Full Disclosure. Retrieved from https://coachingfederation.org/blog/coaching-in-age-of-disclosure
ICF (2019). The Gold Standard in Coaching: ICF - Core Competencies. Retrieved from https://coachingfederation.org/core-competencies
IOC (2021, February). A Habit of Trust. Retrieved from https://www.instituteofcoaching.org/coaching-reports/february-2021
Mohamed, F., & Zouaoui, S. (2021). Trust as a success factor in the entrepreneurial coaching relationship entrepreneur coach. Business Studies Journal, 13(4), 1-12.
Zayim, M., & Kondakci, Y. (2014). An exploration of the relationship between readiness for change and organizational trust in Turkish public schools. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 43(4), 610-625. doi:10.1177/1741143214523009
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