The Humanistic Guide to Coaching

Use these Guiding principles in applying the humanistic approach to coaching to provide a framework for the coaching context and associated tasks for the coach.

A model of a {learning} cycle of change from the humanistic perspective can be described as Awareness-Choice-Execution (ACE) to help clients learn to move through this process themselves.


Guiding Principle 1: The Nature of the Coaching Relationship is Essential

Develop a trusting, collaborative relationship between coach and client.

Approach and engage the client with empathy, acceptance, and authenticity in the coaching conversation.

Provide the platform for safety, trust, and collaborative interaction by communicating these attitudes and behaviors to the client.


The core skills of the person-centered approach are active listening, respecting clients, and adopting their internal frame of reference; these are also fundamental tools for executive coaching.

Rogers hypothesized that significant positive personality change does not occur except in a relationship. Rogers postulated six facilitative relationship conditions that are necessary and sufficient for positive therapeutic change; these conditions underlie any therapeutic personality change and must be in operation in any successful helping relationship: psychological contact between two persons; the client is in a state of incongruence; the therapist is congruent or integrated in the relationship; the therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client; the therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client; this communication to the client is to a minimal degree achieved.


The powers of active listening, respecting the client, and adopting the client’s internal frame of reference will help build trust, commitment, and loyalty to the executive coaching process.

Effective leadership typically involves social influence; the empathic listening of the coach can provide a living model for the executive.

Rogerian attitudes are essential throughout the coaching process; their greatest strengths lie in the beginning stages related to forging the partnership.

Most executive coaching interventions fail unless trust is established and attitudes of respect, care, and acceptance are communicated.


Coaching Tasks

1. Listening for understanding. {accurate empathy}

Develop active listening skills to allow you to walk in the client’s shoes and see the world from their internal frame of reference.

To develop accurate empathy, one must spend the time and energy to listen to the client’s experience, ask for clarification, summarize the essence of the client’s experience, and then check out that understanding with the client.

A related task is communicating that understanding to the client.

Approaching the client in this way {active listening} enables the coach to understand the client better. It is essential to build a relationship that relies on an accurate picture of the client and exhibits trust that the coach “gets” the client.

It {active listening} also allows the client to reflect on and consciously process more of their experience.

2. Cultivate acceptance and look for positive points of connection. {unconditional positive regard}

Develop a prizing and acceptance of clients for who they are by actively searching for positive aspects you resonate with. Look for the positive points of connection as the point of entry and refrain from judgment.

To facilitate accurate empathy, find a warm acceptance of the person you are working with. If you can’t find something you love about your clients, then you won’t be able to understand them. At that point, decide whether it would best serve the client and yourself to disengage from the coaching relationship and refer the client to a better match.

3. Give honest feedback in the moment. {authenticity, genuineness, congruence}

Authenticity for the coach means being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations in interaction with the client and communicating these when helpful in an honest, caring way. This involves expressing support and affirmation and sometimes being disagreeable in accord with one’s congruence and genuineness. This empowers the coaching relationship as a safe place for the client to deal with the totality of their experience.

4. Establish collaboration as the process of the coaching relationship.

Actively engage the client to participate in their growth process as a full partner rather than a passive recipient of the coach’s wisdom.

Describe your approach, philosophy, and expectations for the process at the outset of coaching.


Occasionally, clients are not on board with the coaching process and do not welcome or trust it. They may superficially cooperate, even though they feel resentful and disdainful. A fast-moving plan for change can be disastrous in such a case, as the executive is not likely to put much sincere effort into the process. At worst, the client sabotages the process, and everybody loses.

A Rogerian approach from the beginning has the best chance of success, for accurate empathy will require the coach to figure this out without judgment, defensiveness, or blaming. The coach and client can start with the “truth” that the client resents the coaching or is afraid of it and go from there to the possibility that coaching can become a positive experience.


Rogerian Applications to Coaching

Person-centered coaches have two challenging tasks:

to be person-centered: to do the recommended things and to model genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and congruence, and 

to teach these to clients so they can become person-centered in their work settings and lives.

The first task is the general application of Rogerian principles:

create a genuine, authentic, one-on-one relationship with the client;

achieve accurate empathy through unconditional positive regard and acceptance;

really hear the client and fully accept her as she currently is;

reflect what you hear to the client so she can fully appreciate her situation as it is.

Establish collaboration as the basis for the coaching relationship. Actively engage your client in dialogue. Ask: “What would you like to work on today?”

Work to create a relationship with your client that is caring and mutually respectful.

Practice empathetic listening. Be sensitive to implied and explicit meanings; to feelings and thoughts not fully grasped by the client. Attend carefully to your client’s experience, imagine you are in their shoes, ask for clarification, and communicate your understanding of their situation.

Communicate to the client that they have the knowledge, emotional strength, and personal power to make the desired changes. Use their experience and understanding as the basis for your work together.

The second task is to teach clients how to listen. Apply active listening with clients and show them how to do it. Active listening includes the following skills and behaviors.

(a) Stop and pay attention. Establish a comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere for interaction using physical listening, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

(b) Use physical listening. Notice your posture and physical mannerisms to give a clear impression that you are paying attention. Make eye contact when listening, and notice how you appear; congruence requires physical messages to be aligned and consistent with verbal ones. When your looks and your words conflict, your message becomes confusing. The listener wonders: which message should I believe? He says he is serious but does not look or seem serious.

(c) Ask appropriate questions. Indicate you are following the topic and find it interesting. Use questions to clarify the concerns of the speaker. Follow up with clarifying questions to sort things out and make them clearer. Consider an occasional probing question that moves the discussion into challenging areas.

(d) Restate. Teach clients to repeat or summarize what someone says before responding with new information.

“Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You think that … Is this what you mean?”

Restating clarifies things, demonstrates the listener’s interest, and accurately grasps what the other person has said. This implies respect for the speaker.

(e) Paraphrase. Teach clients to summarize what another person has said so that an essential aspect of the message can be emphasized and explored.

“It sounds like you are having second thoughts about the acme project.”

(f) Reflect. Model and teach to reflect feeling states to speakers. This can be very effective on occasion.

“You don’t sound very confident about the timeline. In fact, you seem a little worried about whether we can meet it.”

(g) Summarize. Teach how to take several statements from a speaker, tie them together into a theme and check them out with the speaker to see if the meaning is accurate.

“All right. So, on the one hand, you think …, but on the other hand, you are worried about whether … Do I understand you correctly?”

(g) Listen for feelings. Notice what people seem to be feeling as they speak. Emotions tend to drive the encounter. Sometimes the emotional basis for a statement is obvious once you look for it, revealing something important you may not have previously considered. However, overt talk about emotions is not always appropriate in business. Discretion and judgment are essential.

(h) Share with discretion. Share your thoughts and feelings to support the speaker and move the conversation productively.

(i) Withhold judgment while listening. A judgmental stance tends to foster unnecessary competition in conversation, limiting what can be accomplished.

(j) Acknowledge difference. There are likely to be areas of disagreement. It can be helpful to acknowledge these differences in a matter-of-fact way politely.

“As you know, we probably differ on this, but my opinion is that such- and such is true.”


Give feedback on specific listening skills as you coach.

When the client interrupts, call his attention to it.

When the client changes the subject without attending to what the previous speaker has said, mention this.

Tell them when the client goes on and on without noticing the impact on the listener.

When they argue unnecessarily, judge too quickly, or seem disinterested, catch them or show them on a video made while they were speaking.

Feedback about how clients behave around others may be the most important and valuable service a coach can provide.

Give clients feedback on the impression they make on you. If you strongly react to them, others likely have a similar reaction. Think carefully about this and when it is appropriate, share your reactions with them. When it contributes to the client’s development, it is not manipulation or a self-serving act.


Coach clients on authenticity.

Assess their level of genuineness, including how authentically they engage listeners. Discuss this with them, and work on achieving the right amount of personal engagement in each interaction. Some clients may be too personal, revealing too much about themselves, whereas others reveal nothing.


Guiding Principle 2: The Client is the Source and Director of Change

Clients are the source of their experience and inclination toward growth. The client chooses the specific direction of the coaching. The coach provides input to serve the client’s goals. The coach needs to meet clients where they are and lead from there. In this way, the coach signals trust in the client’s capacities and keeps the choice and responsibility for those choices with the client. This builds and reinforces the client’s self-efficacy and self-direction, which are resources for the client beyond the coaching relationship.


Coaching Tasks

1. Facilitate the client in setting the agenda, goals, and direction.

The coach and client engage in fleshing out the client’s vision for plans and goals. Setting personally meaningful goals increases the chance that the client will be able to enact and maintain change. Questions like “Where do you want to start?” and “What do you want out of this process?” can help clients start on their path with the coach right alongside.

2. Use the self-subject matter expertise of the client as the point of connection.

The coach hypothesizes their understanding of the client, including the client’s experience and context. Familiarity with a similar context should not get in the way of accurate empathy. The coach needs to be open to and invite the client to correct, refine, and elaborate on the coach’s understanding and facilitation of the process.


Guiding Principle 3: The Client is Whole and Unique

The client is a unique individual who needs to be understood as a complex whole; a whole person with individual capacities, personal characteristics, interpersonal relationships, social roles, commitments and responsibilities, capabilities and accountabilities.

The coach must tailor their approach, interactions, and techniques to fit this concrete individual in this concrete life situation.


Coaching Tasks

1. Assess thoroughly and check for accuracy.

Take the time to construct a complete picture of the client. Understand who the client is as a whole. Do not assume that you understood the client accurately but instead ask for feedback from the client.

2. Look for interconnections.

In developing a rich picture of the client, look for how different areas of the client’s life and experience connect. Are there important influences from one area of the client’s experience to another? Integrating experience is one way we all grow and develop; becoming aware of multiple facets of our reality, linking multiple aspects, and paying attention to our full range of experiences. In coaching, pointing to these aspects and their interconnections and encouraging the client to become aware of their whole experience facilitates growth and development.

3. Facilitate integrating and aligning.

As you highlight interconnections between various parts of the client’s life, questions arise about how aligned the different aspects are or how they may be contradictory. The coach can facilitate the client’s awareness of the trade-offs involved and their conscious choice of how they will handle these potentially competing interests.


Guiding Principle 4: The Coach is the Facilitator of the Client’s Growth

The coach is a partner and advocate of the client’s choices and plans and can hold the client accountable for the actions the client has chosen to undertake and, in so doing, provides an honest assessment of the client’s growth.

The coaching conversation allows the client to explore and plan their direction.

The collaborative working relationship establishes the context for the client’s internal affinity toward growth and positive change to unfold. This relationship is based on a rich understanding of the client.


Coaching Tasks

1. Direct the process, not the content.

The coach actively assists in identifying and then acting on the client’s growing edges. The coach actively uses active listening, asking open-ended questions, and role-playing or imagining outcomes to help clients expand their experience and potential action choices. It is the client’s role to supply the content of the coaching. Even in contexts when others have determined the focus of the coaching, the specific content and the particular solutions or goals should be primarily the client’s conception to fit their needs and context.

2. Maintain an attitude of exploration.

The coach demonstrates openness to experience by framing their observations as hypotheses to be tested, modeling holding options open, recognizing the complexity of people and contexts, and not leaping prematurely to solutions.

3. Expand the client’s awareness of strengths, resources, and challenges.

It builds clients’ strengths to consciously assess what they have at their disposal in meeting the reality of their lives; to take stock of the qualities, resources, and abilities they possess to support growth and development.

It is also part of increasing clients’ awareness to assess what challenges they face.

4. Point out choices and help the client make conscious choices.

The coaching conversation provides a context in which the client takes time, space, and energy to focus on possible choices, exploring choices about their actions or meanings they are making of events, and trying out new ways of being. Using the idea of an experiment, clients cultivate a sense of trying something out, observing the internal and external outcomes, and then evaluating the new choice for satisfaction or positive change; this makes a choice less absolute and more of a trial run.

5. Facilitate goal-setting and accountability.

The coach facilitates goal-setting and goal attainment. As clients’ awareness of their resources, strengths, options, and challenges increases, they consciously choose actions and construct paths from their resources and experiences, leading to growth and positive change. The coach actively invites clients to declare what they want and to plan how to get there, maintaining an environment of responsibility for choices made by the client.


The Awareness-Choice-Execution (ACE) Cycle of Change

For actual results, the client needs to integrate being and awareness with doing.


Before one can make a conscious choice, one must be aware. To be fully aware, one must have a view of what has occurred in the past and who one has been, what one experiences in the present, and what one envisions for the future in terms of hopes, fears, and likely outcomes. The Awareness step is about gaining clarity about the complete picture of one’s experience related to the particular topic.


In the cycle of change, after the client has engaged in the initial data-gathering phase of Awareness, a conscious choice is available for the client. Given the client’s awareness of the context, desires, and available options, it is time to facilitate their decision about action. The coach directs the process of intentional choice but leaves the actual choice itself solidly with the client. Once the client has decided on a course of action, the coach and client collaborate on detailing the steps involved and often return briefly to awareness in developing a picture of what challenges might exist, what resources they will bring to bear, and so forth.


When enacting choice, the client moves from being to doing. Helping the client detail a plan and then follow through the complete cycle of growth and change will yield tangible results for the client.


The coach should direct the client to feed the results of the action back into their awareness. This reflective action allows for further refinement and choice.

By discussing the ACE cycle with the client, the coach fosters the skills clients can use independently.