4 Powerful Practices to Deepen Your Coaching Relationships | by Dr. Sarah Evans MCC

Coach and Coachee in coaching session

In reading several recent research studies1 (I'm declaring a bias here!), a key active ingredient identified that makes coaching so effective is the coaching relationship.

Your relationship—the partnership between you and your coachee—matters.

The Relationship is the Psychological Safe Space

Coaching conversations are ones of meaning making, in service of a coachee's self-exploration.

The coaching relationship is, in essence, the psychological 'safe space' for the coachee to reflect on what's most important and meaningful to them. Whether personally and/or professionally, the coaching relationship is what helps our coachees engage in the work of creating their life and career by design—rather than default.

4 Lessons & Insights to Deepen Your Coaching Relationships

There is much that could be, and has been, said about aspects of the coaching relationship, such as responsibility (including a coachee's responsibility for their own learning and change), integrity, mutual commitment, motivation, trust, safety, vulnerability, coachability and chemistry. Yes to all!

And as we wrap up International Coaching Week, I'm sharing four of my favourite learnings about the coaching relationship.

1) Deep Witnessing and an Invitation to Become

Coaching is relational! I've written previously about our relational connection with our coachees, and want to bring this forward once more.

As coaches, we offer an invitation to a deep witnessing and experience, and to an exploration of possibilities:

  • What has this moment given us to give to each other?
  • Who and how do I need to be and become?

What would it be like if in every interaction with your coachees, with full attention and presence, you could truly say, "I see you, the whole of you—your experience, your passions, your pain, your strengths, your weaknesses and your future possibilities," and engage from this way of being?

From this way of being, you communicate to your coachees their value, their worth, their dignity and their sovereignty.

2) Holding Space

In the relational connection, as coaches we speak of 'holding space' for another. It sounds like a passive approach, yet in practice it's anything but!

What does it mean to hold space for someone else?

It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they're on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. Heather Plett 2

The impact on our coachees of being in full relationship presence is profound.

As one of my coachees shared with me, "I have felt empowered to lead my growth journey with a presence sitting close to me, encouraging me to keep moving and trusting that I could get to the destination even when I thought I needed a map. Today, I feel more confident that I can lead myself and my team to greater heights. … I am motivated to continue to water the seeds of growth and grateful to you for inspiring me to look within, grow and have fun in the process."

Two questions for you to ponder:

  1. How are you 'holding space' for your coachees?
  2. How are you embracing wonder and truly marvelling at—and with—these exquisite human beings with their unique experiences, sitting with you in the coaching space?

3. Leverage Appreciative Inquiry's 'Anticipatory Principle'

Another connection in the coaching relationship I've found invaluable in my work is a strengths-based approach combined with holding an 'Appreciative' stance. And one of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry I particularly love is the Anticipatory Principle.

Picture the way that some plants track the sun's movement across the sky (known as heliotropism). For example, young sunflowers turn toward the sun, the life-giving force that literally fuels their growth. This optimizes their ability to photosynthesize—converting solar energy to chemical energy.

Appreciative Inquiry proposes that we, and human systems, have a similar innate heliotropic tendency. David Cooperrider describes this as "An observable and largely automatic tendency to evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future." 3

The Anticipatory Principle says there is power in creating a compelling image of the future we want—and anticipating being there. This inspires, motivates and propels us forward.

Imagine the energy of possibility generated as both coachee and coach hold focus on who the coachee is being and becoming.

4) Empty Your Cup

This relational idea suggests the insight of the Zen proverb of "empty your cup," which I came across as I was taking my Narrative Coach Practitioner certification with David Drake.

Although there are multiple versions of this story, I like the one shared by Melissa Chu.4

A Zen proverb

Once upon a time, there was a wise Zen master. People travelled from far away to seek his help. In return, he would teach them and show them the way to enlightenment.

On this particular day, a scholar came to visit the master for advice. "I have come to ask you to teach me about Zen," the scholar said.

Soon, it became obvious that the scholar was full of his own opinions and knowledge. He interrupted the master repeatedly with his own stories and failed to listen to what the master had to say. The master calmly suggested that they should have tea.

So the master poured his guest a cup. The cup was filled, yet he kept pouring until the cup overflowed onto the table, onto the floor, and finally onto the scholar's robes. The scholar cried "Stop! The cup is full already. Can't you see?"

"Exactly," the Zen master replied with a smile. "You are like this cup—so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup."

The proverb reminds us…

We may think we are open minded, yet we are also full of experiences, information, learning and knowledge that have been filtered through many assumptions.

This proverb is a great reminder of the need for humility, curiosity, openness and wonder, as well as continuously clearing our lenses—acknowledging and managing or working through potential biases, judgments, emotions or interests that could cloud our ability to offer clear and nonjudgmental observations.

As we engage in the practice of emptying our teacup, we are more able to come with an empty mind, attend to what is emerging in the conversation and attune to what matters most to the coachee.

Empty your cup so that it might be filled; become devoid to gain totality. Bruce Lee


I hope that these learnings and insights might be embraced as practices to support the deepening and expanding of your coaching relationships.


1 For example, the work of Erik De Haan and his colleagues.

2 Heather Plett is the author of The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership (2020). Page Two Books, Inc.

3 David Cooperrider is the co-creator and creative thought leader of Appreciative Inquiry. His founding work with AI is creating a positive revolution in the leadership of change.

4 Melissa Chu, "Empty Your Cup: A Zen Proverb on Opening Yourself to New Ideas." November 19, 2018. https://medium.com/jumpstart-your-dream-life/empty-your-cup-a-zen-proverb-on-opening-yourself-to-new-ideas-10e8c9545c7b

You may also like these other articles by Sarah Evans:

And this article about Appreciative Inquiry by Julia Menard:

Sarah Evans, MCC Guest Author

Contributing Author:

Dr. Sarah Evans, PhD, MCC, Dip. CS is passionate about working with visionary decision-makers and influencers inspired by the transformative potential of coaching. She is an executive leadership & team coach, facilitator, OD consultant, coaching supervisor, and mentor coach at Evans Leadership Group. Sarah is dedicated to cultivating resilient leaders—supporting individuals, teams, organizations and coaches lead and thrive in complexity. Her goal is to maximize human capacity, organizational capabilities, and contributions to societal well-being. Her key working themes are relationships, resilience, results! Visit her website here and connect with her on Linkedin. Sarah is a member of the International Coach Federation, where she holds a Master Certified Coach (MCC) credential.

Learn more about Sarah & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach and Coachee by fizkes via Shutterstock

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