The current ICF Core Competency model was produced as a result of a two year long job analysis exploring the knowledge, skills, tasks and activities needed for any practitioner to operate skilfully as a professional coach. Amongst many other things, this extensive research gave rise to the identification of five key themes which were considered of significant importance for inclusion in the final body of work.

One of those key themes was the ‘expansion of the coaching agreement’ described and defined as having three distinct levels:

  1. Agreement for Coaching Relationship.
  2. Agreement for Overall Coaching Plan and Goals.
  3. Agreement for Session Goals and Objectives.

So, let’s take a look at what these three levels actually mean in practice for us when it comes to coaching agreements.

1. Agreement for Coaching Relationship

Here I should actually start by saying that this first level could also be the agreement for coaching relationships (i.e. there could be more than one relationship to factor in). In some cases, particularly if you are working directly with one other person who is self-funding their coaching engagement with you, it may be that your focus is on the single relationship between the two of you. However, in many cases there are other stakeholders involved in the arrangement. An obvious stakeholder could be the line manager of the person you are coaching, perhaps even a representative from HR. Beyond that, you may also have a relationship with other parts of the organisation with whom you interact around legal and financial arrangements. In addition, if you are working as an associate coach, you will have other relationships to consider in the mix, which also play a role on the overall piece of work.

So, in effect the first question we need to ask ourselves when establishing the agreement at this first level, is: Who do I have relationships with when it comes to the overall delivery of this assignment? Once we are clear on that, we can then proceed to consider what that relationship is and what needs to be agreed. For each relationship it could be useful to consider and explore some of the following questions:

  • What is my relationship with this party?
  • What are the characteristics of the ideal relationship with this party?
  • What are my and their responsibilities within this relationship?
  • Are those responsibilities clear to everyone concerned?
  • Are those responsibilities agreed and accepted by everyone concerned?
  • What are the boundaries, and the significance of those boundaries, within this relationship?
  • Are those boundaries clearly understood and mutually accepted?
  • What else?

In fact, there is perhaps an even more important question to ask before any of these… And that is a question for the coach and their prospective client which is: Do we even have a relationship, or the potential for one? This is where the idea of a chemistry conversation comes in very useful. The chemistry conversation is to explore the potential for a productive working relationship between the coach and their client. Given that the nature and the quality of the relationship between these two parties is the biggest single indicator of a successful engagement, it seems to make a lot of sense to explore this first!

Each distinct relationship may need to be explored in different ways and for different reasons. For example, legal and financial relationships will probably include practical discussions (and potentially negotiations) around payment terms, cancellation terms, overall fees and perhaps aspects of confidentiality and non-disclosure. Other conversations may involve more exploration and discovery around gaining clarity of roles. For example, within the coach-client-line manager dynamic:

  • What is the line manager’s role with regard to the coaching relationship?
  • What is the most helpful contribution from the line manager in that regard?
  • Is everyone in agreement to and comfortable with that role?
  • What is the coach’s relationship with the line manager?
  • What is appropriate and helpful versus less appropriate and unhelpful?
  • Are the scope and the boundaries of those three significant relationships clear and openly and honestly agreed?
  • What else?

Included within the topic of exploring and clarifying relationships, is not only the role that each person plays, but what are the responsibilities, tasks, and activities associated with the effective fulfilment of that role? This could include exploring questions including, and not limited to:

  • How will information be exchanged between the relevant parties?
  • What kind of information is it appropriate/ not appropriate to share?
  • How is status or update reporting handled and by whom?
  • What is the process if the goals for coaching change and evolve during the process?
  • What if the ultimate outcome of the coaching process is different to what was originally expected or intended? (For example, what if a piece of work intended to explore the client’s next step of their career within the organisation ends with them deciding to leave the organisation and follow a different path?)

Due to the potential and inherent complexity of these three-party relationships, tripartite agreement conversations are highly recommended to ensure that clear and open agreements are secured from the start.

Coming back to the very specific and significant relationship between the coach and their client, what needs to be put in place to ensure that this relationship develops and evolves in the most useful way? This takes us to the all-important area of partnering, which happens to be another one of the key themes identified within the ICF job analysis process. Partnering can be evidenced in many ways during a coaching conversation, however there are some useful explorations that the coach and their client can complete together (already an example of partnering) in order to proactively lay the foundations for a positive, powerful, and successful connection. Some examples of the many questions or areas that this could include are:

  • What needs to be put in place to achieve psychological safety for the client?
  • What kinds of boundaries are important for the client and the coach and how will they be put in place and honoured? These boundaries could include areas such as:
    • time keeping
    • scheduling arrangements
    • postponement or cancellation of sessions
    • note taking
    • working in sensitive areas
    • how to effectively challenge thoughts and feelings to evoke new awareness
    • working with emotion
    • working with the whole person
    • understanding, respecting, embracing, and working with difference (for example: cultural, ethnic, language, gender, age, sexuality, identity, political, spiritual/ religious, learning style, communication style, neuro diversity and in fact any other contextual detail or nuance that may have a bearing on the work and how it is successfully achieved).
  • How will we handle changes to the original work as stated?
  • What could get in the way of us working most effectively together?

The list of things could be endless and whilst we do not wish to have an agreement process that feels drawn out and protracted, it is our responsibility to explore aspects of relationships thoroughly and proactively. We do not need to know every single detail about our client and their life history; however, the important question is: What do we need to know in order to work with them respectfully and effectively?

There is one final aspect to this level of agreement and that is: What is the psychological contract between the relevant parties? This contract is often unwritten and unspoken, and yet it most definitely exists nonetheless! The psychological contract is the one that is sitting underneath the surface… Sitting within our inner thoughts and feelings about the work and the parties involved. For example:

  • How do I feel/ what do i think about my client’s boss?
  • How do I feel/ what do I think about my client?
  • What kind of opinion or bias might I be holding about my client, their boss, and/ or the work?
  • What kind of opinion or bias might I be holding about myself as the coach?
  • How might these opinions or biases be informing my behaviour ask the coach?
  • What might be the answers to these questions from the client’s perspective? Or their boss’s persepctive?

This aspect of psychological contracts is naturally complex and quite fascinating, perhaps one for a blog of its own at some point…

2. Agreement for Overall Coaching Plan and Goals.

This level of the agreement focuses on exploring and establishing clarity on the purpose, goals, and associated measures for an overarching package of coaching sessions. Typically, coaching sessions are not ad hoc, one-off conversations, unless of course they are conversations held in a coaching style within a regular relationship. Most often, a series or package of coaching sessions is agreed in order to address and progress a specific goal, For example: What could be the client’s next career move? How might the client shift their focus from being mostly operational to more strategic? How might the client improve a particular relationship? How might the client embed a new consistent habit associated with a desired behaviour?

Once the overarching goal is clarified, this naturally invites exploration of the relevant and appropriate timescales for achieving that goal, along with any particular sub-goals, milestones, or specific areas to be addressed as part of the work. In addition, this part of the agreement includes the exploration and description of any measures of success that the client (and their line manager/sponsor if relevant) feels are reasonable to demonstrate the final outcome of the work.

In some ways this activity has a very practical feel to it and is not unlike the scoping process that one would undertake when embarking upon a project. The coaching engagement/work is the project and, in order for the project to be successful, it is important to get clarity on the overall aim, the measurable deliverables, the milestones, the key areas of activity, the resources needed, any associated risks, all of which culminate in a plan. In this case, a coaching plan.

In other ways, this level of agreement is far more than just practicalities. It also includes gaining real clarity on the ‘why’ of the work. Ultimately, what is the purpose of the engagement? Specifically, where there is a tripartite agreement, is the purpose of the work for each party clear and transparent and agreed with the other party? This part of the agreement process therefore involves the coach carefully facilitating a dialogue in service of clarity, alignment, and transparency so that everyone is on the same page. This not only implies coaching skills, it also requires a level of facilitation of a dialogue between the client and their line manager, along with the ability for clear summary and communication and the confidence to appropriately assert, explore, and even challenge if clarity and transparency seem to be missing.

3. Agreement for Session Goals and Objectives.

Finally, we get to the third level of agreement which is the agreement that we establish with the client session by session, conversation by conversation. Using the agreement that has been established at Level 2, we invite the client to share which aspect of that overarching plan they would like to work on that day. With the same level of care and detail brought to Level 2, we are seeking to get clarity of the client’s desired outcome for the time we will be working together that day, along with relevant measures of success for that conversation.

In addition, we explore how that outcome impacts their overarching goal and will inform their broader situation, so that we can be clear on the significance of that singular conversation within the greater context of their life and goals. This might include inquiring about the timing of this topic being introduced and what makes it important to address at this particular moment. It might also include exploring the consequences and impact of that particular topic or goal being achieved or not achieved.

Finally, it is also very useful to explore what you and the client need to be aware of or take care of in order to successfully achieve that goal. To help articulate this a little more clearly there is a saying which I feel offers a very useful metaphor: the map is not the territory. To use this metaphor, when we choose to embark on a trip with a colleague we may get out a map in order to get clarity on where we’re going and how we might get there in terms of the route and mode(s) of transport we could take. The map is very useful to help us with these things, however the map does not tell us exactly what the territory is going to be like along the way… For example, what is the weather going to be like when we make our trip? What kinds of traffic or road works might we encounter? There are many aspects to the territory whilst travelling that the map alone cannot give us. What this means for us in coaching is that it can be very useful for us to explore what kinds of things might we encounter along the way that could facilitate or hinder the discussion and the effective progress towards the outcome the client desires? Might we stumble across a limiting belief? Might we uncover an unhelpful habit that gets in the way of changing behaviour? Might we draw upon some of the client’s specific skills, qualities, and values to support them in moving forward? Might we partner with the client to create a compelling vision of success supporting them to keep going if and when any setbacks or barriers surface?

There is so much incredibly rich territory to explore in this third level of the agreement, and that is before the trip even begins! To challenge my own thinking here, perhaps the better framing of this is that this rich exploration of this third level of the agreement is in fact the first phase of the trip itself! As with the topic of psychological contracts, this aspect of contracting and its place within the rest of the session probably warrants another blog in its own right, however, suffice it to say this is an incredibly important part of the process. It is one to be explored deeply and carefully and this one which, not only sets the conversation up for success but most often yields enormous value for the client in its own right in terms of enhanced clarity and awareness.

Several conversations…

Looking back on what you have read so far, do you think all of the above is achieved in one conversation? Probably not, right?

The chemistry aspect between the coach and the client at Level 1 is probably a conversation in its own right. Then, it may be possible to complete most of the rest of the Level 1 and the Level 2 agreement with one possibly two conversations (knowing that at least some aspects of those two levels will be important to address in a tripartite conversation if relevant). Finally, the Level 3 agreements are established each time the coach and their client connect.

Therefore, I find it helpful to think of establishing agreements as a process rather than a one-off activity or meeting.

Now let’s have a look at how these 3 Levels of Agreement can be seen within ICF Core Competency 3: Establishes and Maintains Agreements…

ICF Core Competency 3: Establishes and Maintains Agreements

Title: Establishes and Maintains Agreements

What we have explored above largely addresses the ‘Establishes’ part of this title. However, each word of the competency has been chosen for a reason, and the word ‘Maintains’ is not insignificant here. We all know that goal posts change, they change for a variety of reasons, and they are changed by different people for their reasons.

The thorough and careful work undertaken in partnership with the client and the relevant stakeholders at the beginning provides a perfect foundation upon which the work can be done. It also provides us with a useful benchmark or beacon of clarity and direction against which we can, once again in partnership with the client, assess how the work is progressing. Part of our role and responsibility as the coach is to be present and astute enough to notice if something is changing or evolving in a different way or different direction. This then invites an inquiry around what is being noticed, what that means and what, if any, action is useful or necessary in that regard.

All in all, this means that not only is it a process to establish the agreement it is also a process to maintain it and the agreement is a live, dynamic and evolving feature of the work we are doing.


“Partners with the client and relevant stakeholders to create clear agreements about the coaching relationship, process, plans, and goals. Establishes agreements for the overall coaching engagement as well as those for each coaching session”.

Once again, each word of this definition has been carefully chosen for a reason and it is now hopefully apparent how the 3 Levels of Agreement are clearly embedded within it.


  1. Explains what coaching is and is not and describes the process to the client and relevant stakeholders.
  2. Reaches agreement about what is and is not appropriate in the relationship, what is and is not being offered, and the responsibilities of the client and relevant stakeholders.
  3. Reaches agreement about the guidelines and specific parameter of the coaching relationship such as logistics, fees, scheduling, duration, termination, confidentiality and inclusion of others.
  4. Partners with the client and relevant stakeholders to establish an overall coaching plan and goals.
  5. Partners with the client to determine client-coach compatibility.
  6. Partners with the client to identify or reconfirm what they want to accomplish in the session.
  7. Partners with the client to define what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish in the session.
  8. Partners with the client to define or reconfirm measures of success for what the client wants to accomplish in the coaching engagement or individual session.
  9. Partners with the client to manage the time and focus of the session.
  10. Continues coaching in the direction of the client’s desired outcome unless the client indicates otherwise.
  11. Partners with the client to end the coaching relationship in a way that honours the experience.

Having embedded the 3 Levels of Agreement within the definition, we can now see how they also show up in the 11 sub-competencies.

Why is this so important?

Firstly, as professional coaches we have an ethical responsibility to our clients and stakeholders to establish clarity of agreements. Section I – Responsibility to Clients of The ICF Ethical Standards states (amongst other things) in this regard:

As an ICF Professional, I:

  1. Explain and ensure that, prior to or at the initial meeting, my coaching Client(s) and Sponsor(s) understand the nature and potential value of coaching, the nature and limits of confidentiality, financial arrangements, and any other terms of the coaching agreement.
  2. Create an agreement / contract regarding the roles, responsibilities and rights of all parties involved with my Client(s) and Sponsor(s) prior to the commencement of services.
  3. Maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all parties as agreed upon. I am aware of and agree to comply with all applicable laws that pertain to personal data and communications.
  4. Have a clear understanding about how information is exchanged among all parties involved during all coaching interactions.
  5. Have a clear understanding with both Clients and Sponsors or interested parties about the conditions under which information will not be kept confidential (e.g., illegal activity, if required by law, pursuant to valid court order or subpoena; imminent of likely risk of danger to self or others; etc.). Where I reasonably believe one of the above circumstances is applicable, I may need to inform appropriate authorities.

Apart from ethical practice, careful and effective exploration of the coaching agreement(s) promotes and underpins clarity, respect, focus, transparency, safety, professionalism, integrity, honesty, openness and so much more…ultimately, it is a powerful way to enable success for your client and for you as their partner and coach in the work. When you consider all of this, why not do it well!?

A common belief or assumption amongst coaches can be that establishing agreements and contracting are necessary to do quickly and effectively “so that we can get on with the real work of coaching…”. I would propose that establishing agreements and contracting is the real work…

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair is a multi-award-winning Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor, Mentor Coach and ICF Assessor. Tracy trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Tracy also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. Tracy has co-authored a book Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide published in 2020 which provides a comprehensive guide to coaching for coaches at all levels of skill and experience, the psychology that underpins coaching and the updated ICF Core Competency Model. In this same year she founded Coaching with Conscience which exists to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching. As part of this work, she collaborates closely with MIND, the UK’s leading mental health charity and the British Paralympic Association (BPA). She also offers pro bono personal development and coaching programmes to young leaders (18-25-yrs). Tracy was named as one of the Leading Global Coach winners of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Awards of 2019 and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award in 2021. She won the ICF Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023 and is a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. She was the President of the UK ICF from 2013-2014 and was an ICF Global Board Director since 2016, serving as Treasurer in 2017, Global Chair in 2018 and Immediate Past Global Chair in 2019 and Vice Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board in 2021.

Share This Post!

Sign up for additional resources, opportunities and updates!

Delivered straight to your inbox.