What is the ultimate purpose of Coaching?

The International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) definition of coaching describes the purpose as maximising the client’s personal and professional potential. Maximising our potential implies growth, and to leverage our growth we need to effectively apply our awareness, insight, and learning. Therefore, a key part of a coach’s role is to partner with clients in support of them becoming more aware, to have insights that lead them to learn new things, which, when applied through appropriate action, results in growth and development…and them fulfilling their potential!


The ICF Core Competencies are defined and described specifically in service of this purpose and there are several references that explicitly highlight this and our role in that process. For example:


Competency 4.3: “Acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process”.


Competency 4.5: “Acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions”.


Competency 7, Evokes Awareness, defines the coach’s role as: “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy”, and all of its 11 sub-competencies are all focussed on how we facilitate this process.


Competency 8, Facilitates Client Growth, really brings everything together in its definition: ”Partners with the client to transform learning and insight into action…” and includes that the coach:

  • “Works with the client to integrate new awareness, insight or learning into their worldview and behaviours” (8.1).
  • “Partners with the client to design goals, actions and accountability measures that integrate and expand new learning” (8.2).
  • “Supports the client in identifying potential results or learning from identified action steps” (8.4)
  • “Partners with the client to summarise learning and insight within or between sessions” (8.6)


What is clear here is that the intended outcome from coaching is action and growth. More importantly, the action is in service of growth in some way, and not just for its own sake. However, so often I listen to coaching sessions where the coach places great emphasis on eliciting next steps and actions coming out of the coaching session, but very little attention is paid to the exploration of insight and learning. Focussing just on action may result in a temporary benefit, as the client’s behaviour changes in one of their subsequent transactions. However, the transformational benefit from coaching comes when the actions emerge organically from a learning process.

Are we therefore just interested in a one-off change to behaviour to get a different result? Or are we supporting the client to explore and choose different ways of thinking, feeling, and gain greater clarity of their values and beliefs, so that their behavioural changes are sustainable and are conducive to their broader growth and development?


Robert Dilts’s model of the (Neuro) Logical Levels offers a great example of this. In this model, it can be noted that change cascades down from the top, a little like water trickling down the side of a mountain. Therefore, if we only focus on change at the behavioural level the water (change) can only cascade a little further before it reaches the ground. Whereas, if we invite exploration and we evoke awareness and change at the higher levels of capabilities, values and beliefs or even identity and purpose, the change is likely to be far more impactful and sustainable in the longer term, thereby truly tapping into the person’s potential.

Finding ourselves too drawn into the need to secure actions and next steps can mean that we miss some wonderful opportunities to really explore these areas of insight and learning with our clients. The key here is for us to fully embrace our coaching presence and our active listening so that we can work with the whole of the person and elicit learning and any resulting next steps.

Here is a very simple approach to help us maximise the client’s awareness, insight, learning and growth:

Slow Down:
For me, slowing down is probably one of the most powerful keys to unlocking our impact as coaches. When we slow down, we have more time to hear, to listen, to digest, to reflect and to consider what might be useful in the coaching process.

When we slow down, we are more likely to notice, not just what the client is or is not communicating but also to notice awareness emerging. A shift in awareness maybe evidenced in many different ways, some more overt, some more subtle. For example, an obvious shift could be when the client says something like: ”That’s a really good question” or “I hadn’t thought about it like that” or “I hadn’t realised…”. Other shifts could be exemplified through silence, changes in where the eyes focus, changes in body language or physiology, changes in energy.

When these shifts are noticed, it can be very tempting to feel energised by this and try to build upon it by asking yet another thought-provoking question to elicit even more insight. And yet, whilst that question might be a marvellous one, it can very easily cut short the depth, significance, and therefore impact of the previous insight. If a thought-provoking question is a ‘seed’ then, once the seed is sown and the awareness is evoked, our role is to ‘cultivate’ that awareness so that it can be fully considered by the client. For this to happen, the best thing we can do is to pause… By pausing, we allow time for reflection (see competency 5. 6). The pause allows the awareness to really begin to land and ‘germinate’.

Once we have paused, we could then share our observation of what we have just noticed, thereby ‘nurturing’ that seedling of insight. This could be through comments such as: “I notice a change in your energy, what’s going on for you now?” or  “Something seems to have shifted, what are you noticing?”. Through sharing what we observe, we invite the seedling to be ‘nurtured’.

Finally, when the client shares the awareness they are having, we can invite further exploration to really ‘harvest’ the insight and learning in service of the client’s growth and development. We could invite inquiries such as: “With that awareness, what is now clearer to you?” or “What is significant about what you are noticing here?” or “How is this awareness (or insight) useful to you in this work?”.

The fact that the seeds of awareness can be sown at any point during a coaching conversation, highlights that, like all of the competencies, numbers seven and eight emerge at any and various points throughout the dialogue and are part of the interwoven dance of competencies.

Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coachingcoaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress. 

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.

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