Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Autonomy, Competence & Relatedness ~ The ICF core competencies through positive psychology and neuropsychology lens

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Autonomy, Competence & Relatedness ~ The ICF core competencies through positive psychology and neuropsychology lenswritten by Irene Nizzero.

I have a confession to make. I really LIKE the ICF core competencies and related markers. I may be a bit of an anomaly in that respect; especially for emerging coaches, the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) markers are perceived as constraining and presenting too high a bar to clear. As well, some markers seem unrelated to successful coaching outcomes. 

But what if we were able to gain perspective from psychological theory and research that show the connection between the competencies and the client’s sense of well-being? 

The work of Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) draws strong connections between one’s sense of agency and feelings of well-being. Richard Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory (ITC) demonstrates the strong, important connection between coaching as described by the Core Competencies and ultimately our clients’ sense of well-being

Self-Determination Theory

Consider the concepts of autonomy, competence, and relatedness – the three main elements of self-determination theory that are directly linked to overall well-being. 


When clients are most clear about their own desired future state, whether they have enlisted us with that clarity already in place or we have helped them attain it, it is first and foremost theirs to shape and refine. They are not given a goal they must pursue through coaching; they identify and focus on a goal that matters most.

Many of the competencies have us “partnering” with the client; we don’t direct, advise or recommend. We offer them the container in which to express complete autonomy to decide the best cognitive approach or course of action in any situation. (Competencies 8.3) We invite clients to explore perspectives from a place of authenticity, using their values as guide (e.g. competencies 6.1 and 7.3).

Through our empathy and openness, we attempt to envision the future they see, supporting as they explore possible pitfalls and attendant course corrections ahead. Throughout our discourse, the client makes choices – what to explore, what the future looks like and how best to get there – with full autonomy.


“Having feedback and guidance, rather than control or directives, can help a person feel more purposive and confident in bringing about potential changes.” (Ryan and Deci, p. 238). As coaches, we are perfectly positioned to help clients explore paths toward growth by expressing our confidence in their insights and potential. As we invite them to explore new possibilities and perspectives, options open up to them that are unlikely to come from well-meaning micro-managers.

When we exhibit parts of Competency #4, which states that a coach “Acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process” we are offering feedback that states we recognize the client’s contributions, adding to their sense of competence. This is further heightened by our statements of celebration of their successes in advancing their own learning, as we wrap up the coaching session, following the spirit of Competency #8.


Ryan and Deci identify the importance of relationships in the one’s experience of life satisfaction. Indeed, it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that important events in our lives rarely happen in total isolation. We are wired for connectivity and relationships.

Our clients’ decision to strive for behavioural change through coaching occurs in the context of recognizing a discrepancy between where they’d like to see themselves and where they currently are. At the very least – or perhaps before all else – clients experience a shift in mindset or beliefs around their current state. This internal conflict between the current and desired version of self is very difficult to navigate alone. We know it is near impossible to move out of this conflict alone, as the challenge in the old adage “physician, heal thyself ” proposes.

With the help of a supportive coach, one who presents as an authentically caring person, vested in the well being of the client, much more becomes possible. This, of course, is the outcome of adhering to Competency #4, once again, especially as we:

➤ show support, empathy and concern for our clients (4.4);

➤ acknowledge and support their expressions of feelings, perceptions, beliefs and suggestions (4.5);

➤ demonstrate openness and transparency ourselves, in an effort to strengthen the connection we have with our clients (4.6).

Intentional Change Theory

Fundamental to Boyatzis’ theory is the role of positive emotional activation (PEA) and negative emotional activation (NEA). In short, neurological evidence supports that when we are given orders or even strong recommendations, the human brain translates those as a threat and shuts down, eliciting the NEA.

Such directives may be followed, but this is under duress and typically doesn’t add to our learning. Rather, when possibilities, aspirations and inspirational notions evoke visions of who we want to be, positive emotions (PEA) are much more prevalent and enhance the likelihood of success.

As coaches, we guide discussions predominantly from the client’s current state to a desired future state, drawing out of our clients possibilities previously unimagined, much less explored.

Boyatzis posits that the most effective coaching results from people being supported as they make discoveries about themselves, their current thinking and identity, as well as future possibilities, in an iterative manner. His theory is visually represented by a circle of successive steps in the client’s discovery which, when completed, return the client to begin the discovery process all over again, as they tackle a new challenge or growth opportunity.

Through a second set of discoveries starting with the ideal self, clients begin to clarify who that person is, by asking who they want to be. This second phase of discoveries includes the “real” self, and draws attention to current strengths and gaps. The third phase of discovery addresses client’s learning agenda, during which they consider how to build on current strengths and use them to close the gap between the current self and the ideal self. The fourth discovery phase includes clients’ experimentation of the possible pathways toward closing the gap, and practicing those options that appear most plausible.

This entire process of discovery is facilitated by what Boyatzis describes as a resonant relationship – that strong, positive bond shared between coach and client.

As we envision each of these theories applied to our own practices, we can draw the connections between the resulting mechanics that have led to our successful coaching interactions or by virtue of the absence of these features, why our sessions may have fallen short of what we know to be possible.

What else can you do to increase a client’s sense of autonomy? How might you connect more deeply with your clients? How consistently do you celebrate your clients’ successes and acknowledge their unique contributions to the coaching process?

As you proceed to coach over the coming weeks and months, I invite you to consider the role you play in the context of either of these theories and how your awareness of this role alone may contribute to your client’s improved experience in coaching. Through both of these theories, we’re given clear evidence that leading the client to discovery is much more likely to result in lasting change in the client, and will ultimately lead to their enhanced sense of well-being.

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