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Identifying Critical Coaching Competencies: What Works Best??

A paper entitled “Competencies of Coaches that Predict Client Behavior Change” was recently published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. The Purpose of this study was to determine which coaching competencies were most important to promoting client behavior change.  Competencies were defined as being related to Emotional and Social Intelligence (ESI). To name a few, competencies such as empathy, positive outlook, and emotional self-control were considered.  The authors focused on coaching as a strategy to improve employee behavior and performance, i.e., career or executive coaching.  Nonetheless, the results of this work can inform the practice of health and well-being coaching (HWC) as these coaching models are more alike than different.  Furthermore, the hope is that findings may guide training and certification programs by identifying important coaching competencies.

The Methods of this study involved pairing and defining the interactions of 240 coach-client dyads.  These pairings were trained physician coaches working with medical students over the course of a two-year period.  Peer-assessments were made of ESI coach competencies and client behaviors at baseline and 24 months later were measures to assess behavior change.  

Results indicated that general mental ability did not distinguish between coaches, but 6 of 12 ESI coach competencies studied significantly influenced client behavior.  The most impactful coaching competency, Achievement Orientation (AO), was defined as “striving to improve or meet a standard of excellence.”  When using AO, a coach was seen as helping a client juggle competing tasks and setting priorities. In addition to AO, Emotional Self Control, Adaptability, Empathy, Influence, and Organizational Assessment.  It was surprising that Emotional Self-Awareness (ESA) was not revealed as a significant competency. The authors discussed ESA as possibly essential to coach training and development but maybe not as critical during actual coaching.  Each of these coaching competencies is more fully defined in the paper cited below which is freely available (open access) at the publisher’s website.

While informative, there are also Limitations in how those practicing HWC should interpret the results of this study.  Medical students (trying to excel in classes) have high intelligence but limited age-range and practical experience.  They are not the same as at-risk patients trying to improve their health or even the same as executives (workers) trying to improve job performance.  While these differences are very real, they do not fully preclude us from carefully making a few generalizations and recommendations from these results.

  1. Coaches effectiveness for encouraging client behavior change may be rooted in key skills or competencies.  

  2. Achievement orientation (e.g., asking questions to help a client prioritize competing demands) may be an essential coach skill, especially when working with clients who express time constraints.

  3. Emotional Self-Control allows a coach to hold back personal reactions during a coaching conversation.  This skill focusses the coaching session on only the client’s needs while not confusing the coach’s emotions as part of the issue at hand.

  4. Adaptability, or being able to shift the coaching approach or line of questions, may be a critical coaching skill.

  5. Empathy, carefully listening to a client and having them know they are heard, is a valuable coaching skill.

  6. A coach can encourage desired behavior change in clients by modeling behavior informed by emotional and social intelligence competencies.  

While some readers may want to adapt more of the findings from this study to all coach settings, it seems prudent to first consider these above as reasonable for generalizing to HWC.  

As a side note, the authors of this article claim that current coach training techniques and certifications are not based on research or established theory but instead on opinions of experts or clients indicating which coach competencies are valuable.  It is easy to take exception to this statement.  NBHWC standards are based on well-established foundational theories and techniques such as goal-setting, motivational interviewing, self-determination, and stages of change.  Each of these has an extensive database, which has proven useful in helping clients change their behavior.  Furthermore, the Wellcoaches Approach is thoroughly studied in numerous research articles showing a beneficial effect for HWC clients of all types – as a trip to this website readily shows …

Boyatzis et al. have initiated an interesting and valuable line of research.  ESI competencies, such as achievement orientation and emotional self-control, appear to be important coaching competencies – at least in certain situations.  Moreover, it seems that behavior of the coach, and specifically role modeling during a coaching session, may be a critical component of successful coaching.  While there are limitations to this study, such research can help us better understand our work as coaches. This study also helps us realize there is a need for much more investigation examining how to optimize coaching.  Specifically, we need to see HWC studies attempting to figure out what works best in a session – regarding both coach competencies and coaching strategies.  We can learn how to best and most effectively coach from work like this.  Hopefully, we will soon see more research focused on HWC to further inform our practice.


Boyatzis, R., Liu, H., Smith, A., Zwygart, K., & Quinn, J. (2023). Competencies of Coaches that Predict Client Behavior Change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science0(0).

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