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Building Trust in a Coaching Relationship

Learn the importance of trust in a coaching relationship, and how to build it.

When I work with people who are building a coaching relationship, I ask them which manager has had the greatest influence on their development. Then I follow up with two questions:

Naturally, the responses include several qualities, but the one that shows up most often is trust.

Building trust in a coaching relationship is crucial to the success of the coaching because people are willing to be challenged if they trust the person coaching them. People often tell me that they’re open to uncomfortable coaching conversations when they trust that the coach has their best intentions in mind.

In this context, I’m referring to the manager as ‘coach’ and the direct report as ‘coachee’—but this advice can be applied to any coaching relationship.  

Unfortunately, there’s no simple, step-by-step process for building trust in a coaching relationship. But my experience as a coach and Core Strengths’ insights on what makes a successful workplace relationship can shed some light.

What is trust in a coaching relationship?

Trust means different things to different individuals. Some definitions that we use at Core Strengths in the context of a coaching relationship include:

  • A belief in the reliability, competence, honesty, integrity, and positive intentions of your coach or coachee
  • The freedom to be real and vulnerable with your coach or coachee without being judged

A high-trust coaching relationship creates an environment of psychological safety. Psychological safety is not about building relationships by avoiding difficult conversations. In fact, when there’s psychological safety, you can dive into difficult conversations and achieve the outcomes that both the coach and coachee desire.

Most people have been in a situation where they’ve said the wrong thing in a high-trust relationship and the other person still gets their meaning. Conversely, you can measure your words carefully in a low-trust relationship and still be misunderstood.

The role of integrity in a coaching relationship

The opposite of trust is lack of trust, where we tolerate each other but don’t truly commit to participation in the relationship or conversation. 

As everyone knows, trust is hard to build and easy to break. A coaching client recently said to me, “I hold back from letting my true self be seen because my boss tells me about conversations she has with others.”

As a manager, one of the best ways you can promote psychological safety and trust is to always behave with the utmost integrity:

  • Make expectations clear and live them out in every interaction 
  • Speak about people as though they were present 
  • Demonstrate genuine respect and concern 
  • Don’t disclose private conversations 
  • Respect all, not just those who can do something for you
  • Speak up when others don’t adhere to this standard of integrity

Exploring unconscious bias in the coaching relationship

When we ask people who they trust and who they don’t, there tend to be three main reasons for trusting or not trusting:

  1. Past experiences with that person 
  2. Information about that person that others have shared 
  3. Not knowing that person well enough

But we also just trust some people naturally. We all have unconscious biases that contribute to who we do and don’t trust implicitly, based on culture, personality, race, class, gender, accent, appearance, mannerisms, and more.  

As a coach, you need to explore your own unconscious biases to understand why you may or may not trust a coachee. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who do you tend to assume has positive intentions and why? 
  • How much of this is based on objective information about their competence and attitude, and how much on subjectively liking them? 
  • Do you support, listen to, or make yourself available to, some people more than others? 
  • Who do you trust, what do you trust them with, and why? 
  • Who don’t you trust, and why? 
  • If you don’t know people well, is it easy or hard to trust them?

Trust is a two-way street. Coachees also bring unconscious bias to the table, and a productive coaching relationship requires a reciprocal assumption of the other person’s positive intentions. An environment of psychological safety requires that the coach show the same amount of vulnerability that they’re asking of the coaches.

How to build trust in a coaching relationship

To address unconscious biases and previous experiences that may be impacting trust, coaches should follow a process known as recasting the past, mastering the moment, and co-creating the future. 

Recast the past

Recasting the past is about challenging your previous assumptions, adding new information, and being willing to exchange perspectives.

One reason for recasting the past could be that you have a manager-employee relationship, but not a coaching relationship, and you want to begin this new type of relationship. To cast off baggage from the past, it can be helpful to discuss why you’re sitting down together, what kind of relationship you have currently, and what kind of relationship you want to have.

Step into the shoes of your coachees and consider:

  • What past experiences could be getting in the way of trust? 
  • How might they see you now? 
  • How can you change the trust landscape in your relationship for both of you?

Master the moment

Mastering the moment means managing behavior, emotions, and perceptions in real time to make interactions more effective. Work with your coachees to create new experiences and memories that are built on authenticity and trust and help ‘reset’ the relationship. The skill required to do this is what Core Strengths refers to as Relationship Intelligence

Click here to read our blog that dives deep into Relationship Intelligence.

Co-create the future

Co-creating the future is interacting in a way that shapes how your relationship will develop over time. The quality of today’s conversation becomes tomorrow’s past and adds another drop to the trust bucket.

The first step in co-creating a trusting relationship is getting to know your coachee on a deeper level and genuinely allowing them to get to know you. This should be a regular practice with everyone on your team, who are all different people and require different things from you. 

You can also co-create trust by showing that you trust them to make decisions. Empower your coachees with as much choice as possible (within the realistic constraints of the organization) and allow them to be accountable for those choices.

At the center of all trusting relationships is the ability for people to be themselves, to value themselves, and to value each other. 

Core Strengths has the tools to help people better understand and value themselves and each other and to build trust in their coaching relationships. 

Interested in learning more? Download our guide with communication tips to build trust in a coaching relationship.