Competences have come under attack in recent years. They are either used wrongly or picked apart to find fault. David Sleightholm comes to their defence

I’ve been involved with competences in their various forms for many years, and I’m noticing a pattern in articles written about them in coaching journals. They tend either to set them up to do things they were never intended to do, and then analyse how and why they fail, or they document poor practice in their deployment. The conclusion is that they are a bad thing.

I beg to differ! Competences are useful, when deployed in a balanced, nuanced way – one that recognises what they can do and does not seek to ascribe to them powers that were never intended.

Given their bad press, I find it paradoxical that the majority of the people I know who work with competences as part of the EMCC, AC and ICF, are innovative and experimental – people who are as comfortable with the art of coaching and mentoring as the science of it.

Why is this? Because they realise that they are beneficial, and nobody has yet devised a better alternative.

There’s a fundamental question eventually asked by everybody involved in coaching, mentoring, supervision and training: what does a good coach do?

Not just in the field of coaching and mentoring, but in most spheres of life, competences help to answer this sort of question. As a mentor and coach, I want to know what my professional association thinks, so I can reflect on my own practice, and see if it matches up. If not, is there a good reason for this? Does my practice need to develop in a specific way if I am to be as much use to my clients as I can be?

Supervisors use competences to aid that reflection. Training providers use them to help ensure their curriculum is relevant to contemporary best practice. And those assessing coaches can have a starting point in considering their capabilities.

There is a second question which competency frameworks generally seek to answer: in relation to each specific competence, what sort of behaviour is the mentor or coach likely to demonstrate?


The EMCC Competence Framework

The EMCC Competence Framework refers to these behaviours as capability indicators. They are designed to be indicators, not requirements; a guide to what a coach/mentor operating at a specific level is likely to be doing in relation to each competence.

Taking as an example, the EMCC Competence Framework (http://bit.ly/2eFPwXI), one is presented with a 12-page document.

On the face of it, this is daunting. It’s long because there’s a need to capture the range and richness of coaching and mentoring behaviours – not to do so would be overly prescriptive and would lead to less diverse practice.

The key point is that the competences themselves are very much simpler.

There are eight:

  1. Understanding self
  2. Commitment to self-development
  3. Managing the contract
  4. Building the relationship
  5. Enabling insight and learning
  6. Outcome and action orientation
  7. Use of models and techniques
  8. Evaluation


That’s it. That’s all. And I suspect you would find similar simplicity in the competences of other professional associations.

Although competence frameworks of professional associations look different, they cover very similar ground. What I mean is that whichever association’s competences you use, if you take into account what is implicit, you will come to a similar prescription for good practice.

Some authors suggest a new approach that is not competency based. But whenever I have followed such a discussion, in reality, they have ended up reinventing something with a different title, but one that looks and feels remarkably like competences.

They may disagree about what exactly the competences are, but most people if asked to work out what they thought coaching competences should be would arrive at a similar place to that of the EMCC, ICF, AC and of other bodies.


How do we use them?

My argument, therefore, is that the problem is not the competences, but how they are used.

The use of capability indicators can lead one to overly atomise practice, to dissect it into small behaviours, taking the soul and spirit out of the coaching/mentoring engagement.

It does not have to be like this. As a practitioner, I would urge you to use them as a check to generate questions for yourself about your practice.

They are also used in assessment. The idea is that each competence is wide ranging and describes an outcome, and one can get there in a number of ways. The capability indicators are a guide to the sort of behaviours likely to result in this outcome.

Assessors who turn assessment into a paper-chasing nightmare, treating every one of the capability indicators as a requirement, and who expect candidates to slavishly adhere to each one, are not operating in the spirit of the competence concept. The guidance professional associations offer does not promote using them in this way. The misuse of a concept is no reason to dismiss the concept itself.

Others argue that they are not inspiring, and some argue that because most coaches and mentors and their supervisors do not use them every day, they are irrelevant. For me, they are a reference, to inform reflection on practice, to assist supervision and provide a foundation for consistent and relevant assessment.

In that sense, they are like a dictionary. Personally, I do not draw inspiration from a dictionary, nor do I use one every day. But I am not in favour of abolishing them!

So by all means let’s debate how to use competences more effectively. Let’s debate whether the professional associations have defined competences in a way that is relevant to the profession of tomorrow. Let’s not overstate their value and then criticise them unfairly. And let’s use them in a holistic way, recognising and supporting the diversity of practice, not as the straitjacket they were never intended to be.





Do competences in coaching deserve the attacks they’ve been subjected to in recent years? Have your say. Go to: http://bit.ly/2hkqmP6

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