Are you crossing an ethical line without knowing?

Dont cross ethical lineI’m honored to listen to a lot of coaching session recordings in my role as a Mentor Coach and an active ICF Assessor for MCC, PCC and ACC credential applications. Sometimes a coach will cross an ethical line without realizing it.

What you’re listening for is whether the client wants to understand why they are unable to move forward on or resolve circumstances in their life that have a history to them. These include:

  • Family of Origin relationships – with parents, siblings, and other family members
  • Wanting to lose weight which has been a lifelong struggle for them
  • Wanting to give up smoking or another substance that is addictive
  • Wanting a love relationship and wondering why they aren’t lovable enough or can’t find ‘the right’ person
  • Any mention of abuse in a personal or professional setting

One common ethical line that’s crossed is when a client has a goal of losing weight. Our society has normalized weight loss through programs such as Weight Watchers and the television program, The Biggest Loser, where it appears that personal fitness trainers are acting in the role of therapist. This leads everyday people to believe that anyone can work with such issues. That isn’t true, because long-term emotional reasons behind eating usually require a therapeutic modality of some kind to get to the bottom of the deeper issues.

What to do?

Whenever you hear the client wanting to resolve something that has a history for them, the coach needs to recognize this moment and shift the conversation to being about where the boundary of their coaching lies. It is the responsibility of the coach to pause the coaching and have a broader conversation about what the coach can and cannot coach them around, and discuss other possible practitioners they might want to seek out, or maybe already have sought out and you didn’t know.

Here’s what that conversation might sound like. “I understand you want to work with reducing your weight, however as a coach, I need to inform you that I’m not qualified to deal with this issue as often long-term weight issues have an underlying emotional component from the past.” Let the client respond and listen to what they say.

Sometimes the client may say they have a therapist or counselor and they will work with them on the emotional aspect of eating. Then you may find you and your client redefining the coaching agreement to what you can work on around their vision of being healthier. So it may still be possible to work with them but from a different perspective.

When you have this type of conversation, you can reset the coaching agreement for the coaching session and agree with the client that if you feel the topic is outside of your coaching boundaries and expertise, then the coach will pause the coaching again, make the observation, talk about how else they might get support with their circumstances, and re-contract with the client around how to stay in a coaching framework.


You want to stop smoking?

I once coached a CEO who had outcomes for our coaching that were around her role as CEO, but she also wanted to stop smoking. This had been a lifelong addiction, and I let her know I didn’t have the expertise to support her with that goal.

As a result of having a truthful conversation with her, she let me know she was seeing a therapist for the emotional reasons for smoking, and that she wanted to use our coaching as accountability for actions that would keep her moving toward the vision of how she wanted to be as a fit and healthy person, which was bigger than just her role as CEO. As a result, we were both clear on the boundaries of my expertise, and the client successfully used her therapist and our coaching to support her give up the habit for good.


As a coach, you need to be willing to have these difficult conversations and set the boundaries with your client of what topics you can coach around, and what you ethically or expertise-wise cannot. Then your coaching can be very effective and you can avoid crossing an ethical line.


Are you preparing to apply for your MCC, PCC or ACC credential?


Or renewing your ACC credential and need 10 hours of mentor coaching? We offer an awesome mentor coaching group and individual program that has many exclusive offerings for our participants. One of those offerings is an extensive library of MCC, PCC and ACC coaching sessions for our participants to listen to, evaluate, debrief, and learn from, along with The Target Approach to demystifying the ICF core competencies. These are incredibly valuable learning tools, and will accelerate your understanding of competency distinctions. Here’s where you’ll find more about The Mentor Coaching Group