Coaching Ethics – know when you are crossing a line

crossing ethical coaching lineAs part of a regular three year review process, the ICF updated their Code of Ethics in June 2015. There were some significant changes made, including in the language used. Here is a statement from the ICF, and you can read the full release here 

“The revisions to the Code of Ethics reflect a shift away from the view of coaching ethics as right or wrong and toward an understanding of ethics as the concepts and principles directing coaches’ behavior.

With this evolution in the foreground, the ICF Code Review Team recommended a set of revisions intended to transform the Code of Ethics from a document prescribing what not to do to a document highlighting how to be as an ICF Member and/or Credential-holder.”

This is a nice shift that is in alignment with the fundamental “Way of Being” we coaches strive to work from. Rather than right or wrong, we seek to embody behaviors and attitudes that move us forward through a learning and discovery process.  

As you are subscribed to this Coaching Brief newsletter, you have received the “Ethics Traps” article that I wrote, which outlines some common ethical breaches that coaches make, often without realizing.

In this article, I take specific wording from ICF documents to further highlight what coaching ethics are. Later in this article, I share some of the language I use with my clients to describe our relationship, and my Statement of Confidentiality.

Let’s start with the actual wording of Core Competency #1:

Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards – Understanding of coaching ethics and standards and ability to apply them appropriately in all coaching situations.

  1. Understands and exhibits in own behaviors the ICF Standards of Conduct
  2. Understands and follows all ICF Ethical Guidelines
  3. Clearly communicates the distinctions between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy and other support professions
  4. Refers client to another support professional as needed, knowing when this is needed and the available resources

Important Note: “Familiarity with the code of ethics and its application is required for all levels of coaching and the standard for demonstrating a strong ethical understanding of coaching is similar and rigorous for all levels of ICF credentialing.”

Words highlighted in blue for the rest of this article are quoted from the ICF “Competencies Comparison Table


ICF wording: “An applicant will pass this competency if they demonstrate a knowledge of the coaching conversation that is focused on inquiry and exploration and if the conversation is based on present and future issues.”

My thoughts: This statement embodies the fundamental coaching model which is:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • What are the ways you can move from where you are now to where you want to be?

Coaching can occur at any or all three parts of this coaching model.


ICF wording: “An applicant will not pass this competency if the applicant focuses primarily on telling the client what to do or how to do it (consulting mode) or if the conversation is based primarily in the past, particularly the emotional past (therapeutic mode).”

My thoughts: We as coaches need to continually be educating our clients on what coaching is and what it isn’t.

I recently wrote an article “Creating a Coaching Development Plan” which highlights distinctions between coaching and consulting.

In addition, when we are mentoring coaches, or in a peer coaching relationship, we need to be aware that we are here to coach and be coached. Sometimes coaches want a mentor (show me how you did it so I can move forward taking into account the way what worked for you) and not a coach (let me find out what you already know and can draw on and help you to determine what else you need in order to move forward).

Coaches often cross into consulting or teaching and don’t know they’ve breached an ethical line. As a mentor coach, I’m aware that I am mentoring using coaching skills. My preferred approach is to let my mentees know I’m going to coach them first, and then mentor (draw out first what they know, then fill in what else they may want to know).


ICF wording: “In addition, the ICF notes that if an applicant is not clear on basic foundation exploration and evoking skills that underlie the ICF definition of coaching, that lack of clarity in skill use will be reflected in skill level demonstrated in some of the other competencies listed below.

For example, if a coach almost exclusively gives advice or indicates that a particular answer chosen by the coach is what the client should do, trust and intimacy, coaching presence, powerful questioning, creating awareness, and client generated actions and accountability will not be present and a credential at any level would be denied.”

My thoughts: When a coach doesn’t understand and work to the fundamental coaching model, their coaching becomes less effective overall.

Coaching Presence is the Core Competency that most often needs to be developed, so the coach is more present to being curious and learning about their client, and less present to their performance and what they think they need to do to prove they are doing good coaching. Coaching Presence is at the heart of The Target Approach, which is my model of how the Core Competencies work in real life.

When a coach wants to make sure the client gets a result or has meaningful fieldwork, we are likely pushing our agenda of what we believe needs to happen. Offering (versus assigning) fieldwork that isn’t born out of curious inquiry from what has occurred with the client in the session is teaching or consulting, not coaching.

An example of a Statement of Confidentiality

Below is wording I use in my coaching agreement with clients, which I think was originally given to me by my coach training program (Coach U). I have adapted it over the years as well:


Coaching results are not guaranteed. The Client enters into coaching with the understanding that they are responsible for creating their own results. The Client is ‘hiring’ the Coach for the purpose of assisting them with respect to communication skills, business and personal objectives, and/or assisting in creating a structure for identifying and achieving goals/end results. The Client agrees that the Coach is not an “Employment Agent”, “Business Manager”, “Financial Analyst,” or “Psychotherapist.”


As a member of the ICF, the Coach agrees to abide by the ICF Code of Ethics and Definition of Coaching.

The Coach recognizes that the Client may have the following: future plans, business affairs, customer lists, financial information, job information, goals, personal information and other proprietary information. The Coach will not at any time, either directly or indirectly, use any information for the Coach’s own benefit, disclose, or communicate in any manner any information to any third party, without the Client permission.

The Coach will not divulge that the Coach and Client are in a coaching relationship without the permission of the Client. However, the Client is free to tell anyone they choose that they are getting benefit from having a Professional Coach. The client/coaching relationship is not immune to the legal system, and may be subject to subpoena.

In closing

You are welcome to use my wording above or adapt to create your own Statement of Confidentiality. Remember that everything a client shares with you in a coaching relationship is confidential, unless you are required by law to report something, or you have spoken with your Client and they have given you explicit permission to speak about something.

When you break Confidentiality of ANY of the client’s information, without explicit permission, you have crossed a ethical line.

Being a coach (for 16 years now) provides me with a continuous learning platform, to become the best coach I can be, so my clients have the possibility of getting the best coaching that will move them forward. The Code of Ethics are a great reminder of the behaviors and attitudes of a coach that we can use to guide us to becoming an even better coach for our clients to benefit from.

Are you preparing for your first or next ICF Credential?

Do you want to “Sharpen the Saw” as a Coaching Professional?

Group/Individual Mentoring Programs dates for early 2016 have now been released!

You can learn more here


Carly Anderson and Karen Boskemper offer an awesome mentor coaching group and individual program that has many exclusive offerings for our participants. Both have been trained by the ICF to assess using the new PCC Markers.

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.

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